Banned Books Beast 2014

Once again, Banned Books Week is upon the library world and this year I find myself disappointed. This is my sixth annual entry on the event, the only consistent thing I’ve written about throughout my blogging years. I’ve been thinking about writing this blog entry for a week, a constant companion in my quiet moments traveling between home and work, doing chores around the apartment, and in that short span of consciousness laying in bed before sleep. Unlike other things that would have developed in blog posts in the past, this one pestered me to finally put fingers to the keyboard.

My disappointment with the event comes from the notion that is an excellent case study in how public librarians fail to articulate their values to the general public. Our ideals as related to this event revolve around intellectual freedom, personal liberty in reading materials, and the public library as a platform for individual expression and ideas. Our output is “I Read Banned Books” stickers and shirts, a collection of current and historically challenged/banned books on a shelf or table, and the liberal use of “CRIME SCENE DO NOT CROSS” police tape. In presenting Banned Books Week to the public, it misses the meaning in favor of the cheap shock and most superficial of library/patron interaction, materials with signage.

I can sense the itchy fingers that are waiting to spring into action once the indignant eyes race down to the bottom of this post so as to leave a comment as to how it might be true but not at their library. I know I’m being unfair to a good number of librarians who take the time and effort to provide more than what I have outlined above, but I would be willing to bet dollars to donuts that my examples are more of the norm. To those peers, I salute them for providing the context that makes the week more than a recitation of book names from a list.

In my reckoning, the materials are a vehicle to introduce and educate people about the librarian ideals on these important topics. To be honest, I don’t have anything specific in mind (as public libraries are inherently local so your best communication practices with the community may vary) but I would urge my fellow librarians to consider how these challenged materials are the beginning of a conversation with the community, not the sum total of the Banned Books Week event.

Another thing that stems out of my thoughts is how the collection development process remains an enigma to the general public. Here is a document (or policy or guidelines or whatever you want to call it) that outlines what the library will and will not consider for inclusion in the collection and yet it remains lost in the preening terminology of the library world. For all the time devoted to presenting the image of the library as welcome to all ideas and opinions, the reality is more pragmatic and nuanced so as to keep the library efficient, relevant, and functional.

A typical criticism of the public library during this time of year is that it won’t collect a certain type of book or topic. “How can they talk about banned books when they won’t carry X subject?” asks the commentator )where X is their pet subject and part of an agenda that they want to push). “That is so hypocritical!” they exclaim, faux shock coursing through their ham-fisted screed. (Some of this is done without an ounce of irony since they can’t get some book or subject removed from the library that they will try to put their propaganda next to it.) Then they pat themselves on the back as if they have discovered fire or antibiotics or solved a great mystery of our time.

What is lost in this thin skinned moral outrage is that there is difference between speech and collection material. The library should be welcoming of all kinds of speech and expression, no matter how odious or vile the librarians might find it. This support is paramount since it strikes at the heart of our support for intellectual freedom; if we are as enlightened as we pretend to be, we can welcome such opinions without accepting or endorsing them as our own. Our comfort with these individuals, groups, or organizations is secondary to the freedom that is being expressed for we cannot support one form of speech and disregard another. 

While freedom of speech should be near-universally supported within the library, the collection is a different matter. It is a finite resource in so many definitions of the term: physical space, limited budget, and usability/relevance. The “why doesn’t the library carry this subject that I care about?” tends to be a self-interested argument that doesn’t care for everything that is potentially behind it. It doesn’t care for the quality of the scholarship (if there is any) nor for the relevance in the broader collection nor any cost/benefit (read: usefulness) consideration. I want it, therefore the library should have it.

Collection development policies exist for a reason: to provide guidelines to staff as well as the general public as to what the library collects and why. It’s a tightrope act in which an individual can raise hell as to why X isn’t in the collection while another can wave around a book they found in stacks asking why their tax money was spent purchasing it. At my library, the policy outlines material that the library will not purchase such as college textbooks and technical scientific literature. Does that mean we hate higher education and professionals such as engineers, doctors, and psychiatrists? Not at all, but the time, space, and financial outlay to establishing and maintaining such collections doesn’t mesh well with our service to the public. There is a level of quality (albeit flexible) that material needs to meet for purchase. It’s part of our fiduciary duty to the library funders to make the best use of their money; it may not always sit well with them, but it is important to present this as our area of expertise with clear cut directives that explain and justify it.

(Note: I do want to mention access in passing because it’s a tough librarian issue. Our discretion in purchasing can make a difference when it comes to our community members and the materials they want. Access is vital in some communities, often the only way that people can reach out to the world via the internet or lack of other services. I don’t really want to go further on this avenue, but I did want to acknowledge it.) 

One final thought: the profession really needs to define the conversation about Banned Books Week instead of our critics. It’s not that books have not been banned by the government therefore this week is moot, it needs to be about infringement of the freedom to read at a local level. It’s not about the books themselves, it’s about the ideas and notions they represent. Too often we meet these arguments and fight them at their level; we are better than that and the ideals we represent are as well.

So, go on, celebrate Banned Books Week. But be ready to say why the week exists and continues to be important in the first place.