Sarah Houghton and I did a thing. Again. And once more, you are invited to join us.

451 is a project to promote essential librarian values: library access, freedom of expression, and making the library a place for all.

Why these particular values? Why now?

In the post presidential election environment, Sarah and I were like a good number of people around the country that weren’t sure what to think or do. We don’t want to wallow (ok, we did have a bit of a pity party) but we wanted to make something that would bring us back to the good. Something that would bring us back to the positive elements of librarianship, the things that bring us joy and satisfaction at a fundamental level.

So we created 451.

Please consider clicking on the link, reading through what we have to say, and joining us as we re-commit ourselves to core librarian values. And I hope you’ll join us as we light a candle in the dark rather than curse the darkness.

Good luck, everyone.

The Long Arc of the Moral Universe


(Picture: April Hathcock)

I feel bad for Emily Sheketoff.

The Washington Office of ALA has the odious task of working with whatever elected officials are sent there by the American people. Every two years, this task begins anew as a new Congress is sworn in. Granted, the re-election rate for Congress is pretty high so they aren’t starting from scratch so there are always a few new faces. But I’m guessing it still means putting on a brave face, compiling the latest library issue data, and going out to impress upon these people that libraries are important, libraries make a difference in a school or community, and that they are worthy of funding. Again.

Their work is not the sort of thing that I take pleasure in (at least at that level of government) and I’m thankful that there are people who like to do this for a living. It is an important mission and it does advocate for library values as well as secure funding sources for library oriented projects. It is a political voice for the organization and it still has a job to do no matter who is sitting in Congress or the White House.

However, this response feels like it is missing a greater point. This isn’t a matter of getting to the right side of the issues whether it is privacy, intellectual freedom, or the digital divide.

This is a matter of being on the right side of history.

In its history, the American Library Association has stood for civil rights, women’s rights, gay rights, and civil liberties. These public stances have been taken at times when it was neither socially popular nor politically convenient to do so. But history, in its grand motions, has shown that librarians were right.

As a public librarian, I would be abdicating my professional principles to proclaim how central the library is to the community while simultaneously turning a blind eye to its most vulnerable members. I can’t proclaim the equality ideal of the public library while forgoing the means to bring equity to its constituents. I can’t be a bystander to an administration that has displayed such deviant ideology that offends our core professional values.

I simply can’t.

So, librarians have arrived at a moment of history in which such resolve is once again called for, an undertaking that is both moral and necessary. It means standing up to a man and an administration that has shown to be both petty and vengeful, acting with thin skin with a long memory. It means a long journey of abuse, sadness, and instability that are coupled with the misgivings and doubts that difficult tasks invoke. There will be fear, anxiety, and all the mental tricks our brains play that tell us to quit and give in.

It is the hard path to choose, but the right one to take. 

Will we be fearful and cowed, or brave and right once more?

When Professional Values Must Become Political Deeds (ALA vs a Trump Presidency)

This is a “Yes, and…” post in that it builds on the themes and ideas that Sarah Houghton just posted on her blog.

Based on that, here’s where I’ll start: the values of the American Library Association are completely incompatible with the Trump administration in its present form.

Period. Full stop. The end.

As it stands at the time of writing, the Trump administration is a basket of unignorables: overtly hostile to current norms of free expression, speech, and press; a major threat to the civil rights of religious minorities, LGBTQ, and people of color; and filling his administration with like-minded individuals with track records of racism, misogyny, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, and other awful backward beliefs. This is the reality of the president elect and the men (since they all are at this point) he has tapped to lead the nation for the next four years.

It’s completely unacceptable.

I can understand the terrible bind that makes for an organization like the ALA as their mission is to advocate for libraries. I can understand the pragmatism and politics involved in finding the common ground with the Trump administration since it is what they have to work with. But there is a line too far in which values and ideals cannot and should not be compromised in order to achieve a partnership with the incoming government.

Here’s what I would suggest going forward.

First, that ALA comes out strongly against the bigotry exhibited by members of the Trump administration. Be it resolutions, press releases, whatever, but it has to be strong and clear. It has to spell out the differences in values and why libraries cannot “go along to get along”. It should encourage them to move closer to what we believe as a profession in regards to intellectual freedom, freedom of expression, and rights of all human beings regardless of color, religion, or sexual orientation. This is a time for bold statements, so let no ambiguity muddy the waters.

Second, that the ALA limit their exposure as time goes on with the new administration. The gears of grants and funding do not always line up with presidential terms, but as they wind down it should look for other funding avenues. This is neither easy or simple, but it is the right thing to do until their values line up with our professional ones. This will take time as things shake out but the goal is still to limit the reliance on the new administration.

Third, that the ALA pursues partnerships with other organizations that align with our values in one way or another. Whether it is the ACLU, NAACP, or any number of civil rights/freedom of expression organizations that exist out there, this is the time to start building a network of likeminded folks. We can support each other in working on projects that entail both of our interests and we should pursue such opportunities. Now is the time to do so.

Last, and this falls to my peers, it’s to organize ourselves. The ALA can’t politically advocate in the manner that is required here, so it is up to the individual to do so. Make your own contacts and networks to call, fax, email, and/or march to protest and make your voices known. I wouldn’t impose a mandate on what level of involvement, but I know that some of my peers are community organizers who can get people together while others work better in smaller groups of active voices. Find your activity level and embrace it. 

A couple of final things to take under consideration before we part.

This is not the easy path. There is no easy path. This will be a hard decision and as with all decisions there are consequences (most likely funding). There may be some PR backlash, but keep a few things in mind. Libraries have a 90%+ approval rating; this is to our advantage that people believe in us. Librarians are seen as trustworthy, according to a recent Maine poll; I would presume that this is not an outlier for the profession as a whole. As obnoxious as librarian stereotypes are, they don’t include deceit or bigotry; people see us in a positive light for that reason. We can and will survive such an ordeal as libraries have survived over the last hundred plus years. This is just another chapter in the history of the profession.

Finally, Donald Trump is vastly interested in things that get him attention, respect, and fame. We don’t need to feed the beast by engaging him on his boring and petty feuds; we need to focus on the bigger pictures and the items and issues that matter. As the American public focus shifts, we need to snap it back to the larger and more impactful topics: immigrations and deportations, persecution of religious minorities, and the threats to freedom of speech and expression. That’s where it really matters.

Good luck, everyone.

Banned Books Blues 2015

While I’ve effectively stopped blogging as of late (except for a couple of items over at INALJ), I did feel strongly enough to revisit something I’ve written about just about every year since I started this blog. Once again, Banned Books Week is upon the library world. It is the time of year to break out the CAUTION tape, line up the usual suspects on a book display, and remind the public that history is littered with people being jerks over stuff they don’t like. The “here for now, gone next week” brevity of this event just shows how important the topic in libraryland. (I digress before my blood pressure shoots up high enough to smother an oil well fire.)

With each year, some of the same tropes get trotted out for their annual airing. Some of these originate from those who hate freedom who find folly in Banned Books Week while others originate from the lies we tell ourselves. These are tropes that need to die or at least be wounded to the point where they should slink back to their cave and swear off the world of humankind. As much as I am loathe to make a listicle blog post on the one occasion that I feel like writing here, it is best served that way.

So, without further ado:

A Ban Isn’t a Ban if it is Available Elsewhere

This is the best kind of correct: technically correct. Just because the local public or school library removes a book from the collection doesn’t mean it’s a ban because you can get it from a bookstore, Amazon, and any number of other retail outlets. It’s the same logic that (when tortured) would support the notion that Cuban cigars are not truly banned in the United States because you can drive to Canada to get them. Or that you can still permitted to get married in Rowan County, Kentucky since you can drive to another clerk’s office to get the license. This trope is offered like a riposte to the Banned Book Week sentiment as if it were a damning overlooked detail.  

The trouble is that it is a superficial sentiment that largely misses the point about infringements on individual freedoms of expression (including choice of reading materials) while ignoring economic inequity and the digital divide. A book removal is an affront not simply to the individual but to the overall community. It is an limitation of expression not in some faraway or abstract place, but within the boundaries of the community. It’s the application of personal values on a community good that I find so loathsome and tiresome. I think of the quote attributed to Aristotle: “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it”. Such is the essence of a library: a place for entertaining such ideas for examination.

The “you can buy it elsewhere” notion fizzles under scrutiny because of its underlying requirements: finances to purchase the title or work in question and/or information access (formerly analog but now mostly digital). With the former, the onus is placed on the individual to spend money to purchase material that was already judged to be worthy of inclusion in a library, be it public, school, or academic. It creates a financial burden that flies in the spirit of the words etches across the façade of the Boston Public Library, “Free to All”.  There is no asterisk at the end of that motto denoting terms and conditions that apply to certain disliked materials.

In looking towards the latter, information access is a key librarian principle. While it is better known in some ways as the digital divide, the removal of material due to subjective personal values is a barrier for others. This is one of the core objections to filtering software on computers; not simply that it doesn’t work well (they really don’t), but that it usurps the end user’s judgment about which sites are (for lack of a better phrase) “good or bad” for them. The library is there to facilitate information access, not limit it in the old gatekeeper style that we have surely moved away from (right, guys?).

“It’s available elsewhere” is a perfectly valid response… so long as you’re not the one that has to travel to get it. If you’re are the other end of that equation, you will probably much different about it.

Arguing over the word “censorship”

It’s eternal and pedantic like much of librarianship, but inevitably someone brings up the dictionary definition of “censorship” within the context of Banned Books Week.

“Actually, ‘censorship’ can only be done by government…” emanates from their smug mouths as if access to Wikipedia was like vacationing in the Hamptons of the Internet. It’s an English lesson wrapped up in the history of public morality being controlled by royalty, government, or religious forces. And while I am a fan of history, it ultimately misses an intrinsic point: things change.

This most appropriately includes the meanings and usage of words. It’s how the word “literally” has been morphed to mean “figuratively” in certain contexts. It’s how “gay” turned from the happy emotion to denoting homosexuality. Language evolves and that it is no less what happened with the word censorship.

Just accept that censorship has evolved in its definition to include non-governmental and personal applications of one person suppressing another. Then move on to the bigger and more important arguments that need to happen rather than get bogged down on one point.

You know what they mean when they use the word. Don’t be that person.

The name itself: Banned Books Week

Like censorship, what it means to be “banned” has changed over time. In the past, it was a blanket prohibition to booksellers or having it removed from library shelves or a combination of both. Now, it is more about the local level when it happens at the public or school library; it is a ban that affects a generally smaller community than in years past. Without rehashing the “available elsewhere” point (too much) or the changing definition of the word “censorship” (too much), what it means to be “banned” has taken on new meanings.

“Banned” is no longer a status bestowed by the government, but by individuals or groups looking to remove library material that they find repugnant. It has shifted from a national or state or even city-wide determination to the local and personal level. It’s not the Mayor or other local elected official condemning a book (unless you live in Venice), but other citizens within the town enforcing their mores on others. Banned is not the government saying “you can’t have that”; it’s your seemingly friendly neighbor, the counter person at the deli, the dog walker at the local park who is telling you that this book or movie is so bad that it cannot dwell on the shelves of the library. The concept of “banned” is now so very personal for its level of disruption strikes at the individual within the community. 

Personally, I like the name ‘Banned Books Week’ because I do love alliteration. The whole thing just rolls off the tongue with the right amount of consonants and vowels in succinct syllables. Professionally, it conveys an overt meaning very well to the library world as well as the general public. Banned books! Not challenged books or pornographic books or Satanic books, but banned books. The word “banned” itself grabs you with thoughts of illegal, immoral, or other unsavory characteristics that have been attributed to some of the works that get mentioned on the ALA’s Most Challenged list.

If someone can come up with a better name that doesn’t sound like a mouthful of librarian jargon, I’m listening. I’m not even going to bother with the “it’s tradition” point because I’m ok with making new ones in this case. But it better be fun to say if you want my vote.

All Challenges are the Same

I’m certainly not the first person to say it, but the open secret in libraryland is that not all challenges are the same. And yet they get lumped into one giant statistical pile in which the most minor (“I think this book should be for 5th graders, not 3rd graders”) is comingled with the most outrageous (“Harry Potter is Satanic and needs to be destroyed” and its hyperventilating ilk). For a profession that values accuracy, that’s an infuriating oversight.

I understand that collecting challenge information is not the easiest. From my own passing research into the area, the profession is disappointingly remiss at reporting, responding, or even actually following procedures for material challenges. The professional ideal is cast aside in the face of naked pragmatism whose purpose is to avoid any “drama” at any cost. Thus, it leaves a rather apparent incomplete picture that makes it harder for Office of Intellectual Freedom staffer and state association Intellectual Freedom committee members (like myself in NJLA) to form a strategy, offer education and/or support, or even know what the hell is really going on at times. Better reporting and reporting practices need to be instilled values not simply at the job, but in the MLS/MLIS graduate programs that educate the next generation of librarians.

A lack of subclassification for materials challenges between “move it to another age group” versus the “get it out of here” crowd really needs to be addressed. One size does not fit all when it comes to recording challenges.

We are smarter and better than that.

Banned Books Week Doesn’t Matter
Just as I was starting to write this blog post, an article from Slate saying exactly that crossed my social media feeds. No one bans books anymore so we can all go home now is my ungenerous summary of that article because a simple eyeroll of contempt simply won’t suffice. Some of the points of the articles have been addressed a thousand words ago, so let me get at the heart of the matter.

Intellectual freedom requires constant vigilance against encroaching forces. It’s not a hobby, a part time job, or a thing you do while you are waiting for the bus, but it is a principle that requires a steady commitment across a vast network of individuals. It’s the big things like the wholesale scooping of metadata by the government and the little things like the grandmother whose thinks a ten year old LGBT anthology is “child pornography”. It’s a value that is important not simply to librarian profession, but what it is to be free thinking person of the world (and, personally, a citizen of the United States). This is the border over which I stand watch not simply for me but for all those who will be able to pick up a book or movie or music or load a website and not give a second thought as to whether it is acceptable by the greater society. That is why intellectual freedom is important and why it demands such care.

If you still think that Banned Books Week is a celebration of not having stuff be banned, then let us have that victory lap. It’s another trip around the Sun where we can say that we did our duty. It’s a yearly reminder of how far we have come as a society and how much further we still need to go.

Banned Books Week matters because what it represents within history, society, and culture matters: the thoughts, ideas, and dreams that make us human beings.

Previous years:

Banned Books Beast 2014

Banned Books Bollocks 2013

Banned Books Bullshit (2012)

Banned Books Bullshit, Revisited (2011)

Banned Books Week 2010

Banned Book Bullshit (2009)

OIF & 538

Earlier this week, David Goldenberg of the FiveThirtyEight blog published a piece about trying to identify the most challenged book in America. After being denied access to the raw data kept by the ALA’s Office of Intellectual Freedom (OIF), the story turned towards the integrity of the data, the methodology of collection, and even what it means to challenge a book (such as the conflation of age appropriate challenges with “no one should ever read this ever” types of challenges). I can’t deny the earnestness of such inquiries; I can see how an outsider might perceive the OIF’s response as off-putting. But it really only scrapes the surface of a problem of the librarian profession’s own digging.

It’s not simply one problem here, but a pile giant swirling hodge-podge of issues that are intertwined and complex through negligence or indifference. There is no simple answer to David’s inquiry because of the layers upon layers of complications that have grown over the years. And the fault for this mess rests at the feet of the librarian profession.

Let’s start at the beginning and work our way to the data.

At this level, it starts with the librarian who receives a material challenge. (Let’s set aside for the moment whether it is about changing its grade level or removing it from the county.) In their graduate school education or on-the-job training, librarians are not instilled with a professional obligation to report challenges to anyone, be it OIF or their state organization or any other professional organization. There is no duty to report, no raise a hand or a flag or simply say out loud that there has been a material challenge. None whatsoever.

While there is much talk given to the ethics of challenges, providing broad collections, or protecting the freedom to read and/or intellectual freedom, the actual practice can be quite lacking. Librarians can and have relocated challenged materials to staff areas, hidden them away in their personal office space, or even quietly remove challenged materials without a second thought. Materials disappear from the shelves like dissidents snatched off the streets, never to be heard from again. These aren’t the awful stereotypical shushing librarians of the 1950’s, prim and proper and easily offended. These are the librarians of today. It happens in 2015.

Even then, there can be external pressures that push librarians off the ideal path. Threats, implied or stated, about their future promotion, placement, or even keeping their position happen. The fear of retribution from supervisors, coworkers, local officials, principals, school boards, or local entities can keep a material challenge from becoming public. Discovery of a reported challenge can jeopardize a career. While it is easy to argue that one should stand up for the professional ideals, the reality can be crushing. (Trust me on this one. I know.)

Even once more, it may not occur to someone that it should be reported to the OIF or anyone. A librarian may not know about the resources available to them (it’s true) or it may not be a priority in their life to report the challenge. Back in 2011, Sarah Houghton and I did an internet survey for material challenges. The results closely aligned with OIF’s long time claims that it is an underreported phenomena; the number of removals or challenges rarely matched the number of times the librarian reported it to OIF or their state association1.

That’s only step one here. Let’s say that the librarian or library staff member goes ahead to report the challenge to OIF. Onwards to the next step.

Here is the OIF online challenge form. Despite its length, it only has three required fields: Title of the work challenged, the State where the challenge occurred, and Email Address of the person reporting the challenge. That’s it. In their desire to hear about a challenge, OIF leaves a lot of data on the table. It’s a gamble on their part, one that should be reconsidered in the future. Little information can be worse than no information because little information creates speculation with the shakiest of support. If And Tango Makes Three was challenged fifty times and the only data given is the title, state, and email, then is it because people hate gay books, wanted it moved within an acceptable age range, or there is some bozo out there who hates penguins? From that limited data, any of those conclusions are valid.

Even then, there is some dissonance behind the rationale about how the raw data is obtained. If the database is confidential and intended only for staff use, then why not make more fields required to get a better information about the challenge? One could say that it creates a risk as the database could be subject to court orders, but to my thinking the larger benefits outweigh the small unknown risks.

Step three is how this data is collected and used.

There is also a matter of staffing and budget in regards to OIF as ALA has experienced budget crises over the last couple of years. There simply isn’t the manpower or the finances available to chase down all challenges to determine their particulars or outcome. It’s why projects like the Missouri FOIA group are important to supplement their data. But, as an ALA office, it’s ultimately the responsibility of the membership to prioritize its mission and provide it the support that it needs. But ALA internal politics are an entirely different manner.

With all of this in mind, it’s hard not to see how the database is not social science statistically valid. But it doesn’t pretend to be either as expressed in their statement. There are so many failure points along the way from the moment a challenge is mounted to the collection of challenge information that there is no way that the data would match the reality. Like many other societal issues, it is simply underreported phenomena. It’s the best that can be done with the tools available, the funds allocated, and the profession is willing to support and utilize. You can deconstruct that sentence any which way you want for it tells the underlying story about how many different ways reporting challenges is royally screwed.

I do agree with the sentiment expressed by Jessamyn in regards to how challenges are handled; the lumping of “I think this should be in Grade 5 rather than Grade 3” with “This book is the work of Satan and needs to be destroyed” is an awful simplification in an age where we have the tools to make the distinction. They really aren’t the same and this is a problem that needs to be addressed more aggressively.

I’ve written about Banned Books Weeks many times and it’s starting to feel like other librarian tropes. We can’t change it because (ahem) it’s tradition and it is the way we’ve always done it. Just gather the usual suspects, make a display, wrap it in POLICE LINE DO NOT CROSS tape, and take it down in a week. There feels like very little effort to educate the public other than “someone didn’t like this book because a character uses bad language in it”. And, honestly, if you think that peddling James Joyce’s Ulysses is going to move the needle on public perception of the importance of the freedom to read, you need to go lie down right now.

By my own admission, this whole OIF/538 mess really pissed me off last night. It’s such a giant quagmire with plenty of blame to go around. I blame the profession for not instilling a duty to report material challenges. I blame OIF for how they continue to go about acquiring and presenting the data that they collect. I blame ALA for lacking the funding priority to make the OIF have greater reach and depth for intellectual freedom issues. I blame librarians in general for putting up with any of these things as an acceptable status quo for an ideal that rests within our core principles.

It’s really a goddamn shame. We can and should do better. The cynical part of me doesn’t think we will because it sounds too much like cleaning up a gigantic mess. “And I didn’t go to graduate school to clean up these kinds of things.”

But I’m sure you wish you did when a material challenge lands on your desk.

1Since we are talking numbers here, I will concede that the respondents were self selected and it was not weighted, designed, or otherwise implemented to get a scientifically valid sample size. -AW

2015 NJLA Conference Recap

Once more, the NJLA conference has returned to the seaside town of Long Branch, a stone’s throw away from Springsteen’s fabled land of Asbury Park. There had been a short three year break when the conference was held on the now-closed Revel casino in Atlantic City, a juxtaposition of a city in economic decline hosting a profession fighting off the perception of obsolescence. This place is where I attended my first conference either six or seven years ago, so it feels good to be back.

While librarians make up the majority of those staying at the hotel this week, this place is also a vacation destination for Hasidic Jews. The lobby is a mix of cardigans and yarmulkes, men in large black hats passing by women in short colorful skirts and dresses, a cultural mixing of the religious demure with the professionally conservative. On the first night of the full conference, there could only be what I can imagine is Hasidic speed dating as young men and women chatted in pairs all over the lobby while sitting or walking an appropriate distance apart. It was a far cry from the not-completely- sober exuberance of previous night’s librarian fashion walk-off, featuring peers going  for the most “librariany” to full on costumes before retiring upstairs for room drinking and socializing. (We know how to have a good time here in NJ, a statement I will put up against any other state conference.)

I mention the other hotel guests here because it seems to me that we have a middle ground: we are both groups in the midst of a rapidly changing changing society. I won’t say that we are necessarily aligned in our desired outcomes (keeping the Hasidic traditions versus trying to meet the evolving needs of our patron base), but it’s hard for me not to see the similar struggles. How do we honor the values and traditions of the librarian profession, but meet the needs and expectations of the modern world? A simple question, yet a nebulous convoluted (and contextual) answer. And yet, here we are locked into this constant question.

I was a panelist for a session entitled “Conversation Starter: Professionalism on the Edge”. The room was packed, both a testament to the interest in the issue as well as how the smaller conference rooms couldn’t handle our overall numbers. Together with my fellow panelists, we tackled questions such as handling negative coworkers, “doing more with less”, dress codes, and posting on social media. The last two are the most notable to me because they got the most discussion. There is a delicate balance between formality and approachability, the use of dress codes as a mechanism of oppression for people of color or minorities, and “looking the part” to combat de-professionalism. (Very good question/statement from the audience: “What is women’s business casual? Because we don’t know what that means either.”) From my vantage point, it really depends on, well, everything: the community, your role at the library, what image you are trying to project, and figuring out the fine line between looking the part of an information authority expert and exhibiting your own personal flair. It raises an interesting question: at what point can your appearance be too intimidating for some people approach you but how much dressing down can you do before people stop taking you seriously?

The second and more contentious discussion revolved around posting complaints about patrons on social media. The short, immediate answer is simple: don’t. It is certainly the most HR friendly, the least problematic answer but to me it feels vastly incomplete. It feels like the abstinence education version of an answer: don’t do it because if you do you will get pregnant because condoms fail and you will ruin your lives forever guaranteed. It doesn’t accurately reflect the social reality that has been developing online in the last twenty years.

I can agree that no librarian should complain about a patron in a public forum (and certainly not using specifics such as names or places), but there are now many layers to the social media world. Secret Facebook groups, anonymous blogging sites such as Tumblr and LiveJournal, and other identity detached social media platforms exist where librarians can vent about patrons without having their names next to their posts. Yes, the ideal advice is to not do it, but the pragmatic advice is that if you do, be sure to bury it so deep that no one can find it or do it within a trusted group. Because, like it or not, the new reality of online socializing is here and in case you haven’t noticed, complaining is part of that social fabric. So take the steps necessary to protect your career and vent away if that’s what you need to do because bottling it up is not the path to happiness.

In his keynote, Jason Griffey delivered on what he promised early on in his talk: that everyone in attendance would leave mad about something. He spoke about library vendors (not getting products that actually meet our needs), library technology (unable to match user experiences in the rest of the world), and librarians themselves (not investing in the fields and technologies that are important to us). It was not a “rah rah library”, but a subtle and well meaning “you guys need to get your shit together” kick in the ass that should have left everyone unsettled in one way or another. Technology is transitional and temporary, but failing to provide for our patrons in their basic needs as well as evolving societal information expectations is a damaging stain on our purpose and character. Status quo should be replaced with status queued: taking the steps to meet the next change.

As always, some of the best times were in the spaces between: the conversations in the hallway, the meals shared with others, the small group of people sitting around the hotel room with a drink in hand carrying on about one thing or another. It’s been awhile since I’ve had a good conference, one in which I left feeling renewed in one shape or another. This was a good reminder about how a conference can work in rekindling the passion and rejuvenating the soul. It has done this for me as I stand on the eve of fatherhood and all the joys (and poop) that entails that next stage of life. Hopefully, perhaps, maybe, it will help with that transition as well.

I look forward to next year. In the meantime, keep climbing.

Community, Inclusiveness, and Offensive Materials

When you look at this image, what do you see?


This is the (current) official graphic for 2015 Banned Books Week. If the ALA Think Tank thread is any indication, there are many ways to interpret this image. The image is the unlikely love child between a book and Do Not Enter sign, punctuated with an unwieldy portmanteau that took me a couple attempts for my eyes to read through (or understandification). Some see a reference to a niqab, some find it personally offensive, some find it offensive on the behalf of others, and still others, well, don’t come to any of these conclusions. And I’m not going to share what I think about it and/or what should be done (or not done) about it because I feel there is something more fundamental being expressed here.

What I find most interesting and compelling about this image and the discussion around it is that it represents an example of one of the central paradoxes of the profession: offensive material and the community.

On the one hand, taking the position that this image is offensive and it would deter people from using the library, then it should not be used. Libraries strive to represent the entire community and anything that harms that mission should be avoided. This includes minority populations (eg. Muslims, Hispanics, gays) that otherwise may not have a voice or resource for their needs. What matters here is the outside perception of the image; since it is offensive (or the potential to offend), then it is not to the benefit of the library to use it. (Whether you purchase it is another question, but from my understanding the almighty dollar works wonders for modifying organizational behavior.)

On the other hand, the library is a refuge for materials that some people find offensive. It is a well storied and proclaimed history of how the library is a place for the inclusion of all ideas, including the vulgar, profane, and downright despicable. (Although, to be fair, this is a relatively new development in the history of the library of the last half century or so.) It is reinforced by the Library Bill of Rights, outlined in the first four statements. The Jo Godwin quote (“A truly great library contains something in it to offend everyone”) gets trotted out as a affirmation of the professional commitment to intellectual freedom and diversity of ideas. Under that reasoning, then the poster should stay.

Author’s note: On a third hand, if an individual doesn’t find the image to be offensive, then the question shifts to ‘what is it trying to convey?’ As noted elsewhere, the model is on the side with the words, even if a giant hole has been cut out of the middle. Saying that banning books is bad is a very uncontroversial statement because you’d be hard pressed to find someone to agree with; even the people presenting material challenges are doing it for what they see are noble reasons. Even as a librarian, I’m left thinking, “…so?” Also, based on some other products in the ALA store, this appears to be an image in which librarians are encouraged to put themselves behind the book so this model is just an stand-in.

I’ll concede that this poster is publicity material, not something that people would find in their collections. A library can have a perfectly successful Banned Books Week without it, so this isn’t a “do or die” situation for any institution.

But I have questions, ones to which I feel that astute people can give thoughtful answers to:

  • If you find this poster to be offensive, then should this preclude any Islamophobic materials from a library’s collection? What about other material that has offensive content about minority groups? What is collectable and what is contemptible?
  • If you find this poster not to be offensive, what is your plan for explaining it to a community member with a complaint? How will you  keep the poster and the patron, especially if they threaten take it to the library board/town council/local newspaper?
  • What is the tipping point between inclusiveness of community and inclusiveness of ideas? Which is more important: making sure that every person is represented (no matter who they are) or every idea is represented (no matter what it is)?
  • If ALA OIF were to take down the image from the ALA store, how would it damage their credibility when addressing censorship situations and issues? (That is, in acknowledging it as offensive and removing it, what maneuvering room would they (and by extension, ALA) be left with in telling communities not to filter computers or remove library materials because of offensive content?)

The closest thing I have to a conclusion is that I feel this is an effective illustration about the complexity of the issue of community, inclusiveness, and offensive material. As much as the profession tries to deny it, there is a choice that happens: people or ideas. Or, more precisely:

  • the larger the community, the greater pool of cultural and spiritual beliefs with notions of what is offensive; or
  • the widest ranging spectrum of ideas, the more likely to personally offend members of a community.

I don’t know if I can muster a answer other than “it depends”. The individual context of the library has a strong position in this dilemma, the deciding vote in coming to any decision. I’ll be pondering this for awhile.