The Sins of Our Ancestors

We recently faced a dilemma at our In the Stacks book recommendation service. One of our partners, Banned Library, highlights books that have been banned, usually unfairly. Evan does an outstanding job in his insightful podcast reviews, which amplify the reach of books that deserve attention, not censure.

Last week, however, they reviewed a book that was actually banned for a positive reason. Listen to the podcast—it’s balanced and fairly places the book in a historical context that ameliorates any ill intention. Yet, we’re not going to share the book in our recommendation product, because it’s not a book librarians love.

Typically, we present unbiased evidence and let people make up their own minds. Can we still do that—let readers draw their own conclusions? Or do they need to be spoonfed, lest anything less than careful curation causes a snap judgment? We didn’t mean it in a negative way—but few care to look further than the surface, they just see the cover. Looking beyond is called critical thinking, a sadly underrated skill today.

Full disclosure: As children, we had this book in our home library. I think it was originally my mother’s as a child. I vaguely remember reading it once. Still, when the review came in, I recognized the title and alarm bells went off. Much like in The Help, I hope to bring honor back to my family. If our app selected this as one of the Top 5 picks for you of books librarians love, I’d be mortified.

Not promoting a book, that in historical context is considered horribly racist, reminds me of the debate around public statues. Even in San Francisco, there’s a statue being pulled from the town square at City Hall this week, because it’s insensitive to Native Americans. Not a part of our heritage we can reconcile and bring into the future with us. We won’t accept it going forward, and must correct it.

Surprisingly, something else I’m bending on is gun control. I was given a gun at birth (I’m from Pennsylvania! The state with the most hunters after Texas)—a 22 rifle with a scope—and went hunting with my father until I was 8 or 9. Then my younger brother took my place, while they tried to brainwash me with Barbie (it kind of worked) but that’s material for another blog.

Using a gun came with the responsibility of treating firearms with respect. At least that’s what we were taught. Assault weapons have no place outside the battlefield (and even there?), but certainly not in hunting. I’ve always been pro-gun control, but aware that the first thing the Nazis did was take away guns. Video games that make taking out an enemy seem like second nature, and without consequences, and a new media that makes troubled youth into insta infamous celebrities is part of the problem. The rest is lack of education and communication.

We are here to evolve and change, put emollient on and heal, even erase the mistakes of the past. We take down statues and the posts on them, and remove books from shelves. Is it right to not give people a full range of choices, because maybe we can’t trust them to make the right ones? Or should the wrong be rightly labeled, and you’re left behind if you don’t get on board?

Regulations are always in place and breaking the rules is a hallmark of progress. So do we make rules and regulations only so the most innovative can ignore them, to reform them? Progress means as fashions change, so does what is considered culturally appropriate. Will it end when we’re all the same skin tone, wearing the same thing?

Unless we help our elders understand the error of their ways when they stop evolving, and filter the past through a modern lens, they will never know better. What are we progressing towards? Never stop learning and growing, or let your thinking stagnate. Always continuously revisit your assumptions. Gun control now, take the statues down, remove the books from the shelves. Never stop questioning.