Saturday, November 28, 2015

To Holiday, Or Not To Holiday

Sanitized storytimes, holiday storytimes, Christmas storytime
I'm going to take a bit of a departure from my usual storytime summaries and picture book reviews with a bit of commentary about a subject that has been on my mind of late.  This is just my opinion and does not reflect the opinions of my co-workers or employer.  I know some will not agree, but I hope you will at least try to read this with an open mind, and we may have to just agree to disagree, and that's ok.

If you ask a group of children's librarians and other youth services professionals about holiday storytimes (or other holiday programs) you will get a range of answers, and some very vehement opinions.  This has apparently become something of a hot-button issue in our field, and sadly divisive.  [While I will refer specifically to Christmas, it could be any other culturally based theme.]

There are a number of people who strongly believe that all library programming should be sanitized of anything that is remotely rooted in religion or culture in the name of "inclusiveness".  Their argument is that libraries are supposed to be inclusive and welcoming to people of all ethnicities, religions, and culture (which of course I agree with); and, therefore, we should never have any programs that might have components someone would object to and not want to participate in.  Some of the people in this group are very vocal in their opinions, as well as their criticism and judgment of those who choose to offer certain programs, particularly Christmas.  This is where I begin to disagree with my well-intentioned colleagues.

First off, it is completely unrealistic to think that every program you offer is going to include everyone.  That program about urban chicken farming is not going to appeal to everyone, and may even offend strict vegans or animal rights activists.  So do you not offer it?  Of course not!  Those who are interested come, and those who are not, don't.  The library community is typically very supportive of the LGBQT community, but I can guarantee at least some of your patrons will be offended by that LGBQT display.  So do you not put it up?  Of course not!  Some people are offended by words such as "butt", "underwear", "stupid", etc.  So do we never read stories in storytime that have those words?  Of course not!  As a meme I saw the other day says, "A good library has something to offend everyone".  And that's very true!

Second, what's wrong with exposing people from other countries, religions, or cultures to some of our traditions?  So what if they're rooted in Christianity (besides, if you took the time to learn the history, these holidays are actually an amalgam of traditions from several cultures and religions).  When I went to another country I wanted to learn about their culture and traditions even though they were rooted in a religion I do not practice and don't necessarily agree with.  I attended worship services and other events to learn about them, and enrich my experience.  I found it interesting, not offensive.  And of course I could simply chose not to attend if I did have an issue with it.  When I meet people from other cultures, I enjoy learning about them.  Why wouldn't the reverse be true?

Third, libraries are supposed to meet the needs of the community around them.  Guess what?  My community is likely very different from yours.  Obviously if you are in a community with a very diverse population you will need more diversity and sensitivity in your programming.  But if you are in a small town in the Bible belt, not only is no one going to bat an eye at a Christmas program, the community expects it, and would complain if you didn't have it.  So, please keep this in mind before you jump to criticize those who offer Christmas programs.  You don't know them, you don't know their community, so you don't get to judge them or their level of professionalism.  We are here to serve the community, not to try to bend them to our social ideals. 

As for me personally, I am not religious, and would probably fall somewhere between agnostic and atheist.   I am very anti-organized religion for many reasons.  But, my community is mostly Christian (though slowly becoming more diverse).  I visit 11 different daycares and preschools, some are church-sponsored, some are privately owned, and some are corporate franchises.  Some have a very diverse clientele; some do not.  So we asked them how they felt about possible themes such as Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas.  And guess what?  No one objected to Halloween or Thanksgiving, and only one objected to Christmas (because of corporate rules).  In fact, most specifically requested the holiday themes.  For Thanksgiving, I just talk about generally being thankful, family, and food.  For Christmas I avoid the religious aspects, and just include Santa, reindeer, sharing and giving, etc.  For the one location who opted out, I do a winter theme instead.  And guess what, no one is offended, no one feels left out, and the world does not end, but 300+ kids enjoy some holiday fun that reinforces the idea that reading is a good thing.  And that serves my community.  As the community changes, so will my programming.

As long as people are informed in advance, have the chance to opt out, and there are plenty of other non-Christmas programs to choose from, I see nothing wrong with having a Christmas program if the majority of your community wants it.  If enough people want a Hanukah or Diwali program, then by all means, offer it.  But if we stripped everything that might offend or not include someone from our collection or our programs, we'd be left with nothing.  Do we really want libraries to be boring, sterile, bland places??  Every program cannot possibly appeal to every person, so why try to apply an impossible standard?  Especially when that impossible standard is only applied when it furthers your personal agenda. 

So, have a Christmas program or not, but don't be so quick to condemn those who do.  Remember, we are supposed to be serving the needs of our communities, not our personal ideologies.  Sometimes we are lucky and those two things align, but if they conflict, we must put our personal opinions aside and serve our community.  And always remember, your community is likely very different from mine, and we all have different opinions and ways of doing things to serve our respective communities, so let's try to respect that.  If we were all exactly the same, the world would be a very boring place!

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