Calhoun: Wake-Up Call

Comic Relief

I was feeling safer already.

The demonstrators who'd gathered on the plaza outside of the Central Library at high noon on Monday were waving the flag and protesting a collection of novellas, not because the comic books were in Spanish -- oh, no -- but because they were pornographic, depicting "wanton, extreme violence against women."

And the groups involved with the Coalition for a Closer Look are "concerned about the library system," just as they happen to be "concerned about the immigration issue." At least that's how the speeches -- all delivered by men -- all started out. But after decrying "brutality against women," Bob Copley of the Colorado Minuteman Project took a breath and went on to decry immigrants who "say they want to come and work here, but they also want to come and kill, and demean our quality of life." (As if a life has much quality once it's been killed off, but you get the idea.) He also demanded that Mayor John Hickenlooper rescind the city's alleged "sanctuary policy," and he wasn't referring to this town being a safe haven for comic books -- although Denver is home to a world-famous zine library.

Michael Corbin, a radio host who heads the coalition, blasted the DPL's "ongoing agenda" to make libraries more "Spanish-oriented." He obviously hadn't consulted with Tony Gomez, secretary/treasurer of the Committee to Save the United States of America, who went on to complain that "the newsmedia continues to call illegals Hispanic, when they are Mexican," and Spanish and Mexican are as different as football and baseball.

A second Robert Copley, this one the head of Sovereignty Colorado, continued the geography lesson. Where were the books for people from Russia and the Ukraine and Ethiopia? Surely those people sometimes feel the need to demean women, too.

Just two hours before, another group of men -- true Americans all -- had gathered outside the front door of the library, waiting for it to open at 10 a.m. "Hi, boys," said the fellow in the Rockies cap, joining a fellow in a Bud Light cap and another in a Broncos cap. They weren't lamenting the shortage of Russian or Ethiopian porn; they didn't even mention the controversy over the novellas, which at that point was pretty much confined to talk radio, with Peter Boyles and Caplis and Silverman giving the library a one-two punch over the fact that graphic comics were within arm's reach of kids.

A few did discuss the stabbing at the library on Saturday, in the bathroom where homeless men frequently perform their morning ablutions after staking out the computers, where they'll sit as long as the librarians let them, putting porn within eyeball's reach of kids.

The DPL has bigger problems than a few Mexican comic books, and they all reflect the challenges of serving the public when some members of the public don't like what others are being served. Or that they're being served at all.

Five years ago, city librarian Rick Ashton started making some changes at the library that didn't sit well with a number of longtime workers -- both paid and volunteer -- who argued that he was fixing what wasn't broken. One of Ashton's first moves was to strongly suggest that all 500 DPL employees read Who Moved My Cheese?, the insipid bestseller that follows two mice named Scratch and Sniff and two littlepeople named Hem and Haw as they learn to deal with change by negotiating a maze. (A library full of classics from the ages, and Ashton picked this as his institution's inspiration.) He also came up with a slogan for the DPL's push into the new century -- "Your Library in a Changing World" -- a push that would culminate in the current proposal to create stylized branches that reflect the library's most prevalent uses.

As repositories of pop culture, for example: Some library branches already resemble Blockbuster outlets with their large video collections and their coffee shops. And even at the Central Library, with its august Western History collection, multiple copies of US and People devote an obscene amount of attention to Jessica Simpson in her Daisy Dukes. But pop culture brings people into libraries and keeps their numbers up. And it was in serving a certain public a hearty helping of what they wanted that the DPL also gave the Coalition for a Closer Look a tasty target.

The library has comic books in other languages -- Japanese manga and anime is hot, hot, hot right now -- but no one's talking about Japanese pop culture taking over the library.

Last week, when talk radio broke the story of what the second Robert Copley had found at the DPL, they were all talking about the Spanish-language novellas. That morning, KC Veio, president of the Denver Public Library Commission, happened to have a lunch scheduled with Ashton, his first official meeting with the city's librarian since Veio, an attorney and Hickenlooper appointee, became the commission's head a few weeks ago. Nice timing.

"No good deed goes unpunished," Veio says. "It was right into the frying pan."

They talked about the novellas and "had a pretty in-depth discussion of how did this happen, and why," Veio says. But for Veio and the rest of the commission -- whose eight members are all appointed by the mayor (although not all by this mayor) and govern the library (even a century ago, when this system was set up, Denverites recognized that elected officials should not be able to dictate what a library can and can't contain) -- this is about more than a couple of comic books.

"It's part of the self-examination we're going through," Veio explains. "How can we deliver library services going forward for current and future generations to maximize this asset for our community? Our community is changing, and we want to be responsive to that."

The library was plenty responsive that afternoon, when shortly after Veio's lunch with Ashton, the novellas were removed from the shelves. In a subsequent letter to commissioners, Ashton explained that all of the novellas -- which he likened to "Mexican soap operas that you have seen on Spanish-language television," and which the library has been stocking for over a dozen years -- would be reviewed "to determine whether they meet the guidelines of our current collection policy."

According to the DPL's website, selection criteria under that policy include: relevant to interest and needs of community and current demand; extent of publicity and critical review; significance of subject matter, permanence or timeliness of subject; local interest (author or subject); relationship and importance to the entire collection; availability of material electronically; availability of material elsewhere in the region; authoritativeness: reputation or qualifications of author, artist, publisher or producer; quality of presentation style appropriate to content and audience; suitability of format to library purposes; and price. No particular criterion addresses whether Joyas de la Literatura -- one of the series that makes up part of the DPL's collection of more than 6,500 novellas -- must meet the women-protecting dictates of the Coalition for a Closer Look.

At the library commission's next monthly meeting -- which, in another bit of nice timing, is August 18 -- "there will be an in-depth review of our existing policies," says Veio. "We are truly doing our best, and we want to do the right thing."

No more Heming and Hawing at the DPL.

"We're nothing if not supporters of the First Amendment," says Celeste Jackson, the DPL's public-relations manager, who was at Monday's protest to keep an eye on the public and answer reporter's questions. (In his letter to commissioners, Ashton also noted that he'd be out of town through August 10.) The irony wasn't lost on her: The library, a bastion of free speech, would protect the speech of those who'd like to control its future. Even if that speech was sometimes less than literate: "Resign Now Rick Ashley" one protester's sign demanded.

"Get a Real Bike You Pussy," read another protester's shirt, in what could have been a symbolic reference worthy of Gabriel García M´rquez to Hickenlooper's scooter. Or not. Another was wearing a shirt featuring the outlines of naked women along with the line "Experienced professionals wanted. Several positions available." In English, of course.

I feel safer already.

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Patricia Calhoun co-founded Westword in 1977; she’s been the editor ever since. She’s a regular on the weekly CPT12 roundtable Colorado Inside Out, played a real journalist in John Sayles’s Silver City, once interviewed President Bill Clinton while wearing flip-flops, and has been honored with numerous national awards for her columns and feature-writing.
Contact: Patricia Calhoun