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Around the Web with Jessica Zellers

*Originally appeared in the February 2015 issue of RA News.*

This article was written prior to the terrorist attack on the Charlie Hebdo office in France. I dedicate it to the memories of those who died, and I salute everyone who defends intellectual freedom.

At the time of this writing, the headline news involves Sony, North Korea, and a movie called The Interview, a comedy about two journalists trying to assassinate Kim Jong Un. Sony had planned to release the movie on Christmas Day but then cancelled those plans after terrorist threats against the film prompted a majority of theaters to cancel showings. And who can blame those theaters? Violence was threatened not against Sony headquarters, but against the theaters themselves -- and all the movie-goers within them.

The North Korean government denies any involvement , but the FBI contends it is directly responsible. The truth might be somewhere in the middle, as hackers had attacked Sony several weeks prior. Were they the ones who threatened the theaters? Were they acting independently or under the orders from Pyongyang or yet another entity? As with any unfolding story, the details are hard to pin down, and each day the official line seems to change. The BBC has a good overview of things as they stand right now, though it's anybody's guess as to what will happen next.

So what does this have to do with libraries?


Novelist Chuck Wendig spells out the chilling implications in a blog entry called "Art Held Hostage."

"Public libraries provide access to that free speech, no matter how controversial or unorthodox it may be. Public libraries provide that access to everyone, not just the privileged. "

His language is NSFW, so don't read it out loud, okay? But if you care one whit about intellectual freedom, read it. Wendig  warns that "This proves that hackers, terrorists, and enemy nations now have a vote as to the media we make and the stories we see,. Later in the piece, he explains the concept of intellectual freedom better than anything I've ever seen in the professional library literature:

"Just as one can tell disagreeable or controversial stories, one can also -- and should also! -- protest the stories they find disagreeable or controversial. It's part of the cultural discourse. But this isn't that. Repeat: this isn't that. This is a whole other level. This is illegal. This is violent. Not the same thing at all."

Democracy can only work when citizens have the right to access ideas and information and art. Citizens may choose to ignore those rights (at their own peril), but freedom of speech isn't the First Amendment of the American constitution by accident: it's there because free speech is of paramount importance to preserving democracy.

Public libraries provide access to that free speech, no matter how controversial or unorthodox it may be. Public libraries provide that access to everyone, not just the privileged. The poorest person in the country can go to the public library to find books and other media, to find computers with internet connections as well as dedicated professionals who will  help them  find and use  all of the available information and entertainment resources. In other words, public libraries allow everyone -- everyone -- to participate in democracy.

Our entire raison d'être is to provide access to the breadth and depth of human thought.

That's some lofty language right there, but I don't apologize in the least. My hackles are raised. Nobody -- no group, no terrorists, no government -- should threaten violence against the free speech of citizens in a free country. Free speech and intellectual freedom are bedrock values of America, and public libraries exist to safeguard those values.

Wish I could ratchet down the tone for the remainder of this column, but here's the thing: this is the February edition, and I would be a coward to ignore the topic of race and publishing during Black History Month -- and folks, the picture ain't pretty. You don't need me to tell you that recent events have brought race to the forefront of our social and political landscape. Whatever your personal views may be on the Ferguson shooting, grand jury decision, and riots, whatever your personal views may be on the choking death of Eric Garner, you can't deny that race and color are hot topics these days.

Looking for racial diversity in contemporary book publishing is disheartening. When I recently wrote a piece on romance novels for people who don't like to read romance, I wanted to include at least one title that featured people of color. I deliberately excluded the Kimani and Dafina books, as they're already very well known among romance readers (and because they're terrible choices for people who don't already like romance novels.) E-book formats offered decent options, but print versions of non-traditional romances featuring people of color were slim pickings.

My understanding of the problem deepened with an article about diversity in romance, co-authored by Ann Aguirre and Nyrae Dawn. "The danger of over-representing one group is that with sufficient exposure, their experiences become widely accepted as normative, a default setting, if you will," writes Aguirre. "So then, you end up with the following scenario: If age/race/appearance isn't explicitly stated, the reader will fill in the blanks of the book using whatever parameters they've experienced the most. Currently, the default setting is likely to be Caucasian heterosexual."

This "default" assumption is bad for books and bad for readers. An article in The Guardian ponders why American book has become so white: "Has our stress about the state of the bottom line pressed us back into the predictable, the homogeneous, the so-called safety of what has worked in the past; has it closed our ears to what the culture hears?"

To offset the distressing subjects in this column, I offer you this video of John Green talking about why we need diverse books. John Green always makes me feel better -- well, except when he's writing about tragic romances between teenagers with cancer. But I promise he doesn't do that here. The subject is still serious, but Green has a way of making you feel like things might turn out okay. I think we could all do with a little optimism right now.

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Jessica Zellers is a Collection Development Librarian with the Mid-Continent Public Library. She has a weakness for fat Russian novels.