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.

5 thoughts on “Community, Inclusiveness, and Offensive Materials

  1. I think there’s a missing idea in here, which is representation.

    Should a library have a variety of potentially offensive materials in its collection? Darn tootin’. Should it pick one of them out to represent itself to the community? Well. As you note, that’s the sort of thing that is going to deter some members of the community from using the library. It’s the difference between having (say) the Turner Diaries in your collection, and anointing them for your One Book/One City project.

    This seems to me like a similar thing. It’s not just an item in the ALA store (and I’m sensitive to concerns about a banned books week item being banned) – it’s the single design being used iconically for a major event by the professional organization that represents an awful lot of librarians, and that represents libraries to the culture at large. If it were one item among many in the store, the collection metaphor would hold, but it’s not and it doesn’t. It’s making a statement about what patrons are welcome here and how libraries represent themselves, and how I as an ALA member am being represented. Whole other ball of wax.

    • I see your point in that.

      While the book like The Turner Diaries might not be named a One Book/One City, challenged/banned materials are highlighted for events like Banned Books Week. The Harry Potters, Fifty Shades of Gray, Lolita, and True Diary of Part Time Indian become representatives for principles like the freedom to read and information access. These books end up representing the collection as a whole; their inclusion signals the willingness to accept less than popular ideas. (Perhaps these books are on the tame side, but you get the gist.) This begs the question as to whether there would be unacceptable “poster children” for the Banned Books Week poster (works that people would object to as representing Banned Books Week), but I digress.

  2. The poster is rubbish, but censoring the banned books week poster because it is supposedly offensive would neuter the OIF and that’s too high a price to pay for poor graphic design. Frankly, I think you have to make an effort to read in the niqab/burqa that some people are seeing, although I also didn’t see the ‘no entry’ sign that the poster is more obviously based on. In any case, the fact that the model’s arms and cleavage are visible refutes the petition’s claim that this is an islamaphobic image of a women in traditional dress. I guess if they’d used a male model it would have been better.

  3. Pingback: The ALA Banned Books Poster Debacle | RadicaLibrarian

  4. I put my thoughts on this ‘controversy’ into a letter of support to the Banned Books Week committee:

    As a professional librarian and sometime ALA member, I would simply like to offer my voice of support in the current ‘controversy’ over the 2015 Banned Books Week ‘READSTRICTED’ poster.

    It is utterly clear that the poster depicts a ‘Restricted’ or ‘Do Not Enter’ street sign, and makes no reference to Islam, or to Muslim women’s dress.

    It is disappointing and absurd to think that fellow librarians are betraying the ideals of the profession by agitating to ban an item based on an imagined offense. The irony of their seeking to ban an item which in and of itself is speaking out against the banning of purportedly ‘offensive’ content is not lost…

    I just wanted to say that I am in support of the ALA’s ideals – including its ongoing efforts to support diversity in reading material and to make libraries welcoming spaces for all, where all dissenting voices can be heard.
    Stand strong, and don’t succumb to the voices of censors, no matter from which ‘side’ those ‘readstricting’ voices come!

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