“Library Display Criticized” was the heading of a recent letter to the editor published by The Columbian, a newspaper in Vancouver, Wash. The letter read in part:
“Upon entering the Cascade Park Community Library ... I was disturbed by the blatant promotion of atheist/secular humanist authors and books displayed prominently in the front window. Included were atheist authors such as Richard Dawkins, Bill Nye, Christopher Hitchens, with books titled Living Without God, The Portable Atheist and Women Without Superstition.”
The letter continued: “I was thinking to myself, is this even constitutional from an American First Amendment perspective? Also, even if it is legal, is this something the taxpayers of Vancouver would approve of, considering it is their millions in tax revenue that keep the library up and running?”
Well, this “unconstitutional” display was put up by the Humanists of Greater Portland, which has been placing displays in public libraries and colleges for more than 10 years. This was only the second time that patrons have voiced a concern about our displays. (The other time was when some church members questioned the display, but then they put up their own bible-based display a month or two later.)
We set up our book display at the Cascade Park Library in early January. The very next day the librarian called asking us if we had a list of the books in the case. She said that a number of people had already expressed interest in the display.
One of our members quickly made copies of the list and dropped them off at the library. One library patron commented on our HGP Facebook page that she “almost cried with joy” when she saw the titles of the books in the display case.
The letter critical of our display was published in the paper late in January, and the online comments immediately poured in, coming from as far away as New Jersey and New York. The online response was overwhelmingly positive and supportive:
• “Fantastic! I know the library has featured differing philosophies and religions in the past, so in fairness this is a good thing.”
• “Libraries are among the last bastions of free speech and the open exchange of ideas in our culture. We cannot grow as human beings unless we challenge and question, and allow others to challenge and question our received beliefs and opinions. I applaud the staff at Cascade Park . . . for their willingness to initiate a conversation about true freedom of (and from) religion. (I am not an atheist, by the way.)”
The icing on the cake was a follow-up letter to the editor from the executive director of the Fort Vancouver Regional Library District. She wrote in part:
“I was heartened to read the many online comments about the letter that articulated the important mission FVRL has as a public library in supporting diverse points of view and interest through our collections, services and programs.”
The director continued: “Public libraries exist to offer access to ideas and information from a variety of perspectives. A democracy can only be healthy and vigorous if we both learn and explore our differences as well as our common ground. If we are fulfilling our responsibility, FVRL libraries will promote understanding, prompt a conversation, encourage a healthy debate, and — yes — sometimes strike a nerve. It’s what good public libraries do.”
Our humanist group has been overwhelmed by the response of the citizens of Vancouver, the staff at FVRL and the online comments in support of our display at their library. We hope the person who wrote the initial letter to the editor criticizing our display will apply through the library to set up a display of books that support his position.
The library director said it best: “Public libraries exist to offer access to ideas from a variety of perspectives.”
Deanna Sewell is a longtime member of FFRF and the Humanists of Greater Portland. For the past eight years, she’s been putting up six or seven humanist book displays at area public libraries each year. Deanna is also the proud owner of godless “clean” money she won at the 2001 FFRF national conference in Madison, Wis.