Library Trends special issue on West Bend Challenges

Former CIPR co-director, Dr. Joyce Latham, along with Barbara Jones, director of the ALA’s Office of Intellectual Freedom, have edited a special issue of Library Trends dedicated to the 2009 controversy over select Young Adult books at the West Bend Community Memorial Library.

The special issue, titled “The West Bend Challenges: Open Access and Intellectual Freedom in the Twenty-First Century“ serves as “a case study of a library confronting organized challenge to its execution of its role in American culture,” and the articles contained within the issue reflect a broad range of important perspectives to help understand the West Bend controversy, and apply its lessons beyond the borders of this Wisconsin city:

This issue of Library Trends is a case study in intellectual freedom and the conflicts that so often surround it (Appendix I and Appendix II in this issue provide statements on the matter of intellectual freedom by the American Library Association). The case study is a research tool that can be used to advance a range of social inquiries, allowing investigators to study “how general social forces take shape and produce results in specific settings” (Walton, 2009, p. 122). Case-based research allows investigators to explore one event, institution, or organization from multiple angles. The particular focus encourages a detailed description that can expose multiple themes related to the case, enriching the analysis. West Bend Community Memorial Library (WBCML) was selected for this study because of the complexity of the events and their visibility. The availability of documents and digital exchanges generated by multiple participants related to the “materials challenges” and professional authority support a robust research process. This study investigates the strategies of conservative social agents in their attempts to recast the role of the public library as a negative element in advancing the public good.

But it is also a case study of the resistance to the expansion of the public sphere to include traditionally marginalized populations, such as GLBTQ populations. In her essay in this issue of Library Trends, Loretta Gaffney argues that, in the view of the challengers, “any GLTBQ content in YA literature was propaganda aimed at indoctrinating youth with the view that homosexuality was normal,” which violated their family values. As Michael Zimmer and Adriana McCleer indicate in their essay, the WBCML controversy was one in a string of social disruptions focused on school budgets, social climate, and education. Coalitions of conservative and religious groups aligned with social reactionaries to impact social progress toward open inquiry and inclusivity, anchored in a rhetoric of public stability.

This collection of essays provides context for understanding the challenges by situating them in the community of West Bend, exploring the relationship of the West Bend challengers to their predecessors, analyzing the language employed by the challengers in reference to that employed by the library profession, theorizing the motivations and success of the library’s grassroots supporters, and, finally, revisiting the policies currently in place intended to facilitate dialogue about library services among professionals and community stakeholders.

Contributions include a summary of the West Bend case co-authored by CIPR Director Michael Zimmer and SOIS PhD student Adriana McCleer, as well as insights by former CIPR fellow Loretta Gaffney addressing the issue of YA literature and its relationship to conservative activism; Emily Knox analyzing the various interpretations of “censorship” as a broader concept, and a specific one within the West Bend debates; Mark Peterson exploring the role of the counter-movement within the controversy, and the question of whether a public sphere can actually function in American society; and former CIPR fellow Jean Preer surveying the challenge process within Wisconsin public libraries, and produces a trenchant analysis of “best practices” for addressing intellectual freedom practices within a public library’s community.