I’ve spent part of the afternoon and evening trying to unpack this story about a book removal at a library in Greenville, South Carolina. Neonomicon, a graphic novel written by Alan Moore, was challenged by a parent back in June after letting her 14 year old daughter check it out from the adult section. By the mother’s own account, she had leafed through the book before allowing her to check it out (I guess people don’t read the backs anymore). When her daughter asked what a particular word meant, the mother did a proper investigation and found the content to be (for lack of a better term) unsavory.
Fast forward to December when the decision was made by the Executive Director Beverly James to remove the book from the system. This decision overruled an internal review committee that had voted to keep the book. (Note: the articles are hazy here because one says they voted to keep it and the other says they provide recommendations for the director to make the final decision. I can’t tell which is the actual procedure.) Otherwise, the challenge process had been carried out as per whatever policies they have in place.
Normally, I’m disappointed in the result but respectful of a challenge process. Such policies are there for a pretty obvious reason and should carry out an objective review (I am hopeful enough that something like that happens). Greenville apparently gets an average of three challenges a year. Over the course of the last twelve years, they have removed a total of five items. You can see the other four items that have been removed in this time period in the side bar of the article. They are as follows:
- Southern Dreams & Trojan Women (adult novel): challenged author’s character and his use of the book to gain a teaching position at a private school. Withdrawn from the collection for lack of literary merit or patron interest.
- Memoirs of a Survivor (unrated foreign film): challenged on the basis of sexual content involving teenagers. Removed on the rationale of being not appropriate for the library system’s collection.
- Film Geek (unrated film): challenged on the basis of sexual content. Removed on the grounds of not enough artistic merit to keep it in the library’s collection. (Here’s the IMDB content entry for the movie.)
- Secret of Loch Ness (foreign film for children): challenged for strong language better suited for an adult audience. Withdrawn because of the poor technical quality of the dubbed-in English and lack of the content’s appeal to adults.
I can’t say I’m really upset by any of the reasons given, but I’m not thrilled about them either. Something still doesn’t sit well for me in this case. Here are my problems with this story.
First, if you watch the short video in the latest article, Ms. James talks about how material is removed all the time and then goes on to give standard weeding examples. Not how the material has been removed under similar circumstances drawing on examples of the previous twelve years, but the very mundane practice of regular collection removal. This is not a parallel situation. It is one thing to remove a book because it doesn’t circulate anymore, it has fallen into disrepair, or that it is making way for other material; it is quite another to remove it on the basis of a challenge for its content. I don’t know if Ms. James answer was simply dodging the question or conflating weeding with book challenge removals, but her answer stinks.
Second, as reported in the article, Ms. James read the book and stated that, “it was disgusting”. While she didn’t call it pornographic or obscene, this simple statement raises a giant red flag for me. It feels like that was the moment where librarians principles and practices around intellectual freedom fell apart. Whereas the Greenville collection policy states, “The library recognizes that many materials are controversial and that any given item may offend some. Only individuals can determine what is most appropriate for their needs,” and that the library has other titles that contain sex and violence, one cannot take back their own visceral reaction to the material. The title was doomed from that moment forward, regardless of what the committee determined. The objectivity captured in the collection policy went out the window for a book in which “the pictures gave her pause”. The ideals of the policy lost out to the shocked reactions to the content by the person who had the authority to make a final decision.
In one sense, I don’t think the outcome is unusual. Librarians are not robots, but the same human beings carrying around their own biases and beliefs. It’s a lot to ask someone to suspend these innate characteristics and become detached and objective in evaluating a piece of material. Sometimes it happens, other times it won’t. I wish I could say that we could draw a lesson from this story, for I don’t really see any aside from “don’t be an Alan Moore graphic novel in the Greenville Public Library”. It’s just a shame, a real shame.