A few days ago, another Cowboy State Daily columnist opined on the controversy bubbling up in Gillette over the county library and certain books in its collection that some consider inappropriate for children. He closed his column with these words: “Children need and deserve the protection of every member of the public. That’s why public libraries exist in the first place”
I take strong exception to that statement. It reveals a basic misunderstanding of the role of libraries in human history and it weaponizes children in the millennia-long conflict between religious and secular knowledge.
You can read up on the controversy at the Gillette library elsewhere, I won’t recap it here. Suffice it to say that the “church militant” is clutching its pearls over books available to the public and is spouting scripture about who has the right to read what.
History is full of examples of the politically powerful, both in the church and without, feeling threatened by books that contradict their doctrine. Invariably, the power elite protect their positions by destroying these books, foolishly believing that the thoughts contained therein are likewise destroyed.
Savanarola, a Dominican firebrand in Fifteenth-Century Florence, burned books (along with cosmetics, musical instruments and mirrors) in his “Bonfire of the Vanities” to turn the Florentines’ minds away from the beauty of the physical world toward the Church’s view of things.
In 1814, a British invasion force under General Ross attacked our nation’s capitol and burned the Library of Congress. Ross and King George III probably thought that, by putting our national library to the torch, the rebellious colonists would see the error of their ways and rejoin the warm, comfy embrace of the British Empire and the Church of England.
Mounds of Jewish books were burned in the streets of Germany during Kristallnacht in 1939 as Hitler’s Third Reich tried to purge anything that contradicted the Nazis’ twisted Aryan faux-Christianity.
What despots fear more than anything is freedom of human thought. Our shared past teaches us that, when despotism feels threatened because thought remains free, it attacks books and libraries. We know this because our common experience, our shared thought, is passed along to us in books. In libraries.
In much of the commentary on the head-butting in Gillette, libraries are being characterized as malign pawns of the Deep State, laboratories for Trotskyite propaganda, Temples of Moloch more dangerous to our kids than the Boy Scouts or the Catholic Church and one more ominous sign that the end times are upon us.
Since the first library in Ninevah, mankind has been enriched by the assembly of our recorded knowledge. Yeah, maybe it didn’t come out of a burning bush directly from the lips of God, but it’s OURS! Books and libraries are where we have written down what it is like to be human, not what the various gods expect of us, but what its like to be us.
Ben Franklin began the first library in the colonies because he saw the need for establishing the colonies’ identity separate from that of England. After Ross burned the Library of Congress, Thomas Jefferson re-stocked the shelves from his own collection. When you hear the religious zealots in Gillette whine that their library is somehow unAmerican, you can laugh at them like I do.
If there are books in your local library that upset you, and challenge the worldview that you cherish and want to pass on to your kids, then leave them on the shelf and tell your kids to do the same. Nobody is force-feeding you information that you don’t want, every time you read something, you exercise your own free will to do so.
Acknowledge that other citizens have the right to read what they want, and don’t try to limit the common conversation to only your point of view. A free and vibrant exchange of information is critical to a society’s growth. That’s why public libraries exist in the first place.
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