By Jen Jackson Quintano
Once upon a time, I was a librarian. I came for the books — words are my jam, after all — but I stayed for the patrons. The patrons became my reference section. They filled my life with meaning and stories.
There was the destitute artist who inconspicuously made sculptures to rival Andy Goldsworthy’s. There was the woman who devotedly cooked meals for the town’s homeless. There was the boy who deposited lizards in the stacks and the man who pulled newspaper from said stacks to treat his incontinence.
There was the former world-renowned opera-singer-turned-desert-rat who occasionally broke out in song, shattering the library’s silence, finding no rebuke from the staff.
There were the Navajo kids and the Ukrainian service workers, the old cowboys and the young rock climbers, the people with nowhere else to go and some planning for world travels. There was the man who went a year without using money at all, and the woman who first put a face to my conception of the trans experience.
Libraries are non-partisan, non-discriminatory, doors-open-to-all-peoples-and-beliefs kinds of places. No matter your problem, there’s a book for that. No matter your identity, you can find a reflection of yourself in the stacks. No matter your background, you are a patron. You belong.
Where else does that exist in today’s world? Libraries might just be the last best places, the final bastion of a shared sense of humanity.
One patron I remember with fondness is Henry, a precocious kid who grew up with us. We were his refuge. I don’t think he had another. He was full of questions, especially related to the lives librarians lived after hours. In his mind, I think we simply powered down for the night, just like the computers he frequented.
One day, he approached me at the reference desk, agitated and in need of immediate help. He pulled me over to his screen and pointed.
“Miss Librarian, I need help! I can’t figure out how to kill the prostitute so I can get my money back! I need my money! Can you help me kill the prostitute?”
For real. In my capacity as a reference librarian, a 9-year-old asked me for help offing a sex worker to retrieve her hard-won earnings.
I don’t know how Henry accessed Grand Theft Auto on the children’s computers, but I do know that crafty kids will find ways around every well-intentioned roadblock. It’s why childhood friends ended up with Playboys in their tree forts, or how some learned that the scrambled Cinemax channel occasionally allowed a boob peek through the static. Even in an analog age, there was a wandering-wide web of content available to us.
Kids, since time immemorial, have been curious about sex. And why not? It’s the very thing biology built our bodies to do.
I did not help Henry kill the scantily clad prostitute. Nor did I shame him for trying. Libraries are home to many things, but shame is not one of them. I simply redirected his attention. To have made a big deal of the game would have generated more allure.
In the wake of Henry’s virtual stint as a misogynistic murderer of underprivileged women, we librarians figured out how to keep GTA off the children’s computers. Was this a form of censorship? Yes, I suppose. However, this game is clearly marked for older users, and the children’s room was for the under-12 set. Our response seemed clear. Rational. It was specific to the issue at hand. We were responsive. As librarians are.
Less clear, specific or rational is the current push to banish entire genres of books — largely sex- and LGBTQ-related (see our current library board race for details. For further details, read the epitaph of House Bill 314, the library obscenity bill that may just rise from the dead next year).
For a moment, let’s set aside this effort’s bigotry. Let’s ignore the fact that broadly labeling entire segments of the population as “harmful” is, well, harmful. Let’s not yet unravel why learning about our own bodies is bad. Let’s instead consider this: What is a child going to find in the stacks that he can’t immediately locate online, like Henry did? What are we actually protecting kids from? Is this about material dangerous to children, or is it instead about identities deemed a danger to the white, cis-het, elder male whose tenure as the apex predator is threatened by the elevation of diversity and inclusivity in our culture?
Turns out our leaders’ egos might be more vulnerable and in need of protection than our kids are.
Let’s also consider this: In order to find a book on human sexuality, a child would have to familiarize himself with the library catalog, with the Dewey Decimal System, with the arrangement of stacks and the relatedness of individual books. In seeking out a book on queerness, a patron will also thumb through tomes related to marriage, divorce, fatherhood and other family dynamics.
Rather than being dangerous, that is awesome (unless you’re of the knowledge-is-danger set). So, go forth and conquer, young (wo)man. Be an educated menace to the heteronormative status quo. (I recommend beginning in the 306s and the 611s.)
Really, bless the child who goes to the library to learn about sexuality. With graphic content just one click away on any computer or smartphone, seeking out such materials in the library seems an antiquated and, dare I say, safe pursuit. The library is, perhaps, the best place in which to learn about sex, gender, consent and diversity. In contrast, social media is, perhaps, the worst.
The same could be said for any subject. Better citizens are made in the library than on Facebook.
On this issue, as with most others, I am not interested in co-parenting with the state of Idaho or any aspiring, overzealous elected official. I’m not a perfect parent, but I’m my child’s parent, and queerphobia and body shaming are not a part of our household. I want my daughter to read about sexuality and diversity. Knowledge is power. The more she can learn about her body and the world it inhabits, the better she can both embody and set boundaries for it. She doesn’t need a politician’s protection; she needs the information necessary to protect herself.
“I’m not raising children, I’m raising adults,” said Michelle Obama’s mom. I agree.
As such, I want to raise a well-informed adult. A compassionate one. One with a mind as inclusive and aware as the Dewey Decimal System. It turns out, though, in order to do this, it’s the library that needs protection from harm. It’s the library that is vulnerable to predatory ideologies.
I am no longer a librarian. I am now a library patron. And here I use patron in its original sense, as “one who protects, supports or encourages.”
Let’s all be good library patrons. Let’s support our community’s access to the full tapestry of knowledge. Let’s protect our library. Let’s all vote for Susan Shea on May 16.
Jen Jackson Quintano writes and runs an arborist business with her husband in Sandpoint. Find their website at sandcreektreeservice.com. See more of Quintano’s writing at jenjacksonquintano.com.
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