Archive for December, 2008

If a Christmas Tree Falls In a Library….

December 9, 2008

Here is a letter I wrote to the associate provost of libraries at UNC after reading a news story about UNC not having Christmas trees in their library lobbies this year.  I’m so glad we live in such a tolerant country. 

Dear Ms. Michalak:
 
It seems odd that someone could be so soundly disappointed in a person that that someone does not actually know.  Yet, here I sit, supremely disappointed in you. I saw a story on foxnews.com about UNC- Chapel hill libraries keeping Christmas trees in storage this year. I followed a link on this story to the Charlotte observer where I found such gems as this:
 
“Michalak, chief librarian for four years, said at least a dozen library employees have complained over the last few years about the display. She hasn’t heard similar criticism from students, though they may have voiced concerns to other library staff.”
 
AND
 
Michalak said that banishing the Christmas displays was not an easy decision but that she asked around to library colleagues at Duke, N.C. State and elsewhere and found no other one where Christmas trees were displayed.
Aside from the fact that a UNC Chapel Hill library is a public facility, Michalak said, libraries are places where information from all corners of the world and all belief systems is offered without judgment. Displaying one particular religion’s symbols is antithetical to that philosophy, she said.
“We strive in our collection to have a wide variety of ideas,” she said. “It doesn’t seem right to celebrate one particular set of customs.”
 
Let’s start at the top, shall we?
 
I took the liberty of looking at the UNC-Chapel Hill libraries staff directory as well as the faculty directory. The online listing of library faculty (http://www.lib.unc.edu/staffdir/) has about 260 names on it – give or take.  The faculty directory is 137 pages (pdf format online) long. It averages about 20 names per page. That gives us about, that gives us about 2760 faculty members, give or take( Wikipedia says there are 3295 faculty members). Those numbers caused a retroactive incredulous arch of my eyebrow as I read that at least a dozen employes over the last few years have complained about the trees. In case you were wondering, that’s about 4.6% of the library staff and 0.48% of the faculty.  It seemed to me to be such a slim number.  So, slim, that you probably can’t see it from sideways on.  But then, you did say “at least a dozen.”  So, maybe it was more like 15 or 16 people that complained.  Heck, maybe even 20.  I mean 20 people would be more like 7.6% of the library staff.  Still slim, I might note – you might catch a glimmer of that number from sideways on if the sun hit it just right. And over several years, no less.  So, is that a dozen persons each year complaining or is it a cumulative number? And what of the student body?  Wikipedia says there are 28,136 students (undergrad and postgrad).  You, personally, have not heard any criticism from the student body of the Christmas trees, but maybe other staff members have.  Maybe. Interesting.
 
I know people holler and screech all the time about the tyranny of the majority, but I must say that I find it very unsettling that we have let the tyranny of the minority take rule in this country lately, especially when it comes to the matter of celebrating Christmas in public.  The majority of this country (religious and secular) celebrates Christmas in one way or another. The number hangs around a staggering 95% according to such sources as the BBC, the Washington Post, Fox News, World Net Daily, About.com and Rasmussen has a survey from 2006 (http://www.rasmussenreports.com/public_content/lifestyle/general_lifestyle/poll_77_celebrate_christmas_as_a_religious_holiday) that has the number somewhere between 87-90%.  That survey also has other interesting implications such as “85% of those who celebrate Christmas say they believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God sent to earth to die for our sins” and “71% of Americans rate Christmas as one of our nation’s most important holidays.” In case you didn’t notice, those percentages are a lot higher than the percentage of complainers about Christmas trees.
 
Wow. Yet, you fell into the tyranny of the minority trap, and there will be no Christmas cheer displayed in your library lobbies this year. Similar things are happening all around the country with Christmas trees and Nativity scenes being removed or having other displays put up.  I have no problem with other displays such as a Menorah or Kwanzaa decorations, or even something to celebrate Winter Solstice. My problem is with the removal of one of the nation’s most cherished holidays from public view. Have you heard what sign was added in the capitol building in Olympia, Washington under the guise of being inclusive? Let me tell you.  The sign, sponsored by the group Freedom From Religion, reads “There are no gods, no devils, no angels, no heaven or hell. There is only our natural world. Religion is but myth and superstition that hardens hearts and enslaves minds.”  Gee, what a lovely sentiment.  Not at all an attack on anyone’s beliefs like the kind of overt attack a tree strung with tinsel, lights, and shiny baubles is.  Clearly that festive tree is much more offensive than that sign, what with all it’s sparkling hate-filled ornaments and glowing warmth of hell fires.  Hmmm….maybe that statement is a little over the top.
 
Next, I’d like to address the concern about Christmas tree displays in other university libraries in the state of North Carolina.  If you Google “Christmas tree display library” or “Christmas tree library” you will find a number of hits that direct you to various stories about Christmas trees being displayed in libraries around the country. For instance, there is the Very Elvis Christmas tree display at the Hoover Library-Museum in West Branch Iowa, Sheridan Public Library (Sheridan, Indiana) will have a Christmas tree display and silent auction,  The Reagan Presidential library has a Christmas tree display, Twinsburg Public Library (Ohio) will have a Christmas tree display and auction, the Library of Congress has a Christmas tree in its lobby – and it’s very very lovely.  The point being that there are many libraries across the country where Christmas trees are displayed.
 
I am not exactly sure how you make the leap that because a library offers a wide variety of ideas in it’s many musty and dusty tomes, that it is not right to celebrate or display any one particular set of customs.  So, if there were a Menorah and a Kwanzaa display in your library, would the Christmas trees be allowed to stand? And just what exactly is wrong with displaying a particular custom? If there there were a library that had a display for Black history month or Native American culture or Holocaust remembrance should there then be displays representing the Confederacy, European Settlers, and Nazis as well. On the Fourth of July should public displays include Torrey Pride exhibits? Why can’t we just have our holiday with it’s spirit of giving, love, warmth, joy and hope? What is wrong with that?
 
It would seem that a library should display Christmas trees and other holiday images precisely because it is home to ideas and information.  Not displaying the trees is a form of censorship. I’m sure you wouldn’t take kindly to someone telling you to pull Huckleberry Finn or Lady Chatterly’s Lover or Animal Farm off your shelves.  After all these are classics, some might say staples of American culture much like the celebration of Christmas.  
 
You may be aware of the debacle over the past few years at public libraries involving pornography access on library computers. Many of your counterparts across the country stood up and voiced their opinions on not having website filters (which would help to block pornographic content) because they want to protect “intellectual freedom,” The American Library Association’s words, not mine. Now, I’m not at all saying or implying that you are in favor of this move, I have no idea what your opinion is on the matter.  What I am saying is that several libraries have nixed filters that many patrons do want to limit truly obscene material.  So, what we may conclude here is that full-frontal nudity is okay, but full frontal evergreen is not. Again, clearly the Christmas tree would be the more offensive and obscene of the two images.
 
And what does it matter anyway that a few people are bothered by or offended because of Christmas trees? Again, I must reiterate the terrifying tyranny of the minority that is sweeping the country.  I would also like to ask where people got the idea that we have the right to not be offended? People call it art to soak the American flag in urine. I find that offensive, but I don’t say that it should not be displayed. I find it offensive to see people wear socks with sandals. I have a dairy allergy so I’m not a big fan of 31 Flavors, but I’m not on some mad quest to remove them from the public domain and I don’t have a problem with my friends having a double scoop in front of me.  I would think most people are offended by the absolute absurdity of “reality” shows – yet they abound. Am I making a stretch of my examples here? A bit, but I think it help deliver my point in a tidy little package. If you look in you books at your library, you will see that the Bill of Rights does not include the right to not be offended.  In fact, you’ll find that, if anything, we have the right and opportunity to be extremely offended.  It’s your reaction that matters.  Will you react to things you find offensive by trying to squelch and beat down all you don’t agree with or find offensive? Or, will you summon the spirit of Voltaire and defend the rights of others to say what they may even though you may not agree with it?

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