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OPINION | NATE COULTER: Freedom to read

Libraries serve varied readers by Nate Coulter Special to the Democrat -Gazette | September 3, 2021 at 2:57 a.m.

Later this month the Central Arkansas Library System (CALS) will join thousands of other American libraries in celebrating Banned Books Week, which promotes an issue at the core of public libraries: the freedom to choose what one wants to read.

I thought of this core principle when I read a letter published in the Democrat-Gazette's Aug. 27 edition. The letter, written by Teresa Belew of Little Rock, objected to CALS including the genre of "audio erotica" in our collection. She noted that "so far as I can tell, there are no parental controls or age restrictions on access or download." She requested that we invest tax dollars in "books and other resources that better relate to the social mores of central Arkansas communities."

Libraries offer categories classifying material to help people find information they want. The category of "audio erotica" is designated by OverDrive, the company where we buy most of our ebooks and e-audiobooks. OverDrive provides the website and app that patrons use to search and check out digital content.

Most audiobooks classified under the term "audio erotica" are explicit romance novels, such as the best-selling "Fifty Shades of Grey."

Like that book, the titles mentioned in Belew's letter are quite popular. For example, the audiobook "Dirty Pleasures" by Meghan March has circulated to CALS patrons 276 times since 2016. This book is in the collection of more than 40 other libraries in the U.S. and at least one other public library in Arkansas.

At CALS, we place the highest value on respecting diverse perspectives and offering materials to accommodate the varied tastes and interests of all readers. We know that some titles in our collection are outside the scope of what some patrons might commend or care to check out.

But the role of the public library is not to be the arbiter of what people should read. And it is certainly not my job as the director of CALS to decide that we will make available only books that suit my tastes or fit one person's view of the "social mores" of central Arkansas.

CALS serves approximately 350,000 citizens in Pulaski and Perry counties--11 percent of Arkansans. Thousands more around the state and world rely on our online resources, including the CALS Encyclopedia of Arkansas. We proudly provide access to materials that appeal to a wide breadth of interests, and we are committed to our mission of serving all of Little Rock's diverse citizens.

Doing that equitably means collecting as many books and other resources as we can reasonably afford to ensure that there is something of interest available to everyone.

We all commit our taxes to acquire materials that we like, some we do not, and even a few that may disgust some of us. That's part of what makes the public library work, and why it has endured as a trusted institution in America since the 19th century.

Our library board has long had a policy that supports intellectual freedom and expression. That policy provides that "the choice of library materials for personal use is an individual matter. No one has the right to exercise censorship to restrict the freedom of use and/or access of others."

That said, it is understandable that parents might wish to restrict their children's access to what they consider inappropriate material. I agree entirely with the American Library Association's stance on this issue: "Librarians and governing bodies should maintain that parents--and only parents--have the right and the responsibility to restrict the access of their children--and only their children--to library resources."

This is why OverDrive offers to parents the option to set a filter on their children's devices, so only kid- and family-friendly material is accessible on those devices. There is a teens' filter as well.

Families may also use a separate website for children's materials in CALS' collection: cals.overdrive.com/library/kids. We offer several different types of library cards, including family cards and children's provisional cards.

If parents need assistance deploying filtering features or signing their children up for a library card, we are eager to help. Please contact us through askcals@cals.org or (501) 918-3000, and our staff will help you navigate ways to better use and enjoy CALS' resources.

Banned Books Week starts on Sept. 26. I invite readers to visit cals.org/banned-books-week to learn more about the history of censorship and challenged books, and to participate in educational activities.

Or just check out or download a book--any book--that suits your taste. It will be available for you at your library. Free of charge, and free of judgment.


Nate Coulter is the executive director of the Central Arkansas Library System.

Print Headline: Freedom to read

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