God, libraries and Harry Potter

GobletAs GetReligion readers may know, I am starting to get interested in podcasting (in this post-Katrina era of crowded commuter trains). One of my favorites is the weekly Pottercast program put out by the fanatics at The Leaky Cauldron. This week's episode (No. 6) is linked to the annual Banned Books emphasis by the American Library Association. Listening to the show reminded me of a recent piece from The Chronicle of Higher Education that was sent to me by the most excellent librarian who is my wife. It's titled "The Loneliness of a Conservative Librarian" and it was written by David Durant, head of the government documents and microforms desk at East Carolina University. At first glance, this seems to be an article about politics. Durant writes:

The problem is not that most librarians have liberal or leftist views. It is that the overwhelming prevalence of such views has created a politicized atmosphere of groupthink and even intolerance, in which left-wing politics permeate the library profession and are almost impossible to avoid. . . .

The solution is not to replace left-wing with right-wing politicization. Rather it is to leave politics to the individual. Just as we should collect and provide access to materials representing a broad range of beliefs, we should welcome diverse viewpoints within our profession.

And so forth and so on. It seems that ALA meetings may, in the near future, turn into Michael Moore film festivals.

Like I said, this sounds political. But when you listen to the Pottercast, you realize that -- at the local level -- the conflicts between librarians and their conservative patrons are almost always about (wait for it) -- sex, salvation and, OK, some people would say Satanism. The entire story of the challenges to the Harry Potter books is built on the distrust that exists between the powers that be in public libraries and conservative parents.

But there is more to this story than "banned books." If journalists want to cover this story, I suggest that they dig a bit deeper. Once again, there are interesting people on both sides of these debates. A few years ago, I had a chance to cover Nimbus 2003 -- a global Potter studies festival -- and I was surprised to find that the two largest flocks in the hallways were real-life witches (Wiccans and druids, mostly) and, believe it or not, evangelical Christians (many homeschool moms). It was interesting watching them study each other before and after the main sessions.

With that scene in mind, I wrote the Pottercast staff a letter. I offer it here, in case it might interest any journalists who are thinking about doing Banned Book Week stories or follow-up reports on faith and the Potter books.

PotterPeople:

I wanted to make a comment or two about your Banned Books Podcast.

First of all, please know that I am a mainstream journalist who covers religion and church-state issues; the husband of a librarian; a life-long Democrat; and the father of two children who has, after some initial skepticism, read all of the Potter books to them myself -- in part because of JKR's highly intelligent use of traditional Christian images, names and themes. I am an Eastern Orthodox Christian, although I was raised Southern Baptist. Art and reading are crucial in our home.

Now, a few quick comments. Much of the protest about the Harry Potter books is, in my opinion, uninformed and knee jerk. Yes, they should read the books and even some of the books about the books, on both sides of the argument.

You should know, however, that there are millions of dedicated Rowling readers out there in church pews -- something you have never addressed in your Podcasts. It is wrong to leave your listeners with the impression that, when it comes to things Harry, the world is divided into smart secular people and stupid religious people. You also need to know that many people, when they talk about Banned Books, tend to forget:

* To consider a different form of banning, which is the issue of books that librarians -- acting on their own biases -- never purchase in the first place. What shape might this bias take? As New York Times columnist David Brooks has noted, in the months leading up to the 2004 election "the ratio of Kerry to Bush donations" by librarians "was a whopping 223 to 1."

Now, I am not all that interested in the political implications of this. What I wonder about are the religious and cultural implications. What percentage of the best-selling religious books in America never make it to library shelves or are never given multiple-copy status (even with millions of copies being sold across the nation)? What controversial books by cultural conservatives never make it to shelves and are, thus, banned books of a different stripe?

* That many parents do not fear the presence of objectionable books in libraries. They fear that tax-funded professionals will deliberately undercut parental authority. In a school context, they fear that children will be required to read objectionable books -- with no alternatives given.

Many parents do not want to ban books. They want alternatives. Try to imagine public school teachers and librarians deliberately assigning objectionable books to, let's say, Muslim parents. Try to imagine an educator assigning a Unitarian kid a book by, let's say, Pat Robertson.

Parents have rights. They do not have the right to ban books for other people's children. No way. But parents should be able to trust librarians and teachers not to actively attack the values taught in their home.

So I would urge you to open up your Podcasts to more points of view, not fewer. I would urge the people who organize the Banned Books events to be open to more points of view (and more books), not fewer.

The bottom line: Liberials can ban books, too, especially if they are in charge of library budgets.

So let's hear a cheer for diversity and intellectual freedom -- beginning in libraries.

Oh, and if Sirius Black died in the (using alchemical terms) black book, and Albus (white) Dumbledore died in the white book, who might die in the RED, or final, sacrificial stage of the alchemical process? Rubeus (Latin for "red") Hagrid? Someone in a family that is, well, rather red-oriented? Just asking.

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