Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Denver city librarian asked to resign over fotonovelas, or using a book challenge to promote racism (Part One)

To my few readers out there, you better strap yourselves, for it is going to be a bumpy ride. It is not very often that issues get my blood boiling, but the outright racism and ignorance like that being displayed over in Denver, Colorado does the trick. The recent calls for the resignation of the city librarian and the objection to the presence of fotonovelas in the libraries' collections have become an event for some anti-immigrant groups to promote their racist agendas. The stories exemplify how these folks will use innuendo, ignorance, and inflammatory rhetoric (if you can call it rhetoric) to achieve their goals.

For folks in librarianship, and other interested readers, LIS News has been featuring bits and links to the various stories recently. You can find links here and here. In fact, I left a comment on the first link when it came out, since it was dealing with the issue of outreach to Spanish-speaking communities. At the time, I responded and gave some thought to writing a little about reasons to provide such service, why are they siginificant? After seeing what is going on out there, I felt a need to write something a bit more immediate to answer and refute some of the inaccuracies and racist remarks in the press. So, readers can consider this part one. I will have at least one other post, a part two, and the more measured piece on outreach as a part three of an unplanned short series of posts. I will likely have the third one in a couple of days as I have been looking over some nice articles and some Census items that I want to integrate. So, here goes part one.

The issue in Denver began with the objection to the library carrying Spanish fotonovelas. In addition, the library is planning to provide more focus on Spanish resources at its branches. The issue has become a heated argument over immigration issues. So, let's go down the line.

CAIR (Colorado Alliance for Immigration Reform), one of the groups adding fuel to the fires of racism and ignorance, has presented the issue in inaccurate and sensationalistic terms. A visit to their website now proclaims the presence of porn in the library in red letters. This is clearly designed to draw attention. They define fotonovelas as pornography, and thus, they are trying to portray the library as a promoter of porn, which is far from the truth, but it is also meant to strike a chord with some people who may be concerned sincerely over what their kids read. Now, let's look at some facts. On their website, they define a "novela" as "the name sometimes given to Spanish language pornographic comic books." They also add that "these Novellas are pornographic and reflect serious violence against women." This is certainly inaccurate and only reflects a very superficial reading of the fotonovela genre. For starters, a "novela" literarally refers to a novel. This can be anything from the latest Harry Potter to The Sun Also Rises to short fiction in some cases (novellas and novelettes for instance). In simple terms, a "fotonovela" is a type of graphic novel, closer to a comic book. Now, fotonovelas are being considered here in terms of the fact that they may contain, and many do, some steamy scenes. What the people at CAIR fail to mention is that the content in the fotonovelas is no more terrible than the content in a Harlequin romance (or any other steamy romance for that matter). It has to be noted that many public libraries do carry romance novels, which may include graphic novels, to the great delight of their patrons, with bodice-ripping covers and all. It also must be noted that fotonovelas cover more than romance and sex. Fotonovelas present stories in various genres. This includes western (the English equivalent could easily be Louis L'Amour or the Lone Ranger comics some people read as a child), police and crime (think something like Ed McBain or other police thriller writer), politics, and even biographies. In the biography genre, fotonovelas cover both famous lives as well as lives of saints. These are not unlike graphic novels in English that would narrate the life of Dr. Martin Luther King or tell the story of John Paul II. What is interesting with the CAIR allegations is that they took some photos of selected passages from a narrow selection of fotonovelas, and they made a display for adults on their website with the purpose of making others think that the library is peddling pornography. It is clear they have not looked at the genre as a whole, and it is unlikely that they looked at every single issue of fotonovelas in the library branches. Furthermore, if readers look at the website, they will see that before they can access the photo samples, a warning is given to readers in terms of being over or under 18. It is an inflammatory tactic, and if you look at it closely, it could even be similar to what actual porn sites do in asking if a visitor is over 18 or not before granting access. It does look like a form of titillation as well as flaming.

Now, these observations of mine in no way negate parental rights and responsibilities. These rights and responsibilities apply to any choice of reading material in any language. If a parent does not wish for his/her child to see material that may not be age appropriate or against the family values, this is a laudable goal. Now, to set aside one specific genre and labeling it as Mexican porn as the CAIR people and their followers are doing on their websites and allegations in the press goes against the parental rights (who are they to tell someone else what to read or not?), and it shows a racist attitude since other works which could be arguably objectionable were not singled out. This is not to say that works should be singled out. A library should be a haven for all ideas and forms of expression (and no, I am not saying they should include pornography, as opposed to say erotic fiction or even sex education materials). Librarians should be responsive also to their communities, and it is clear that the librarians in Denver have done just this in selecting the materials for their Spanish-language users and then reconsidering their procedures when the objection arose in a reasonable and calm manner.

If this was a mere book challenge (not that there is such a thing as a "mere" book challenge), we would probably not hear as much about it outside of the local press of where it was happening. I certainly would write about it, but my focus would probably be different. This issue is outstanding because the challenge of the fotonovelas is being used as a smokescreen to foster an anti-immigrant racist campaign. I will look at that tomorrow.

Update note (3:36p): There is an excellent article that was published in Library Journal on fotonovelas and how to decide on selecting them for your library. It provides a nice primer that also addresses some of the possible concerns. For librarians as well as any other interested readers, it would be a worthy piece to read.

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