Opinion: Georgians deserve variety of voices in their libraries

Critic says Senate Bill 226 is attempt to silence diverse voices in local, school libraries
A bill in the Georgia General Assembly to expedite the process for removing books and other content seen as “harmful to minors” is not necessary, according to a past president of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation. (Jeff Haller/The New York Times)

A bill in the Georgia General Assembly to expedite the process for removing books and other content seen as “harmful to minors” is not necessary, according to a past president of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation. (Jeff Haller/The New York Times)

Richard T. Griffiths is a retired CNN journalist, a board member and past president of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation and a lover of books.

In this guest column, Griffiths says a state Senate bill to expedite the process for removing books and other content seen as “harmful to minors” from school and local libraries is unnecessary and intrusive.

By Richard T. Griffiths

I love curling up with a good book. Cup of tea in one hand, balancing the book in the other. Time flies as I am transported away.

But there have been times when I have turned the pages in a book I despised, while friends went on and on about how much they loved it. And there are the books I ravenously consumed that friends and colleagues found pedantic, off-point, or outrageous. Sometimes the disagreement is what makes for the best conversations.

My guess is that your experiences are similar: On books we don’t all agree.

Richard T. Griffiths (Courtesy photo)

Credit: Courtesy photo

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Credit: Courtesy photo

Perhaps different views on books have started conversations about why people experience the same book in different ways. From those conversations we learn a deeper understanding of our world.

That is the magic of books. It is also why some people fear books, especially when it comes to what children and even high school students read.

As you’ve seen in the news, challenges to books in school media centers and public libraries are on the rise. What you see in the news is only the very tip of the iceberg.

What you may be surprised to know is that dozens of challenges to books in school and public libraries are handled quietly in local communities across Georgia every single week — without making news or making waves.

That’s because school and public libraries have well-established systems for dealing with requests for reconsideration from concerned parents and citizens. Every library in Georgia has a local method for dealing with challenges to materials selection, one that is responsive to the local community it serves.

Yet state lawmakers want to impose a broad mandate that would supersede these local processes. They want a one-size-fits-all approach to school libraries across Georgia, an approach that does not respect or even consider what’s actually happening in our local communities. And it’s likely that this is what is happening in your community: Your local school librarian is quietly and competently applying years of training and experience to curating books and other materials and responding to students’ and parents’ questions and concerns about them.

Senate Bill 226 would create new problems where there are already proven local solutions. It passed the Georgia House of Representatives on Friday and goes back to the State Senate this week.

With this bill, state lawmakers aim to require local school boards to create a complaint-resolution process that would overrule already-in-place local systems for challenging materials in school libraries. The result would be an erosion of local control over decisions that have an impact on the schoolchildren in your community.

The danger, too, is that processes would break down: Books would be removed from the bookshelves while under lengthy bureaucratic reviews, even if the ultimate outcome is to restore the book to the shelf. Then another complaint starts the process over, and, again, the book disappears.

The Georgia Library Association and the Georgia Library Media Association have made their objections to the proposed legislation clear, saying it would infringe on “the freedom to read and unfettered access to information, as protected by our First Amendment rights.” The associations go on to state: “Every book is not for every reader, but every child should have access to books they may want to read. A parent/guardian has the right to determine what’s best for their child and only their child.” Processes are already in place to allow for parental engagement and input, and that’s been the case for years.

So, ask your lawmaker why this bill, which hearkens back to the days of book banning and book burning, is suddenly so urgent. Is there actually a problem with your local school or public library? Or is the problem politics?

Libraries across our state were created to meet the evolving information needs of our local communities. And every community is different, which makes Georgia a rich and wonderful place to live.

Senate Bill 226 is, at its essence, an attempt to silence voices. Not every book is for everyone, but every Georgian deserves to find in their local libraries a wide variety of books and materials that meet their needs, the needs of their families and broadens understanding of the world.

Every citizen of Georgia should be protected against censorship. Let’s go back to that book I dislike and you love. We both have a First Amendment right to hold and express opinions about it, but I should not also have the right to keep you or your family members from reading it.