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

Banned Books Have Now Jumped the Shark

Get those strongly worded emails and letters at the ready, fellow intellectual freedom warriors. It’s time once again to clamor into the pulp trenches and do battle with the forces of “this book makes me uncomfortable so no one should read it” evil. Why is this book being banned by these booksellers? Well, it’s not because it has gay penguins, naughty words, bashes Christianity, or is (my favorite descriptor) “pervasively vulgar”. I’ll let the BitTorrent blog brief us as to this new and urgent freedom of expression crisis. 

On November 20th, Tim will release The 4-Hour Chef. It’s choose-your-own-adventure guide to rapid learning. It’s a cookbook for people who don’t read cookbooks (which means: we’d read it). And, it’s poised to be the most banned book in US history. The 4-Hour Chef is one of the first titles underneath Amazon’s new publishing imprint; boycotted by U.S. booksellers, including Barnes & Noble.

[Bold emphasis mine.]

That’s right. Our new Earth Overlord Amazon is the publisher, so bookstores (including the last of the mighty bookstore chains, Barnes & Noble) aren’t going to carry it in their real life stores. It’s not that you can’t still buy it through these retailers. You can still order the book through the Barnes & Noble store and website as well as possibly through other booksellers, according to Laura Owen. But because it’s not on the physical shelf, that’s what makes this a ‘book banning’.

In one broad stroke, the concept of ‘banned books’ is now applied to any situation where a bookseller won’t carry a title not because it is rude, crude, and/or socially unacceptable in the eyes of some (otherwise considered a matter of content), but because it is made by a competitor. It’s under this kind of topsy-turvy logic that would also conclude that Burger King’s Whopper is banned from McDonald’s even though both businesses make hamburgers. In turn, one could make the argument that a library is ‘banning’ a book because it declines to purchase it or weeds it from the collection. So, anytime a book could be available but it’s not, that’s a book banning.

When called out on it in Laura Owen’s PaidContent article “Hey Tim Ferriss: Book Banning isn’t a Marketing Gimmick”, Ferriss wrote an email response: 

I view things through a different lens. I think the implications of this boycott or ban — choose the word you prefer — are larger then people realize. If this book fails due to a retail stonewall, I can tell you for a fact that more than a dozen A-list authors I know will hit pause on plans for publishing innovation for the next few years. Is The 4-Hour Chef the same as Huckleberry Finn?  Of course not, and I never implied that it was. But do I view stifling innovation and free speech (through distribution of otherwise) as a malevolent thing? Yes. Regardless of the motive (moral, economic, etc.), the outcome is the same: regress instead of progress. And regress snowballs quickly. At the end of the day, I want people to think about boycotting and banning, both historically and moving forward. The fact that you wrote a piece about precisely that — raising awareness and stimulating conversation — is a great thing. That public discourse is one of my goals. Last, I’d be remiss not to point out: booksellers use banned books as a marketing gimmick every year as a matter of course. Yes, I’m using the media to highlight what I view as a serious fork in the road for content creators. But if anyone is guilty of using “banned books” as a gimmick, it’s booksellers themselves.

I can’t imagine how innovative or disruptive this book claims to be if it can be brought down simply by not stocking it on a physical shelf. If these other A-list authors are going to “hit pause” on publishing innovation because they can’t get into brick-and-mortar stores, I’m guessing their innovation isn’t that great after all. If it was anything groundbreaking these days, it shouldn’t be brought down by one of the oldest fundamentals of the book market: shelf space.

Sure, the whole ‘banned ‘books’ angle may be used as a marketing gimmick for bookstores and libraries. But within this usage is a kernel of truth; the books being displayed have been challenged, banned, and in some cases, outlawed. This doesn’t apply here. It’s simply insulting to the memory and legacy of authors and writers in the past who faced persecution and ostracism for their work, the people who are currently sitting in prisons and detention centers around the world for their writing, and those struggling to have their voices heard in their oppressive native country, culture, or society. If a company doesn’t want to sell your book, then cry me a river. The sympathy train doesn’t stop at this station when there are other more pressing intellectual freedom matters in the world.

“Well,” you might think, “don’t librarians do the same thing when it comes to book bans at libraries? Don’t they discount the counterargument that the book is available through other means? How is this different than if An Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian is removed from school shelves but still available in local stores?” To that point, I draw this distinction. The Huckleberry Finns, the Harry Potters, and To Kill a Mockingbirds of the world are being challenged on their content. They have words, themes, and ideas that make people uncomfortable to the point that they want to take action and prevent other people from reading the book.

That is a far cry from the situation with The 4-Hour Chef. No one is raising this book at a press conference or school board meeting and declaring it as smut, obscenity, or pornography. There is no one challenging the content of this book. The refusal to carry the book is a business decision based on the book’s publisher. These two concepts are not interchangeable.

This is where the term ‘banned books’ jumps the shark. When an author feels like he has been victimized by industry forces and proclaims that his book has been ‘banned’, then that makes it just a tiny bit harder for people fighting real intellectual freedom battles to bring light and attention to this important issue. We all become book banners and content no longer matters. When the definition expands to every situation, then no circumstance is stands out from the other.

(h/t: LISNews)

Fifty Shades of Unsurprised

I was waiting for it to happen ever since it entered the pop culture mainstream and so it has finally come to pass:

Florida Library Removes ‘Fifty Shades of Grey,’ Erotic Trilogy, From Shelves

The Brevard County Public Library system in east central Florida has pulled copies of the books from its shelves after officials decided they were not suitable for public circulation.

“We view this as pornographic material,” Don Walker, a spokesman for the Brevard County government, said in an interview on Friday. “I have not read ‘Fifty Shades of Grey,’ but I’ve read reviews of ‘Fifty Shades of Grey.’ From what I understand, it’s a lot about male dominance and female submissiveness.”

Brevard public libraries ban bestselling book over sexually explicit content

The Brevard County Library director decided to take it off the shelves of the county’s 19 library branches.

They originally had bought 17 copies of the trilogy.

But after ready reviews, they decided the book didn’t belong in their collection.

“Well the criteria is we don’t put pornography on our bookshelves and that’s in general right now what the tone of this book is,” said Brevard Co. Government Communications Director Don Walker. “I mean if you read any of the reviews, they’re saying that it’s a book that’s based largely on male dominance, female submissiveness, soft porn. I’ve heard it described as mommy porn.”

Fond du Lac Public Library says ‘no’ to controversial bestseller

The best-selling book “Fifty Shades of Grey” will not be found on the shelves at Fond du Lac Public Library.

Library Director Ken Hall said there were no plans to purchase the controversial book, which delves into romance and sadomasochism.

“‘We don’t collect erotica’,” Hall said he was told by the person who orders books for the library — and he supports the decision.

Fond du Lac Library Declines to Buy Controversial Bestseller

Public Library officials are explaining their decision not to purchase a popular, yet controversial, romance novel. ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ is a New York Times best selling book and will soon become a major motion picture.

The novel also contains a lot of sex. One book reviewer even dubbed it “mommy porn.”

“We have to take a look at the work as a whole,” FDL Public Library Director Ken Hall said. “What is in the book other than salacious material? So far, we haven’t found anything in it(other than salacious material).”

Based on anecdotes I’ve heard from librarians over the last couple of years, this whole situation sounds like a replay of the Madonna “Sex” book controversy from the 1990’s. Some libraries won’t order it, some will find the book being challenged (both successfully and unsuccessfully), some libraries circulate it and then realize what they’ve done and pull it (opening themselves up to another kind of controversy), and the rest libraries will just treat it like any other material. Over the next year or so, there will be a steady output of librarian based intellectual freedom naval gazing in which the objective and theoretical principles of collection development will square off against the on-the-ground reality of local collection policies and community needs. The tension between the two viewpoints will rise but not resolve itself.

Lather, rinse, and repeat as each successive book comes out in this trilogy. We’re in for a couple of iterations of this issue.

Personally, this sort of controversy brings up the question, “How is this book different than anything else in your average romance section?” Apparently, based on quote above from FDL Director Ken Hall, the difference between Fifty Shades and those other romance books is that the latter actually have something called a plot.  So long as Jane is trying to find her place in publishing world or Bob is trying to overcome the death of his wife, they can get all the nookie they want. But if I was to cut out all of the plot elements and just palce the erotic scenes run back to back, it would be potentially unacceptable for inclusion. I’m glad to know there is such a fine distinction between romance and smut.

In any case, I feel that Banned Books week should be paired with “National Update Your Collection and Challenge Material Policies Because You Probably Need To (No, Seriously, Do It)” week. While Fond du Lac can point to a policy in place, Brevard just looks incompetent by adding the book to the collection and then unilaterally removing it based on reviews (the same reviews available to anyone with an internet connection). I have a feeling that there is more to the Brevard decision since the quotes from officials down there don’t pass the smell test for me, but that’s something for time to tell.

My prediction is that, in ten years time, this will be another fabulous footnote in some library science textbook on intellectual freedom. What do you think?

UPDATE: The lovely and awesome people of Twitter have pointed out a post on Heroes and Heartbreakers linking to a search of the Brevard County Libraries catalog showing books that are erotically on par or even more explicit than Fifty Shades of Grey. In responding to my post on Twitter,  Robin Bradford and glossaria note that library carries authors such as Zane (specifically The Sisters of APF: “the indoctrination of soro ride dick”), Lora Leigh (“known (specifically) for her hot anal sex scenes”), Anne Rice/Roqualaure (Sleeping Beauty trilogy), Anais Nin (including Delta of Venus), and Joey Hill. This does beg the question as to whether this removal is more about this particular book than erotic literature collection in general.

(h/t to Robin and glossaria for sharing their expertise!)

UPDATE: Sarah Mae Harper shared a link to this story on the Brevard Library System book removal. Pull quote:

While the naughty novel doesn’t check out with local library officials, a quick look at the Brevard system’s online catalogue reveals a solid stash of some of the most erotic and enduring literature.

Copies of “The Complete Kama Sutra” are available through the Cocoa Beach, Mims/Scottsmoor, Palm Bay and Titusville branches. Also up for grabs countywide: “Fanny Hill,” “Lady Chatterley’s Lover,” “Fear of Flying,” “Tropic of Cancer” and “Lolita.”

So what makes “Fifty Shades of Grey” different?

“I think because those other books were written years ago and became classics because of the quality of the writing,” Schweinsberg said. “This is not a classic.”

(Thanks Sarah!)

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.)