The Unclassifiable Library Remix

Friday, July 06, 2012


I just finished re-reading True Stories of Censorship Battles in America's Libraries - edited by Valerie Nye and Kathy Barco (ALA 2012.)  It is a great read and full of real life examples of censorship and intellectual freedom.  Every librarian should read this book, as intellectual freedom is the foundation upon which our entire profession is built.  I think it is also a great read for the non-professional as I think it makes what libraries do relevant.  Censorship is an emotional subject, and it makes people pay attention.

Below are my reading notes.

"Ideas don't die because a book is forbidden reading."

Part I - Sometimes We're Our Own Worst Enemy - When Library Employees are Censors

"For every reader, his or her book.  For every book, its reader." - S.R. Ranganathan

As the title to the second chapter states, "well intentioned censorship is still censorship."

"Public libraries exist to provide access to ideas, information, and cultural opportuniites essential to a literate and educated society.  Foundational to this mission are the concepts of ree access and user privacy."

"As a profession, we are fiercely and visibly protective of the freedom to read."

Part II - How Dare You Recommend This Book to a Child - Reading Levels and Sophisticated Topics

"All these people talk so eloquently about getting back to good old-fashioned values.  Well, as an old poop I can remember back to when we had those old-fashioned values and I say let's get back to the good old-fashioned First Amendment of the good old-fashioned Consitution of the United States - and to hell with the censors! Give me knowledge or give me death!" - Kurt Vonnegut

"Every culture has its own way of expressing itself and we need to be respectful of that fact.  We do't have to agree, but we should try to understand."

People who feel the need to censor are often stubborn in their opinions and finding common ground is one way to diffuse these sometime emotional confrontations.

"What struc me during this situation was the idea that in the blink of an eye censorship can strike any library.  If one book is removed, then others could follow."

In loco parentis we are not.

Part III - Not Only Boy Scouts Should Be Prepared - Building Strong Policies

"Did you ever hear anyone say, 'That work had better be banned because I might read it and it might be very damaging to me?'" - Joseph Henry Jackson

"Policies are time-consuming and sometimes painful documents to write, but, when librarians encounter challenges to material in their library's holdings or are accused of censorship, these documents may shine like the most beautiful pieces of gold ever discovered."

Collection development on the front end and reconsideration on the back end.

There's a fine line between materials selection and censorship.

"Allowing parents to make a decision regarding their own child's borrowing privileges does not erect an institutional barrier.  The choice belongs to the parent, along with the consequences."

Part IV - When the Tribe Has Spoken - Working with Native American Collections

"We will be known forever by the tracks we leave." - Dakota

Cultural sensitivity or censorship? Legal as well as cultural issues.

ALA's "Librarianship and Traditional Cultural Expressions: Nurturing Understanding and Respect "suggests that librarians create separate policies for user access to documents containing cultural expressions."  "This seems to be at odds with the ALA's Freedom to Read Statement: 'Freedom is no freedom if it is accorded only to the accepted and the innoffensive.'"

"If we do this for one group, will we need to do this for others?"

With Native Americans, they have their own governements and laws regarding their cultural heritage.

Part V - Conversation + Confrontation + Controversy = Combustion - Vocal Organization and Publically Debated Challenges

"We are not afraid to entrust the American people with unpleasant facts, foreign ideas, alien philosopies, and competitive values.  For a nation that is afraid to let its people judge the truth and falsehood in an open market is a nation that is afraid of its people." - JFK

"Local school boards may not remove books from school library shelves simply because they dislike the ideas contained in those books." - Board of Education, Island Tress Union Free School District v. Pico, 457 U.S. 853

"The fight for freedome in Cuba cannot be waged as a ware on the First Amendment in Miami." - ACLU Statement

Local politics have no place in controlling children's access to information.

"In time we hate that which we often fear." - Shakespeare

"Historically, the printed word has always had the potential to introduce new ideas, and images can increase their potency.  New ideas require change.  Change is scary.  Words and images combined are very scary.  For some, that fear is a call to action...[for] others, the possibility of change is the threat."

"If you only have things you like in your library, that's a private - not a public - library."

"No one group should be able to influence the censorship or banning of books for the entire community."

" support the freedom of speech completely, you must advocate even for those who would defend something that you would dedicate a lifetime to opposing."

"Small elections can have enormous impacts."

"Small-scale democratic institutions create the everyday forces that shape peoples' lives, give people opportunities, or cut such possibilities off.  Censorship is worrisome, but perhaps more worrisome are the consequences of unseen censorship in school districts dominated by small-mindedness or ideological bias: the crippled curricula, the books that never reach the shelves of libraries.  This form of censorship can go on in a hidden manner for years without anyone becoming aware of it."

Formal challenges can be vocal and get a lot of attention, but they are a small fraction of the erosion of intellectual freedom in this country.  The vast bulk of censorship is quietly unreported.

"'s much better to fight today against the possibility of censorship than to fight tomorrow against a censoring school board or an entrenched local extremist group."

"Unlike dogmatists who seek to silence the voices with which they disagree, defenders of free information seek to know, not censor, the views of those very dogmatists in order to keep pluralistic ideals strong and the ideas of those who would oppose them in the open, where they can be seen for what they are."

"There persists in our culture a general feeling that libraries are good things, but also that they belong in the background.  To my mind, it is hard to both promote literacy passionately and be invisible." - James LaRue

"Library collections don't imply endorsement; they imply access to the many different ideas of our culture, which is precisely our purpose in public life."

"We can't allow others to define us into irrelevance or silence, but the only way to withstand that trend is to engage with the larger culture.  We must add our voices to the intellectual environment in which we operate, advocating our vital role."

"It's great to see parents involved in what their kids are reading.  People are taking an interest in how their local government works and are being active in the process.  It is the truest form of democracy to watch people voice their opinions to their elected officials.  We have to protect that right just as closely as we protect the right to read and to have access to all forms of knowledge."

" important it is to fight against [censorship] in all of its forms: labeling, recataloging, permission slips, and hiding books."

"By suppressing materials containing ideas or themes with which tye do not agree, censors produce a sterile conformity and a lack of intellectual and emotional growh in students.  Freedom in the public schools is central to the quality of what and how students learn." - Henry Reichman

Reichman gives four main reasons for censorship:
  • Family values
  • Political views
  • Religion
  • Minority rights
Part VI - Crime and Punishment - When Library Patrons Have Committed a Crime

"Instead of asking - 'How much damage will the work in question bring about?' why not ask - 'How much good? How much joy?'" - D.H. Lawrence

When law enforcement shows up at the library and libraries in correctional facilities.

"My main concern was that I comply with the law, assist as needed, but no compromise anyone's confidentiality." - Dawn Pilcher

"Even now, of course, there's no reason or excuse for committing thought crime.  It's merely a question of self-discipline, reality control." - George Orwell

Prisoners' Right to Read - "correctional librarians bear the responsibility of defending offenders' access to all information, except when legitimate penological interests mandate exclusion."  Problem is the broad definition of that latter phrase - can be very subjective.  Content vs. intent.

Part VII - Perhaps It Is Possible to Judge a Book by Its Cover

"I believe in censorship.  I made a fortune out of it." - Mae West

Good discussion questions at the end - this would make an excellent text for a course on intellectual freedom.

Like any other freedom, you have to be willing to fight for intellectual freedom.

What would you do?

In academic libraries, people expect to find a wide range of materials, so we don't often see the challenges common to public and school libraries.  I've never personally dealt with a book challenge, though a Robert Mapplethorpe book once had some of my past co-workers up-in-arms, but the book went out on the shelf despite their personal feelings.  My current library has a good collection development policy that is reviewed annually, as well as an anti-censorship statement.  We are a public university as well, and receive a great many patrons from our local community.  We have a published statement about our lack of filtering online and children under 12 must be accompanied in the building by a parent.  Otherwise, it is up to parents to monitor their children and what information they are consuming, not up to the library.  So we don't have those sorts of battles either.  Public and school libraries, which by their natures have a much closer relationship with younger readers, encounter these problems far more frequently. I would love for more librarians to share their stories about censorship and intellectual freedom in action in their libraries. It is through sharing such stories that we will strengthen ourselves for battles to come.


To you zealots and bigots and false
patriots who live in fear of discourse.
You screamers and banners and burners
who would force books
off shelves in your brand name
of greater good.
You say you're afraid for children,
innocents ripe for corruption
by perversion or sorcery on the page.
But sticks and stones do break
bones, and ignorance is no armor.
You do not speak for me,
and will not deny my kids magic
in favor of miracles.
You say you're afraid for America,
the red, white, and blue corroded
by terrorists, socialists, the sexually
confused. But we are a vast quilt
of patchwork cultures and multi-gendered
identities. You cannot speak for those
whose ancestors braved
different seas.
You say you're afraid for God,
the living word eroded by Muhammed
and Darwin and Magdalene.
But the omnipotent sculptor of heaven
and earth designed intelligence.
Surely you dare not speak
for the father, who opens
his arms to all.
A word to the unwise.
Torch every book.
Char every page.
Burn every word to ash.
Ideas are incombustible.
And therein lies your real fear.
~Ellen Hopkins

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