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Graphic Novels

August 22, 2005

Mike Rosen, a Denver newspaper and radio pundit, recently took the Denver Public Library to task for being a “porn peddler.” Rosen was incensed about certain Spanish-language graphic novels being in the library’s collection.

Graphic novels are illustrated stories, descended from comic books, and in this case the novels also graphically depict scenes of sex and violence. Rosen objected to the use of public money to purchase these.

Immediately, the conflict mutated as various anti-immigration groups joined the fray. To them, serving Spanish speakers was tantamount to serving “illegals.”

To me, the chance to discuss a library matter with an eye for review and possible improvement has passed. Too bad.

Rosen pointed out that this was a matter of “selection” and not censorship. How interesting it might have been had he then explored the topic of selection in libraries. I know it interests some of our patrons, because I’ve fielded the question many times.

Explaining how is easy enough; explaining why can be more difficult, but it’s good practice. For example, I’ve yet to adequately articulate to our staff what I envision for our small film collection.

I imagine an eclectic collection, but not a random one. Most of the excellent films ever made will never make it, if only as a matter of scale. I want films (documentary or not) that are uniquely informative or inspiring, that are not the usual American fare.

This does not mean they can’t be American films. But there are many conduits for standard fare; I’d like our small collection to add to the experience of our patrons, not merely duplicate it.

But a large part of our video collection will remain utilitarian — how to install drywall, how to line-dance, how to practice yoga, how to field-dress game.

But wait … what are those tapes of horror films doing in there? Well, someone gave us a collection of classic horror films. We had a little room, the collection was curious, and so we added them … for a while.

But they stand out, especially in a small collection. I don’t like building our collection this way.

But then again, the entire library collection grows accidentally to a certain degree simply because of the whims of readers, and writers, and publishers. We respond to our library users, and to our culture at large, and the collection changes. Less used materials eventually move to our annex.

Some patrons have noted that we have more anti-Bush books than pro-Bush books. I haven’t counted, but I fully expect that it’s true. It’s the nature of politics rather than the library. There were more anti-Clinton books than pro on our shelves during that administration.

Jamie LaRue, library director in Douglas County, describes the public library as “neutral and common ground.”

I love this description. Neutral does not mean uniform or bland. Atoms are electrically neutral, but they are made up of positive and negative particles. Only the sum is neutral. The same for a public library.

I like “common ground” a lot. It is not as much loved or respected as it once was. This is not merely a “Tragedy of the Commons” effect. I think it might be a consequence of life in a wealthy market economy.

We have what we want, when we want it, and in the comfort and solitude of our own ample homes. I think we don’t pay attention to “the commons” as carefully as we might, both practically and philosophically.

But that’s an argument for another time.

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