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A Library Incident of no particular interest

A few weeks ago, a young woman came into the academic library that employs me and wanted to speak to somebody with some authority. It being a weekend, there was no such person, so she was sent to me. She identified herself as a Christian (unasked, of course), and expressed her concern that our copy of Sex in the Bible: A New Consideration, which was prominently displayed on the New Books Shelf, was not balanced with a more “traditional” interpretation. She was worried, she said, that people who were browsing at that shelf would get an incomplete picture. Your Humble Blogger thanked her for her interest, pointed out the area of the stacks that had books on religion (fairly skimpy by my standards, but containing a few thousand volumes of various interpretations of various scriptures, communities and rituals), and assured her that if there was any particular book that she felt was missing from our collection, we would very much appreciate her bringing it to our attention. She thanked me, politely, and left. As far as I know, she hasn’t returned.


I was and continue to be mildly concerned. Is there something to be concerned about? Mostly, the concern is for the library and myself. If this woman is an advance scout for some sort of organized protest, it could take up time and energy in an unpleasant way (without, of course, making any actual difference in the end). Also, I am a trifle concerned about the young woman, who is either a pawn in a cynical and vicious movement or an unfortunately blinkered and intentionally dim-witted individual. I suspect the latter, but of course I am as easily fooled as anybody else.

There’s another thing to be concerned about, though: her concern is, or at least might be, reasonable. In the nature of libraries, any book we have, particularly a new consideration of should be balanced. Students (and instructors, and the rest of the community) should have access not just to the flashiest new theories but to the old established ones that they are criticizing, and to the curmudgeonly works of those sticks-in-the-mud who are, well, sticking. In the mud. Rather than being swept along by the current. My metaphor is drawn from creeks.

Do we have plenty and plenty of books that deal with sex in the Christian Scriptures? Well, we have some. I haven’t actually looked through them, but I assume that some of the books published in the 1950s have the “traditional” interpretation that the woman was looking for. Certainly we have more books with feminist, queer-friendly, modern, non-traditional and scientific slants than with fundamentalist slants. If she had examined the shelf (which she clearly had not), she would not have left happy and secure in the knowledge that for every critical work there was an inspirational one. There isn’t.

Also, this particular book had been on the New Books shelf for almost two years, mostly because it wasn’t actually on the New Books shelf for more than a week or two at a time before somebody took it out. When it came back in, our people looked at it and thought well, let’s put that back on the New Books shelf, which they might not have done had it been a work by Joel Osteen. We are deliberately bringing some books to people’s attention; those books are not chosen randomly but reflect the taste and priorities of the library staff and patrons. The young woman who was looking for balance will not actually find it here.

Which is not to say that we endorse or agree with all our books. Part of the taste and priorities of the staff is in favor of a certain balance. But it’s a balance as we see it. We don’t have everything, and we don’t have the same amount on each ‘side’ of each issue.

So, from that angle, we want people to come in and complain that we don’t have x or y book, because of that taste and priority for balance. Because after we have what seems balanced to us, we can’t see the other stuff.

And yet.

Do I believe that this young woman was actually interested in balance? No. I should relate that she was unfailingly polite and nice, that she neither demanded nor requested that any books should be removed, nor did she claim to have been offended in any way by the books that were there. But somehow, in my perception, what she wanted was books that she disagreed with removed from where they would tempt passers-by into error and sin.

Is that fair? Probably not. But it is one of the unfortunate results of a fundamentalist movement that we outside it do not trust anything that smells to us of fundamentalism. It makes us nervous. It’s about the climate, it’s about the fellow travelers, it’s about what happens at other libraries in other states. I’m sorry that I don’t trust this polite young woman, but I don’t.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,


I also don't see why the obviously appropriate balance for a book that takes any given non-inspirational approach to a religious topic is one that takes a believer's approach to that topic. I don't know what approach this particular book is taking, but I would imagine that most scholarly books on religious topics, insofar as they are setting themselves in opposition to something, would be setting themselves in opposition to some previous scholarly book. Not in opposition to The Church, or to the doctrine of redemption through faith, or whatever.

Some fundamentalist Christians seem to see anything that touches on religious topics, and doesn't explicitly promote Christianity, as being opposed to belief, and needing to be balanced by something that fosters belief. Especially in an academic library, I just don't think that's the case. I'd say that books that proselytize for atheism could reasonably be balanced by books that promote belief. I don't imagine there are a great many books that proselytize for atheism in your library.

sex in the bible, sex outside the bible, not sex outside the bible, not sex in the bible, sex how-to, sex how-not-to, how-not-to sex, sex outside the species, not sex outside the species, a-sex outside the species, sex outside the species but in the bible (see: "making sheep"), no sex no species (see: "rocks"), metaphors for sex... you know i think this will require more than one library.

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