By Doug Muder
A recent Boston Globe article about Massachusetts librarians finding themselves “at the center of increasingly bitter culture wars” raised an obvious question: What about Bedford? Is the Bedford Library facing the kinds of problems The Globe found in Fall River, where neo-Nazi protesters shouted at people attending Drag Story Hour? Or in Reading, where a library official said that challenges to take books off the shelves were “pouring in left and right?”
Are Bedford librarians being “harassed and insulted in the work place” by culture warriors who object to the Library’s books and policies?
The answers seem to be “no,” at least so far. Library Director Richard Callaghan told The Citizen that in his 17 years at the Bedford Library he has “never” received a formal request to remove a book. Nationwide, the American Library Association reported 729 challenges affecting 1,597 books in 2021. The book identified by The Globe as “topping the list of books being challenged in Reading,” Gender Queer by Maia Kobabe, is on the shelves in the graphic novel section of Bedford’s young-adult room.
Assistant Director Noreen O’Gara added that while it is not unusual for patrons to express objections to a book, or to criticize the Library’s decision to include it in the collection, those conversations have so far not reached the point of filling out a request-for-reconsideration form that could lead to removal. “When I ask them if they think no one else should be allowed to read this book,” she said, “people usually back down.” The form itself, which asks questions such as “In forming your opinion, did you read the entire book?” has so far discouraged the rest.
The Library’s policies state that a request for removal can only be filed on paper at the Library. The form is not available online.
Informal processes have also sufficed for more nuanced complaints, such as whether a book should be shelved in the children’s, young adult, or adult areas.
“We have a conversation about why we put the book where it is,” O’Gara said. Most critical patrons are satisfied simply to raise the issue and get an explanation. Sometimes they go away unsatisfied, but “sometimes they have a good point,” she admitted, and the book is moved. “Bedford is still small enough that we can have these conversations.”
Callaghan also reports hearing complaints from both sides about the Library’s collection of political books. Some say the Library shelves too many right-wing political books, while others complain about the number of left-wing political books. He takes that as a sign that the Library is maintaining a healthy mix.
“The important thing,” he said, “is that the information is there for people.”
As for controversial programs that draw protesters, that hasn’t been a problem either. Bedford has never had a Drag Story Hour, and so far, no one has proposed one. The story hours that the Library does have are usually led by the Library’s professional staff, who pay close attention to what local parents want and children enjoy. O’Gara did not in any way criticize the drag hours at other libraries, but she observed that they are usually performances by outside groups, and are more likely to happen in larger communities.
Callaghan and O’Gara had just attended a webinar on meeting-room policies, and said that changes to the current policy are being reviewed by the Town Counsel. According to the current policy (published on the website) the Library’s meeting rooms are available to “non-profit groups or organizations of a civic, cultural, or educational character,” but Library programs and meetings of Town boards and departments have priority.
While controversial groups or sensationalized programs have not been a problem to date, Callaghan observed that the law does not allow the Library to bar a group or program simply because it expresses views that the community finds objectionable or outside the mainstream. If an event at the Library did seem likely to incite substantial protests, Callaghan said he would seek advice from the Bedford Police on how to handle the situation.
“We are lucky to have such a good relationship with the local police,” he said.
The trend of harassing library staff — called “groomers” or “pedophiles” in Reading, according to The Globe — also does not seem to have reached Bedford yet, though O’Gara said she checks with librarians regularly. Such problems as do occur tend to be individual rather than part of a culture-war narrative. Occasionally patrons will arrive at the Library inebriated, or while experiencing a difficult mental health episode. On the rare occasions when police are called, “They usually know the person involved, and come talk to them,” O’Gara said.
The memory of one unsuccessful harassment still makes Callaghan and O’Gara laugh years later. In 2016, the Pokemon GO game began allowing players to “hunt” Pokemon in public places, and several were hidden in the Library. Around that time, the Library was visited by a “First Amendment auditor,” a young man representing a group dedicated to making video in public places and trying to provoke (and record for posting on the internet) heated responses from employees trying to keep them out of places they shouldn’t go (like behind the circulation desk in the Library).
The auditor had already visited several other locations in the Bedford government complex, but when he came into the Library, a middle-aged reference librarian miscast him as a Pokemon hunter and repeatedly tried to engage him in Pokemon-centered conversations. Since this was not quite the response he had been looking for, the auditor soon left.