Censorship: Stories to Watch, Things to Think About

Here are some book removal stories that you should know about going on right now:

On April 2nd, the Meridian (ID) School Board voted to remove the Sherman Alexie book, “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” from the curriculum. The book, no stranger to past challenges, has been controversial for its content since it was released in 2007. In response to the removal, there were arrangements made to give out copies to students as part of World Book Night, an act so heinous that someone called the police. Whether the fight will be taken to the public library system is something to be closely watched.

Meanwhile, in Orland Park, Illinois, the protracted conflict over internet filtering policies continues onward via the proxy battle of FOIA requests. This started back in October when the issue of filtering on adult computers was the subject of a complaint to the library board brought by Megan Fox and Kevin DuJan. Since then, Fox and DuJan have handed out leaflets in front of the library claiming that it was a “dangerous place for children” and launched a social media campaign to pressure the library into changing its policies. Kudos to the board for standing firm in their beliefs and hopefully a speedy end to the legal wrangling.

Finally, earlier this month in my home state of New Jersey, the West Essex School Board is considering the fate of the book, “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao” by Junot Diaz. As of today, I understand there was another school board meeting in which the book was discussed but I don’t know what the outcome was. I am hopeful about this situation as it seems to be the most reasonable: there are alternative titles in place as well as support for the book in the community.


The other weekend, I was watching the Ken Burn’s documentary “Prohibition” when something eerily familiar about the talking points of the temperance movement emerged. First, they spoke of the need to ban alcohol as a way to protect the children. It’s the same rhetoric that gets wrapped around book removals and internet filtering; if these books are still available or there are no filters, then children will be the ones to bear the consequences of exposure to these ideas and/or images. Simple enough, right?

My problem with this argument is that I find it to be disingenuous. If the protection of children is paramount, then what they read or what internet sites are available to adults doesn’t rate a spot in the top ten concerns. Housing, food, shelter, education, health care, and support systems should not left wanting if the protection of children are the priority. It reminds me of a wonderful quote from Sister Joan Chittister speaking of the topic of abortion with Bill Moyers:

But I do not believe that just because you’re opposed to abortion that that makes you pro-life. In fact, I think in many cases, your morality is deeply lacking. If all you want is a child born but not a child fed, not a child educated, not a child housed, and why would I think that you don’t? Because you don’t want any tax money to go there. That’s not pro-life. That’s pro-birth. We need a much broader conversation on what the morality of what pro-life is.

While I will concede that what children read, hear, or see is important, you lose me when you advocate that it is more important than some of the essential basics I’ve listed. Because between making sure a child has enough food to eat, clothing to wear, and an education system that provides a future versus a book that has naughty words in it or people in a video engaged in a sexual act, I’m choosing the former.

Second, the temperance movement found power in turning alcohol into a wedge issue: are you with morality and the family, or are you with the Devil and the drink? In following various book removal and internet filtering stories over the years, I’ve seen the same kind of narrative emerge: if you don’t support our morally-based conclusions, then you have chosen to side with pedophiles, perverts, and criminals. It works well in the realm of public opinion (Prohibition did get passed as an amendment), but poorly in terms of practical public policy.

Book removals end up being case studies in the Streisand Effect by raising the profile of the vulgar/filthy/unseemly literature, thus actually encouraging more people to read it as well as discuss its content and meaning. For lack of a better analogy, internet filtering is like building a fence to stop people accessing certain content. The solution to people bypassing the fence is simply “more fence”, thus setting off a never-ending arms race between filtering software and the means to defeat them. Nevermind how it can catch people who are not trying to access restricted content, but that’s just seen as collateral damage of First Amendment rights. No big deal, especially since we’re already playing loosely with constitutional interpretations.

As of late, I’ve come to thinking that the word “censor” has been evolving within the language. In times past, it meant a government official who approved popular culture content; these days, I believe it has changed to anyone who overreaches on restricting content to a group or segment of the population. It’s the difference between a parent not allowing their child to see a movie versus a parent not allowing any children to see a movie. The fact that we refer to places like China or Saudi Arabia as having “government censorship” acts as a point in my favor, for otherwise the phrase is redundant as it relates to the government. Would it be fair to say that what the people are doing in the above stories is censorship? I’d say so since I believe the word (like many other words before it) has changed over time to mean any form of material restriction. This is just another case of how the language changes over time.


I’ll be honest with you since I can’t seem to find a way to close this blog post. I keep writing the same sentence about lessons I took away from the Revolutionary Voices ordeal, but I’m having a hard time articulating them. In a way, it’s like an old wound that only aches when the weather turns cold. I live with it, I’ve gotten past it, and I talk about it candidly, but on those cold days it stirs up the emotions associated with injury that caused it. I wonder if any other librarians who have experienced similar situations feel the same way. But I’ll try my best to share those lessons right now.

I try to keep in mind that the majority (not all, but most) of people who make these complaints are acting out of their own variation of good intent. I don’t agree with them, but I try to understand the basis of their objections. I think the difference between removal and reconsideration is sometimes lost, where the latter might move it up a grade level or age bracket as opposed to being no longer available. There is a thin line between being righteous and self-righteous, one that gets skewed or forgotten within a pluralistic society. I’d like to believe that the people I read about are good people, but sometimes that’s very hard. It’s also very hard to forgive and it takes much longer than you think.

Someday, I’ll write more of the details from my book removal experience. I think it’s important since it lights a candle in the dark for librarians who been caught in the same snare. I’ve always tried to be honest and candid as a way of helping out other people through their own issues and I think something like that would help. But it’s not a blog post for today.

Some day. But not this one.

Self-Censorship in Libraryland

When I was in Australia on a semester abroad, I remember watching some television show in the giant common room of the dorm where I was living. Imagine rows and rows of well worn red loveseat couches pointed towards a large television in a corner with college students liberally sprawled around the room, either in a seat or on top of each other. I can’t remember what we were watching, but I do remember a particular commercial that came on. I can’t remember what they were selling, but it was probably a soft drink or candy or something with an unhealthy amount of sugar in it.

In any event, the part I remember shows a boyfriend sitting in a dressing room when his girlfriend comes out of the fitting room in a very revealing skintight cocktail dress. (The Aussies don’t have the television morality police like here in the States.) The boyfriend is eating or drinking whatever product they are selling when the girlfriend asks a variation of the stereotypical question that has been getting men into trouble since the dawn of clothing: “Does this dress make my butt look big?” After a product placement moment, the boyfriend looks her up and down and says, “Yes, but it takes attention away from your face.”

Needless to say, there was a very mixed reaction to this punchline although it did not play out strictly on gender lines. In recalling this admittedly questionable anecdote that is certain to sour some of the moods of the readers, this was my very roundabout way of getting to the topic of self censorship. The ad reminds me of a instance in which the concept of keeping one’s mouth shut fails, albeit to satisfy a comic premise. However, I believe the concept enjoys a high success rate when it comes to honest dialogue in libraryland, especially in the online version of the profession. I keep wondering why this is so in a profession that is deeply invested in the ideal of freedom of speech, expression, and curiosity. Why is it that people feel the need to self censor when it comes to library discourse?

The biologist in me that has lurked there since I was an undergrad reminds that the big, beautiful organ that resides between our ears is a self-censoring machine. The body is in a constant state of information update, relaying every single update from the senses in what could only be imagined as the world’s worst news crawl. (“Feet reporting that there are still socks on them… Nose update: still no new smells yet… Teeth still touching each other…") Rather than be overwhelmed by all of these signals, the brain filters these things out to allow the important messages to make it through to the higher areas of the brain. As you can imagine, there are lots of good evolutionary reasons for this development that routinely ignores a lot of stimuli.

The amateur psychologist (sociologist? anthropologist?) in me wonders about the mental and social constructs that have developed over time that favor self censorship. The instincts that make you bite your tongue when you’re in a tense or emotional situation, the mechanisms that make people lie about positive outcomes in determinedly negative situations, and (unlike the gent in that commercial) the inward controls that make you ignore your first impulse to give an honest and possibly insensitive answer. How much do these kinds of social factors contribute to self-censorship in libraryland?

In considering external causes, the first factor that popped into my head is the librarian job market. For lack of a better term, it’s a buyer’s market; there are more librarians than there are jobs. Why jeopardize yourself by writing something in a tweet or on a blog that could hurt job prospects? The counterargument to that point would be that by writing online you are distinguishing yourself from the other applicants. But even that has its flaws because it encourages people to say things that are generally agreeable to popular opinion. A person would be less likely to take a stance about, oh, let’s say the inclusion of anti-gay children’s books in a collection if it was anything other than “Hell no”. Barring other normal collection development considerations (such as community, interest, and quality of product), a person could make a case for adding such a book to a collection under the premise of presenting differing viewpoints. But they’d need a flameproof suit in order to survive the royal drubbing they would receive at the hands of their peers. The easier action is to make a safe argument or not say anything, even if a logically valid but emotionally charged argument could be made.

Another factor that I considered is how much time and energy it takes to put something like a blog post together. In crafting a case for a controversial or unpopular opinion, do I want to be saddled with the task of defending it? This might seem like a surrender of principles, but as someone who has written things that get people snapping at me, it is a tiring process to gear up and do battle online for any longer measure of time. For myself, sometimes the choice comes down between putting forth the effort that will get people up in arms versus doing something else that’s fun like video games or spending time with family and friends. Part of this falls into the time honored tradition of “picking one’s battles”, but there have been instances in which I felt like I really should have said something at the time. The moment passes, the library news cycle moves on, and I just shrug and hope I can make up for it later. While it’s true that putting together a tweet doesn’t use the same of work, it also doesn’t say much nor allow for nuance nor work well in making the case for something. The 140 characters of Twitter simply doesn’t convey the same message or importance as a longer form of blogging.

A third factor that arises revolves around gender; as in, this is a female dominated profession and (speaking in the most generic tropes) woman are less likely to speak up or draw attention to themselves in a professional forum. I’m not going to trod down that road simply because I think there are other people who have written better blog posts on the topic.[1] (I’ve linked to them at the end.) I don’t think gender is the whole explanation for self censorship in libraryland writing and debate, but I do think it is a contributing factor.

Personally, I think the profession is tipped toward hiring “safely”, meaning employing people who won’t rock the boat, initiate any bold and scary projects, or stir any sort of controversy. As a manager, I can understand and respect that; you really don’t want to enlarge your daily challenges by adding staff challenges into the equation. The library members can be hard enough as it is to deal with on a regular basis, but having someone internally who is looking to make moves or change things can throw off the mojo for the entire staff. Who wants to make a bet adding an iconoclast when there is a safe choice who can ensure better workflow and dynamics? It’s better to hire a ‘book lover’ than a ‘book fighter’, the preference being for the person who will display their love for the book as an object rather than fighting for the important underlying aspects that the books represents.

But such practices come at a high cost in terms of experimentation and innovation. The profession seems to cry out for leadership and innovation but then hires followers and ‘best fits’ for the current work paradigm. It is the ironic shock of hiring someone who is (for lack of a better term) boring and then being surprised when they don’t step outside the role that they have been chosen. To be fair, not every position is one that is invested in creating ideas and change, but I believe too often the majority end up that way. It’s a cyclical arrangement in which the similarities trump the differences.

Even in writing that previous paragraph, I go back and forth on whether I’m barking up the wrong tree. But I’m putting it out there to test the response and get some feedback. Why do you think librarians hold back in discussions, articles, and blog posts? What’s keeping us from putting ourselves out there to our peers? If you agree that it is an issue, what can be done about it?

It feels very odd and wrong that a profession so deeply invested in the spectrum of intellectual freedoms has its own issue with punishing those who take advantage of it within the field, but that’s what it seems to be.

 

[1] If you want to read more on gender in this discussion, The Library Loon has been writing on similar vein with “Silencing, librarianship, and gender: what is silencing?” and “Silencing, librarianship, and gender: who can break The Rules?”. You should check those out.

#sweatervestsunday at ALA Midwinter 2013

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From the Office of Intellectual Freedom press release in American Libraries:

ALA Midwinter 2013 attendees – and all fans of intellectual freedom – can take a stand for the freedom to read (and for fashion!) by participating in Sweater Vest Sunday!  All day on Sunday, January 27, 2013, help spread the word about the importance of reporting challenges to library materials by wearing a sweater vest to your meetings, lunches, programs, and special events.  On site in Seattle, ALA Office for Intellectual Freedom (OIF) staff and volunteers will be passing out stickers and postcards to Midwinter attendees. And at 2:45 p.m. at the ALA Member Pavilion in booth 1650 on the exhibit floor, everyone is invited to a group photo of librarians showing off their sweater vests! 

I’m delighted and flattered that the campaign I devised over a year ago is making a comeback to emphasize the importance of reporting material challenges to the ALA. The statistics are still bleak and reflect how underreported these incidents are in the library world. Collecting data is of vital importance as it shows challenge patterns as well as frequency and underlying rationales. By holding a Sweater Vest Sunday, I hope it encourages people to spread the word about reporting challenges to their colleagues both at the Midwinter Meeting and back home.

I’m sorry I will not be attending, but I’ll be wearing one in solidarity. You can also join the Facebook event for it. Again, reporting challenges is important. Be sure to share it with your friends and colleagues.

For more information, please visit www.ala.org/challengereporting.

Censorship in Greenville

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.

The Collection Quagmire

At first reading of this story, I was pretty horrified:

A representative of Frederick County Public Libraries will come before the Board of County Commissioners Thursday to discuss the books, CDs and DVDs the system has acquired in the past few months. The county commissioners will also decide whether to free up funds for the next three months of library purchases.

Commissioner Billy Shreve, who has already started poring over the list of recent buys, believes some of the materials might not be worth taxpayer dollars.

“Why should my tax dollars pay for someone else’s recreation? Why should my tax dollars pay for someone to watch ‘Charlie’s Angels’ or ‘Battlestar Galactica’ or read about Lindsay Lohan?” Shreve said in a phone interview. “It’s funny looking through here, and it’s also sad, because it’s money we could be using for schools, money we could be using for our police and firefighters.”

Library officials and the public should start asking the same questions, Shreve said. In his view, the library’s mission should center on education rather than entertainment.

Then, after a few hours of letting it roll around the brain pan, I relaxed and looked at it for what it was: the shifting of old bones into new graves. The library version of this canard, the “why should my tax dollars pay for [insert thing I think is frivolous] that the library buys”, has proven to be a well worn path for critics who look at one aspect of the collection and declare the whole mission either as not worth it or misguided. This is examining less than $600 of a quarterly materials budget that is over $250,000  (0.0025%, to be precise) in just the items mentioned. While I’m sure a fine tooth combing of all of the purchases could push that price tag higher, I’m going to go out on a limb and say it is still a fraction of the overall budget.

But, really, Shreve stepped into a philosophical quagmire here, one that is special to libraries and perhaps our best defense on collections. The logical follow-up question to his stance is, “So what do you think should be in the collection?” Here is a partial answer to that:

Critics have objected that the commissioners’ scrutiny of detailed purchase lists could lead to censorship of certain library materials. However, Shreve says he is just trying to start a conversation, not control what goes on bookshelves.

So, the conversation is whether or not entertainment items should be on library shelves which in no way controls what goes on the shelves. Uh huh. I suppose it won’t have a chilling effect at all. As Commissioner David Gray points out, removing entertainment would take out the entire fiction section.

From here, one could just continue to pose questions and let the person beat themselves up with the answers they give. “What is entertainment?” “What is educational?” “How can the library tell the difference?” Vague comments about how the library should be centered on education and not entertainment do not a policy make, even if it scores points with a constituency. I’m not sure how any of those items drag it away from being centered on education, but I’ll let that one go.

What makes this story interesting to me is not so much a standard knucklehead approach to securitizing the collection for any whiffs of weakness, but that I’ve actually been to that library. My girlfriend’s parents live in Frederick and we attended a wedding there a few months ago. They took me by the library as part of a tour of the downtown area. It’s a great big beautiful building right along one of the canals that goes through town.

No, the interesting part to me is that the library has computer center that is closed due to a lack of staffing, at least according to the sign on center’s door during my visit. I was told at the time that it had been like that for awhile. I find his quibbling about a couple thousand dollars to be breathtakingly short sighted if the library can’t even staff their computer labs. This has a ripple effect in terms of being unable to offer classes to the public for programs that can be used to improve job skills and/or help with job hunting or resume building. Although, I guess it’s easier to fight over a couple thousand dollars each quarter than to expend way more money hiring people and providing them with benefits and salaries so that the library could be properly staffed.

Honestly, the best response to statements made by people like Shreve is just let them flail away. The more they struggle to articulate their position, the more the quagmire sucks them in. I can safely say that buying a biography on Lindsey Lohan (as loathsome as that may be) is cheaper than a constituent lawsuit brought about by the restriction of library materials (which, in this case of an elected official acting in his government capacity, does meet the definition of the word, “censorship”). If anything, I hope this issue illuminates how the library could use more support from the commissioners of Frederick County.

 

(h/t: Infodocket for reporting it and Amanda Goodman for pointing it out on Twitter)

 

Update: Mike makes an excellent point in his comment below. Don’t miss it.

This YA Title is Not Yet Rated (Yet)

A recent study poked the slumbering YA giant by evaluating the instances of profanity in 40 top selling children’s books and calling for a rating system in order to help parents make selections for their children. (You can read the BYU press release here.) Needless to say this suggestion has been greeted with the usual eyeroll and a ‘here we go again’ sentiment, an attitude that falls between “Why are people trying to outsource the duties of parents to determine suitability of what they read?” and “As children progress differently in terms of maturity and reading ability, what is the rubric that could possibly be used to determine age appropriateness?” In this era of the overscheduled child, the parents of said child don’t have the time either to evaluate anything but rely n blurbs and reviews of packaged products that outline all pros and cons. Even then, I’m certain there would be the usual headaches from people complaining that their child was reading something too advanced or being denied reading something that the parents feel they are mature enough to handle. If the people who want ratings systems really meant it, they’d offer to answer the complaint calls.

I got my hands on a copy of the study in question, but in reading through it there are still a couple of questions regarding some of the choices made in the study.

  1. Why was the date range of June 22nd to July 6th, 2008 chosen? Was this a random determination or a targeted date range?
  2. Where the profane words simply counted as they appeared? Was there any notations taken regarding the context in which they appeared? (I see that rich, attractive, and popular characters were noted as swearing more, but not the situations in which the swears appear.)

As the study itself indicates, it simply covers the use of profanity. No sex, no drugs, and no other situations or topics that make some adults uncomfortable are covered. It does leave a lot out in terms of the overall content of YA book which would play into any rating system scheme. Personally, I thought the most fascinating line in this article came from the conclusion:

“We are not advocating that book covers be required to contain content warnings regarding profanity. We understand that providing content warnings on books represents a very hot debate, and that inclusion of such warnings is extremely controversial.”

Given what Dr. Coyne has told the media, she appears to be diverging from the written conclusion made in the paper. I’d be curious as to how the language was agreed upon with her fellow co-authors, but I guess the question is really moot.

If people like Dr. Coyne backed away from an age based rating system, they would have a better and more dangerous argument in favor of content labeling systems. Rather than say that this book is for a particular age, it would give a rundown about what potentially objectionable content exists in the book. Movies, television, music, and video games have taken it upon themselves to offer this kind of labeling on their products. Yes, the movie rating system is ancient and archaic; the television one is a bit more specific in labeling yet still limited; music is a binary labeling (it either has explicit lyrics or it doesn’t without saying what those lyrics are explicit about); and the video game is extremely detailed in terms of content but still tries to box games into a small number of ratings. These are entertainment industries that have opted to self-police rather than deal with government intervention or interference; it logically leads to the question, “If these people can do it, why not books?”

In answering the idea of book labeling, I found YALSA Executive Director Beth Yoke’s answer a bit unfortunate: "ALA’s interpretation on any rating system for books is that it’s censorship." I say unfortunate because I think there is a better counterpoint to make that hones in on the actual effect of a label system and that is this: putting age or content labels on books is equivalent to putting bulls eyes on books. Rather than read and evaluate a book on its merits and context, such labels would be a short cut for people who want to challenge any book that contains content that they find distasteful. It removes the individual responsibility for personal conduct and places it in a rating system that may or may not be universally objective. In addition it moves judgment from the content level to the book spine label, providing the instant outrage when someone happens upon a book that is rated 17 and older in a high school library (what if a 15 year old found it?) or a book that has sexual situations in the YA area at the public library (think of the children!).  And yes, it would lead to people deciding against the purchase of certain books because of specific content labeling. Either there is some internal staff rationale presented or they simply don’t want to fight people about the contents on their shelf. In either event, the label would prove to be a barrier to purchase.

Personally, I do find book labeling to be odious and unwelcome, a concept that would become a circus sideshow and a distraction to many libraries and librarians. But my pragmatic side tells me that any labeling system should originate from librarians to do the self-policing, not publishers, retailers, or the government. If the social and political winds were to change in that direction, librarians better have a damn good labeling solution to put forth rather than simply intensifying resistance. At such a point we might not be able to control the outcome but we ought to retain control over the implementation. In the meantime, one study is not enough to change the whole scheme of things. It’s the studies in the future that we have to be mindful.

Defend the Freedom to Read: It’s Everybody’s Job

“Defend the Right to Read: It’s Everybody’s Job” THE VIDEO

“Defend the Right to Read: It’s Everybody’s Job” is an awareness campaign I’ve been working on with the ALA Office of Intellectual Freedom (OIF) for the past couple of months. It was born out of learning about the dismal estimate that only one in four book challenges or removals are reported to the OIF. One in four! I knew I wanted to do something about it so I pitched this idea to the OIF. It’s been a long process, but I’m proud to see this campaign finally come to fruition. It was inspired by the World War II “we can do this together!” posters and the New York Transit System “If you see something, say something” campaign. This is, as the tagline above plainly puts it, everybody’s job and it needs your help.

In collaborating for this awareness campaign, I am hoping that it will encourage people to come forward and report book challenges or removals. I believe there are a number of excellent benefits to better reporting of book challenges/removals.

First and foremost, better data means better analysis. This means the ability to look at these events and spot trends and patterns. If there is a school book that is being routinely moved up from a younger grade to an older one, there is value in the ability to alert school librarians to that situation. It might also warrant a re-evaluation of the material to ensure that it is in the proper location or grade. If there is an individual or group challenging a book in a particular part of a state or region, there is value in advising libraries in the immediate area to such activity. This allows for librarians not to be taken by surprise and to prepare for the possibility. If a book appears to be targeted because it is by a particular author or appears on a list, there is value in making that connection and informing the membership. While it may not be local to one area of the country or another, such a discovery won’t happen without the challenges being reported. Or, to put it in the immortal words of Lester Freamon in The Wire, “All the pieces matter.”

Second, reporting can be done anonymously and the challenge files are held in confidence. This is not a campaign to draft people into this battle, but to gather intelligence. With these kinds of safeguards, people can still take action while minimizing their exposure to repercussions. Simply put, it’s doing something rather than doing nothing and that can make all the difference.

Last but not least, librarians are the public defenders of literature and prose. As such, we do not have the luxury of choosing our clientele. In a nation which values ideas and expression, every book deserves and demands a vigorous defense. It is the right and proper thing to do even in the face of mounting adversity and focused opposition. Though some may consider this an unpopular burden upon the profession, I believe that it is our honored duty. It is who we proclaim ourselves to be: offering the greatest possible access to literature and information to all who seek it. Let us embrace this ideal and act accordingly.

***

The art is available via download from the ALA OIF site. There are blog banners, social media avatar, print posters, and wallpapers. Grab one for your social media stuff and show your support! We need to spread the word! You can bug OIF for the bookmark file (there was one, I believe); you can also bug them if you want to request this graphic in poster or t-shirt form.

I made a video for this campaign which I hope you will enjoy. The books and the lyrics are matched according to my quirky system; some are obvious, some are not, and I hope you enjoy figuring them out. Be sure to share it to see what other people think of it!

[The wonderful Amy Houser did the art for this project. If you are working at a library or a library system that is considering branding illustrations, I highly recommend her art skills and creative talents. Tell her Andy sent you! –A]

The Relationship of Librarians and Intellectual Freedom

its-complicated

Intellectual freedom is lauded as one of the core principles of the librarian profession. It is a noble ideal, a solid foundation for an information based field and partner to the underlying altruism that seeks to provide for any who ask. Yet, over time when I’ve read about it or see peers invoke it in print or online disagreements (especially when it comes to opinion pieces), I am perplexed by the conceit that intellectual freedom is a simple, binary supposition. I find intellectual freedom to be anything but simple; it is a nuanced, contextual, and complex ideal that could be (and should be) a constant inner struggle for every librarian. In grappling with it myself, I began reflecting how the ideal and the practice actually work.

From the ALA’s Intellectual Freedom and Censorship Q&A, this is the definition offered of intellectual freedom:

Intellectual freedom is the right of every individual to both seek and receive information from all points of view without restriction. It provides for free access to all expressions of ideas through which any and all sides of a question, cause or movement may be explored.

On paper, I certainly have no qualms with this definition. It is a wonderful articulation of the ideal principle. But when it comes to implementation, the perfection portrayed above is harder than it appears.

By our very own biological makeup, human beings both censor and filter information. Consider our nervous systems, a series of neural pathways designed to conduct the signals of our senses (including the largest one, touch) to the brain. Our brains are hardwired to ignore a vast majority of input signals that are being reported all over our body. It’s why we aren’t constantly distracted by the way our clothing feels on our body, the sound or pace of our own breathing, or any number of mundane body sensations. We can bring to our conscious thoughts (if my writing about those kinds of operations didn’t do that already), but otherwise it doesn’t get past the brain stem unless it brings something urgent or new to the situation (such as a pinched finger or a cold breeze).

There’s some very good (and biologically necessary) reasoning for stopping the majority of signals and it is one that librarians should be able understand: information overload. Our brains simply can’t handle all of that information and run a body with any degree of success. We would be bombarded by a cacophony of sensations that could prove distracting to the point of being fatal; how my jeans feel on my knees is not information I need to know when changing lanes on the expressway.

Even within our conscious mind, there are censoring or filtering factors in our thoughts that manifest in ideological irrationality (the ability to rationalize or set aside facts in favor of beliefs). Under this concept, humans edit the information they receive from the world around them to match their perspective. There have been multiple studies over the year about how people can rationalize or ignore their way out of cognitive dissonance. These are not ideologues of the extreme nor fanatics blind in their devotion, but ordinary people from all walks of life. While we have the capability of changing our opinions or knowledge on the basis of new information, we have the same capability to explain it away or simply ignore it. It’s illogical, it’s irrational, but it is also perfectly normal and par for the course when it comes to being human.

On top of this selective information mess, our days are full of making selections and judgments based on our biases, experiences, and a whole host of internal and external influences contained within our lives. It is embedded in our choices of what to wear, what to buy, what to cook, who to talk to, what emails to respond to, and any number of decisions that we make on a constant basis. It drives us to buy that particular brand of peanut butter, to chose a particular color to paint our bedroom, and tells us what we are looking for in an ideal mate. At this point, human beings have a whole host of conscious and subconscious inclinations that move us to and fro in our existence.

It’s not that I am saying that people cannot be objective, logical, or rational. It’s that I believe it is a lot harder than it appears to be when it comes to supporting and defending the principle of intellectual freedom. It involves setting aside a great deal of biology as well as our own psychology to reach an objective state. Nor am I suggesting that every collection decision be open to second guessing as to what the true motivations for making those choices; that would lead to a lockdown of the decision making process. No, judgments about the collection have to be made; the library must continue to grow and move with the times. It’s just a matter of examining and being mindful of the context in which those decisions are made.

Will Manley recently made a statement in a blog entry which conceals a question in the middle, In leading up to the passage I am quoting, he makes a list of books he would never want to see in the library, such Holocaust denial or bomb making. “I am sure that you can think of other types of books that contain ideas that are destructive to human beings.  I am also sure that you would not want these types of books in your library.  I know I do not want the books described above in my library.  Does that make me a censor or a selector?  It’s a fascinating debate. Basically it comes down to this:  If you’re a librarian, you’re a selector; if you’re a patron, you’re a censor.”

If there is one thing I learned from my year stint in law school, it’s that the best answer to any question like this is contained thoughtfully within the two word statement, “It depends”. I believe it has less to do with the position you are in (whether you are a librarian or not) and more as to the underlying motivations as to why a book was chosen (or not chosen) and why a book was challenged.

It’s one thing to say that a book was added to the collection because it is written by a popular author, a well followed series, or an established expert in their respective field; it’s clearly another to exclude material on the belief that the person is an blithering idiot, a partisan hack, or a certifiable quack. And if you are asking yourself how you can tell the difference (as I have asked myself while writing this), then you can see part of the conundrum that the principles of intellectual freedom present in practice. I don’t have a clue as to how it can be unraveled unless someone is quite opaque and forthcoming in their inclusion/exclusion reasoning. Unless it is stone cold obvious, such exclusions can be rationalized away or otherwise dismissed. It just becomes part of the fodder for never-ending debates on the how or why we choose collection materials.

It’s also one thing to say that a book is being challenged on the ground of maturity (in that the subject matter is advanced for the age group); it’s another to say that the book is morally corruptive, racist/homophobic, or otherwise a bad influence. These subjective charges of the latter embody the most obvious foe to intellectual freedom as they directly clash with its working definition as listed above. In their most basic form, these challenges seek to limit or squash another expression or viewpoint because it runs afoul of another moral or social sense. Only by examining the context and the underlying rationale of the challenge can selectors (or in the case of the first example in this paragraph, deselectors) be separated from the censors. This is not without its own related discussions that revolve around what is right or wrong for a library to possess and the influences (both good and bad) it may engender.

In considering current librarianship when it comes to making collection selections, I think there is a fine balance that every librarian should consider as it relates to intellectual freedom. Within the last few years, there has a notion suggesting that librarians position themselves as knowledge scholars who impart bibliographic instruction and educate people as to the best tools for information evaluation. As a profession, we can provide people with the best tools to make their own decisions about the data and information in their lives and research.

At the other end of this balancing act is the explosion of the digital content and communication that has created the greatest mass of data in the history of mankind. As members of a greater society, we demonstrate and justify our value by sifting through this information space and pulling out the best materials for our users. In applying our knowledge of popular culture, science, art, or any number of subjects, librarians can ensure that leading theories and thoughts as well as their competition or leading dissents are accessible. While not all viewpoints are included (a clear violation of intellectual freedom), librarians can make the best case for those expressions that are part of the collection.

This balancing act is the constant struggle I contend with when I think of intellectual freedom. I want to provide as many viewpoints as I can, but I don’t believe that all viewpoints hold equal weight (or in some cases, any). I want my users to be able to consider sources objectively, but I know they also want me to narrow down the choices to the best materials. In essence, I want to provide for my users in the greatest number of ways possible, but I know of all the limitations of the collection, the budget, the building, and myself. I wouldn’t have it any other way, but I think it’s foolish not to acknowledge the deeper struggle contained within intellectual freedom.

I think it’s the right relationship for librarians and intellectual freedom to have: “It’s complicated.”

Banned Book Bullshit, Revisited

Like Thanksgiving each year, Banned Books Week brings the library community together like one giant intellectual freedom loving dysfunctional family. Gathering around the proverbial communal dinner table, an unavoidable recurring conversation gets raised about what the week actually means in this day and age. The usual questions are trotted out (Can books really be banned anymore? What does censorship actually mean? And why do we call it Banned Books Week anyway?) like old family quarrels, acting as the fodder for print and online commentary. Whether used to snipe at each other or provide the starting point for actual meaningful discussions, the conversations (and some shouting matches) provide an intriguing insight as to how librarians relate to intellectual freedom as a value. Just like an familial eavesdropper at this family function, I find some of the positions expressed to be rather interesting.

Take the one about the name itself: Banned Books Week. It’s a misnomer, they will say, because what books get banned these days? It’s a position that is completely blind to the historical timeline and context of the event. The event was created as a response to a rising number of book challenges and removal in 1982. Considering that it was created during in this pre-internet-as-we-know-it and digital nascent age, the number of alternate venues for books were limited (especially for rural communities). What options, if any, could an individual have? Yes, I’m sure that if they really wanted the book they could track down a copy , but let’s not kid ourselves as to the effort required to do that. It might as well be banned, even by our modern take on the term.

In keeping the name, I would cite tradition as a powerful motive for doing so. While it may not address the issue of banned books as it once did, it does still celebrate intellectual freedom by defending the right to read as one wishes. Just as there no serious effort to rename St. Patrick’s Day (a religious feast day celebrating a Catholic saint) to something more accurate (“We All Pretend to Be Irish and Drink Green Beer Day”), Banned Books Week embodies an ideal more than a manifestation of its name. And, to paraphrase another commentator on the subject, “Challenged Book Week” just simply does not roll off the tongue like “Banned Book Week”. Nor does it provoke the same emotional response ot the finality of the word, “banned”. Keep the name, dump the quibbles over it.

Speaking of quibbles, I am not without my own for the event. An overly broad definition of a challenge casts the widest net to include reasonable people who challenge on the basis of maturity (otherwise known as age appropriateness). Should a parent who has believes that a second grade book might be more appropriate for fourth or fifth grade be included as a foe to intellectual freedom? Common sense tells me no, of course not. The people who rate the age appropriateness of books may be experts in their field, but they are not infallible. It’s a reasonable request for reconsideration and should be treated with due diligence. Get a second grade teacher and a fourth grade teacher (and possibly another educator if you need a third opinion) and figure it out. If the person is making a reasonable request, then they should be able to accept a reasonable answer as to why the book is being kept at second grade or moved to a higher grade. To me, situations like this don’t arise to an actual threat to intellectual freedom.

However, at the opposite end of such reasonable objections, there exists a particularly unreasonable side to the book challenge and removal equation. It’s the grotesque vitriol surrounding book challenges in places like West Bend and Stockton that stand in stark contrast to the aforementioned concerned parent of the previous paragraph. Anecdotally, it is the accounts of library directors and librarians that come under enormous pressures from politicians, oversight committees, community members, and outside groups to “do the right thing” while having their moral, intellectual, and personal beliefs and principles (and sometimes employment) questioned and/or attacked both privately and publicly. If the estimate offered by the Office of Intellectual Freedom states that only one in four book challenge or removals are reported is true (and I accept that number on the basis of my own research into the matter), then I can only grimace and wonder as to the true number of library staff out there who are suffering this unfair onus in silence right now. Whether they hold their tongues because they lack the backing to fight for the book or under the duress of losing their employment, I believe they represent a truly silent minority in this book challenge and removal equation. For myself, it is this unreasonable condition that lends gravitas to the event; it is why I think that taking a week to reflect on the depth and ramifications of book challenges and banning is important to the library community and one that should remain.

In the end, Banned Book Week does retain that Thanksgiving family feel to it for it collects the librarian community together under one roof for a brief moment of time every year. It should remind us on the things that we as a profession agree on: that access to materials is important, that people can and should be allowed to make their own choices (even questionable ones), and that freedom of expression is a human aspect that should be celebrated. As Thanksgiving remains a tradition in different parts of the world, so too should Banned Book Week remain a library tradition and an anticipated annual event. It is one that we can be proud of, that we can still argue and fret over, and act as a reminder of the underlying reasons and principles that bring us together in the first place.

[This post is somewhat related to my previous blog entry, Banned Book Bullshit, that I wrote back in 2009. At least, I feel this entry is a good companion piece. -A]

Virtual Read-Out

As part of Banned Books Week this year, the event organizers are sponsoring a Virtual Read-Out on YouTube. Here’s the types of videos that they are looking for:

You have two video options for the Banned Books Virtual Read-Out:

1) You can submit a video no more than two minutes long of a reading from a banned or challenged book. Here is a list of banned literary classics as well as a list of frequently challenged books throughout the years. You should also check out Mapping Censorship and Robert P. Doyle’s Banned Books: Challenging Our Freedom to Read for more ideas. Banned Books: Challenging our Freedom to Read is available for purchase at the ALA Store or can be found at your local public library.

2) A video of an eyewitness account of local challenges can be submitted. This video should be no longer than three minutes long.

Whoopi Goldberg recorded a video for the event in which she reads a Shel Silverstein poem. Have a listen!

I can’t tell how many videos are on the channel right now, but it is easily dozens of them. So find your favorite controversial prose, get your webcam ready, and give it a good reading!

(Here’s my video from last year’s Banned Book Week. I thought I might share that one again.)