Monday, April 27, 2009

Lead in Library Books

One of the most interesting aspects of a library director’s job is that it is never boring. There are an endless number of new things to learn, as well as a surprising number of unexpected things to worry about.

The library profession had quite a scare this winter, when the Consumer Product Safety Commission released regulations for implementing The Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act of 2008 (CPSIA). This legislation is intended to decrease the level of lead and phthalates in toys and other products intended to be used by young children. The original legislation was never intended to include “ordinary books”. (Ordinary books are regular books for reading, rather than printed pages that are part of some sort of toy.)

Imagine our surprise in January when we learned that under the new interpretation of the CPSIA, books are subject to the same testing requirements as children’s toys and clothing! Further, the CPSC opinion states that not only must testing be done on new books, but that the legislation is retroactive. If this requirement stands every book in a children’s collection would have to be tested by a CPSA certified lab. Libraries would be forced to close their collections of children’s books, until every item is verified to be safe.

While the ink used in older books does contain traces of lead, books have been an unregulated product. Because there is no history of children or adults being harmed by exposure to lead used in manufacturing books, there has been no need to consider regulating them. Book publishers have had all of the components used in manufacturing books tested and found that the levels of lead in the book materials are actually far below the levels that will be allowed when the highest standards of the CPSIA are implemented in three years. The Center for Disease Control has found that that there is little risk to children from lead paint in ordinary books.

In our many years of practical experience dealing with both books and children, we have seen countless library books with pages that have been torn or “enhanced” with children’s crayon, maker, and pen illustrations. Children have dropped library books into bathtubs, and wreaked havoc on our materials in many other ways. But we have not experienced many instances of children eating library books. The danger of lead comes from ingesting it, as happened with children’s toys painted with leaded paint.

In fact, when the issue of lead paint in toys first came to the attention of the public a few years ago, we tested all of the toys in the library and removed those that did contain lead-based paint.

The good news for young readers is that in response to the outcry from librarians and publishers, the CPSA has issued a one year stay on implementing the CPSIA in regard to children’s books. Federal legislation (H.R. 1692) has recently been introduced to exempt ordinary books from the CPSIA. We all hope that this or similar legislation will be adopted before the stay expires next December, so that children can continue to read the children’s books in their local public libraries.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

A great librarian died this week. Judith Krug was the director of the American Library Association’s Office of Intellectual Freedom from its establishment in 1967 until her death on Saturday, April 11, 2009. One of the inspirations for my own professional involvement in the intellectual freedom community, Judy was my colleague, mentor, and hero for 25 years.

Most librarians have a basic belief that our primary job is to enable library patrons to find the information that they seek in our collections. But we also quickly find out that following through on that belief in our practical, day-to-day lives is not always easy. People who work in libraries tend to be interested in the world around them and to care passionately about issues.

Ms. Krug helped many of us understand that our personal opinions are irrelevant when we are selecting materials for library collections. Our responsibility is to represent the broad range of ideas and beliefs of our communities and ensure that every library user can find information that supports his or her interests and beliefs, whether or not we personally agree with them.

Every librarian that believes in intellectual freedom imagines defending a challenge to a book like Huckleberry Finn, The Grapes of Wrath, or Catcher in the Rye – great books that perennially make the lists of the most challenged books in the United States. No such luck in real life! After I became the Director of the Downers Grove Public Library, the first book that a patron asked that I remove from the collection was a book that supported a political view that I personally opposed, and that promoted a course of action that I believed was morally wrong. I complained to Ms. Krug about having to defend this book. “Congratulations!” she said. “Now you understand what it means to be a librarian.”

Perhaps the most important lesson that we learned from Ms. Krug is to ask a concerned patron, “Does the library also have information that supports your point of view?” If the answer is “no”, we need to identify material that does support that patron’s beliefs and make it available in the collection. If we are doing our job, every patron will find something in the collection that he or she objects to. And every patron will find something in the collection that supports his or her beliefs and interests.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

“Why don’t you tell anyone the title of the book when you call to tell me my reserve is available for pickup?”

Library staff typically leave a message something like, “This is the Downers Grove Public Library. A book (or DVD, or CD) that you reserved is available for pickup. We will hold it for you until Friday, April 10 at the Circulation Desk.” We never leave the title of the item in a voicemail message and we do not tell the title to another person who happens to answer the telephone. The reason is very simple – your use of library materials is confidential.

Not only is confidentiality a basic principle of every public library, but in most states, including Illinois, it is a matter of law! The Illinois Library Records Confidentiality Act says that “The registration and circulation records of a library are confidential information.” The Act goes on to state that this information cannot be made available to the public unless the library is required to do so under a court order or, in an emergency situation, to a sworn law enforcement officer who believes that there is an imminent danger of physical harm to an individual.

Of course patrons should be aware that Federal law trumps State law and the USA Patriot Act does allow the FBI to access your records, without your knowledge. Librarians have been fighting for years to have library records exempted from the Patriot Act.

Why is confidentiality such an important issue to librarians? Because we want you to be comfortable using the library for your information needs. Library staff are happy to help you find the information you are looking for, but we generally do not know, or need to know, why you are looking for specific information.

For example, when a patron asks for materials about a particular disease it could be because he is doing a report on the disease for school, or because he is simply curious after hearing it mentioned on a television program. But it could also be because the patron just found out that she has the disease, or that a relative does. There could be very good reasons that the patron would prefer that we not leave a message on her home answering machine that says “ the DVD about Alzheimer’s that you reserved is ready for pick-up."

One of my daughters is an avid writer. When she began writing as a teenager she regularly borrowed books on baby names from the library, looking for ideas for names for her characters. I suspect that some staff wondered if the Bowen household was expecting a new arrival, but library staff did not talk about it because they have been trained that a patron’s use of the library is private. Library patrons can be confident that we take our responsibility to preserve your privacy very seriously.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Have you ever heard someone say, “I don’t need to use the library, everything I need is available on the Internet?”

While a wealth of information is available on the Internet, it is not always easy to know which of the tens of thousands of web sites out there are accurate and up-to-date. In addition, much of the most useful information is not free. The advantage of using your local public library is that library staff knows the sorts of questions their patrons ask.

Downers Grove Public Library offers dozens of online reference databases that have been selected by our professional librarians to provide information on the subjects that are most requested by library patrons. A few databases can only be used in the library, but whenever possible we select online reference databases that allow us to give library members remote access. Your library card number identifies you as a member of the Downers Grove Public Library who is entitled to use our databases. With your library card you can use your library’s databases from anywhere you choose – home, work, from your laptop in a local coffee shop, or from a computer in another country.

This fall when I spent a month in India, I was invited to give a talk to a local Rotary International Club in Chennai. In spite of being 8,000 miles away with a 12 hour time difference I used Downers Grove Public Library reference databases to research my topic and prepare my speech. Any library cardholder can do the same thing, 24 hours per day, when and where it is most convenient for her or him. One more reason why the Downers Grove Public Library is the place to go when you need to know.