Friday, October 1, 2010

Banned Books Week: Censorship in the Real World

I think it's really difficult to make a pro-censorship argument generally without sounding like a crank or an out-of-touch extremist; I read this article earlier this week, by a woman who seems to feel entitled to tell her whole town what to read based on her own personal preferences, and I think her argument is pretty typical of what the pro-censorship camp has to offer- if I don't like it, no one should read it. Well, no- you have the right to decide for you and for your children, but living in a free society means don't make decisions for me.


Censorship can take lots of different forms, some blatant, like the kinds of challenges that make the headlines, and some subtle- little things that go on behind the scenes all the time. When I ran a library, my responsibilities included everything, including selecting books. Like many librarians, I relied on my own judgement coupled with guidance from professional review journals. No library has the staff or the money or the space to buy every book, even in a specialty like mine, so we all make choices. Do those choices constitute a form of censorship?

My old library supported the Hebrew school program of a liberal reform synagogue. Jewish kids' books run the gamut from depictions of secular through Orthodox families, and everything in between. When I chose books for the library, I would read the review journals (really one in particular that specializes in Judaica), order the books I was interested in from my local library's ILL system, read them, and decide what to buy. Following this procedure gave me confidence that I could stand behind my choices. Not all synagogues are the same, and not all books are suitable for every type of synagogue. I would sometimes decline to buy a book because it portrayed a version of Jewish observance that I felt was inappropriate for my organization, often books that portrayed gender roles or religious services in a way that wasn't in keeping with the community that I served. Some books offered a nonfiction treatment of a subject not in keeping with the mainstream viewpoint of my professional organization on that subject. In cases like that I would bend to the source I felt had greater authority and wouldn't buy the book in question. Is that censorship?

A year or so ago a Boston area Catholic school removed copies of Harry Potter from its library, saying that stories about witchcraft were inconsistent with Catholic teaching. Is that censorship or is it the right of a private institution to decide what books best support its aims? I'm on the Catholic school's side here; it's hard for me to see how Harry Potter supports a Catholic education, or why it would need to be included in a specialized religious collection when it's widely available in public libraries (and bookstores) everywhere else. What do you think?

A children's picture book came out a couple of years ago purporting to be a (very moving) nonfiction account of a Holocaust survivor's time in a concentration camp that later proved to be a fraud, albeit one authored by a real Holocaust survivor. It's just that the particular story this individual told was fake. One librarian suggested removing it from the collection amounted to censorship. Is it? Or is it possible for the spectre of censorship to be used as a bully tactic the same way censorship itself can be used as one? Is there ever a good reason to remove a book?

(For the record, I took the book in question out of my library immediately.)

At a different library, a different kind of question came up. I used to volunteer at a small alternative library housing a collection of small-press publications, many written by people known to the community. There was gossip about the relationships one particular, prolific author had with others in this community, and a library leader suggested removing his books because even seeing them on the shelves would be enough to upset some visitors to the library. Someone else suggested putting stickers on his books to the effect of telling readers that he was a dangerous individual. Is that censorship?

For me, that incident came the closest to being unacceptable manipulation of a collection to suit a personal agenda. Libraries have things that upset lots of people, for lots of reasons, but because something upsets one person doesn't justify blocking access for everyone. And removing a book because you don't like the author personally is the height of unprofessionalism.

The closest I've ever come to passing on a book because of a personal objection came in my old synagogue library, when I found a self-published book in a donation pile covering a sensitive political issue in a way I found flatly laughable. I chuckled over the premise and decided to take it home to read thinking it would be funny. After reading it, I decided that, unintentional humor aside, the book was just of such poor quality overall that it didn't merit inclusion in the collection. It just wasn't something I'd want to stand behind, and I did have to want to stand behind the books I put in the shelves- I was putting them there, and if someone had a problem, I had to answer for it. So I passed. One of my friends told me this was censorship. Was it?

Librarians work very hard to make the best choices for their patrons, and those choices are hard sometimes. But they are an incredibly dedicated, thoughtful group of professionals who really want to put access and freedom first. Public libraries have an even greater challenge than specialized institutions in that they have to provide a broader selection to a broader audience and thus are faced with more possible conflicts and challenges. Sooner or later something in the library is bound to upset somebody. We have to think bigger than the individual and that doesn't always mean coming down on the side of including a given book. There are times when these decisions are justified and routine, and there are times when it's not so clear cut or simple. All we can do is use our best judgement and do the best we can.


Amy said...

Great post, Marie! I like what you say about how the cry of "censorship" can be a bullying tactic.

regarding the Catholic school and Harry Potter, I would question why they originally thought the books DID belong there and then chose to remove them. I'd also point out the books are rich with Christian symbolism, metaphorical, and allegorical meaning so a case could be made for them depending on what other fiction was included. (calling them stories of witchcraft SEEMS to be a very superficial reading to me if they were read at all)

Connolly-Ahern (Col Reads) said...

Thanks for the thoughtful post. Librarians have such a tough job -- since money is not unlimited, every book cannot be included in a collection. But choosing not to include a book can easily be viewed as censorship, and in some cases it may be.

I would actually support the Catholic school in the HP case. Not because I think the books pose any threat to a child's Catholic formation, but because as a private institution they have a right to decide what moves their agenda forward. That support has a caveat, though: it was Boston. The children have a rich public library system to draw on, and could therefore gain free access to the books, as long as their parents approved. Without that, I would find the case more troubling.

Nana Fredua-Agyeman said...

The thing about censorship is that we all do it in our own ways. There are books we wouldn't want our children to read. There are books we wouldn't want to read ourselves and so wouldn't be put on our book shelves. what do you do to a book that denigrate a group of people to the extent that it could possibly inflame passions and lead to civil unrest? Like the journalist whose words sparked the genocide in Rwanda. Had he written his thoughts in books, would we have had the book banned? Should such a book be banned? We cannot ban a book because it treats something like say homosexuality, though I wouldn't keep such a book on my shelves. Yet, shouldn't we ban a book that is highly likely to cause wars?

Zibilee said...

I think you pose some really interesting questions. I am not sure if I would equate being selective in your capacity at the library as censoring, but I do see that some would see it that way. The way I see it, it's really a matter of relevance. Like you mention, there is not room for every book, and sometimes decisions have to be made. I think it's how and why these decisions are made that could bring up concerns of censorship to some.

Very interesting post, Marie! Very thought provoking!

bermudaonion said...

Very thought provoking post. I was thinking the same thing as Amy when I read the part about the Harry Potter post - why were they in the collection to start with?

Suzanne said...

Wonderful post! Librarians really do have a tough job, and it really takes caring individuals to do all the work that goes with choosing the books that go on the shelves. And I think that making those choices doesn't necessarily mean "censoring". There is a difference between making decisions based on what is appropriate to a particular library and blatant banning. The Catholic school is a good example. I think that their thought that the Harry Potter books did not support their teachings would be an acceptable reason. Like Amy though, I would wonder why they thought they were acceptable in the first place.

Melissa said...

Excellent post! I agree with some posters - that the Catholic school probably didn't need the HPs in the first place, but once they had them, removing the books does seem very silly particularly given the underlying message of the series. The "witchcraft" is just a screen.

Private schools, etc., have a far different reason for existing than public, so they can have restrictions on their collections since they don't serve the general public (although I still think restrictions are silly, but that just me).

caite said...

good post.
see, not to repeat my rants that I have written elsewhere, but it touches on my whose issue with this "banned book" week. If I can go to a bookstore or online and buy a book, it is NOT banned.
There are countries that truly ban books, forbid their publication, forbid their sale, punish you for owning it...that is a banned book. and that is not tyhe situation in the US.
The fact that some public library decides a book, for any number of reasons, is not one they are going to buy with always limited funds does not mean it is banned..or censored.

Care said...

A thought-provoking post. Thankyou.

Stephanie aka The Stark Raving Bibliophile said...

I enjoyed your thoughtful, nuanced discussion of a topic that is often discussed in oversimplified, black and white terms. It's true that every librarian, teacher, or parent has to make value judgments about books when making choices. Where is the line between discernment and censorship? It's a tricky question.

Marie said...

Amy and Kathy, the book was probably added because someone agreed with your interpretation of the Christian symbolism or maybe because someone thought it was trendy. Librarians re-evaluate and re-visit their choices all the time, and they frequently disagree about the suitability of books. I weeded things that my predecessor put in the library I ran, and I even weeded things I added if I changed my mind about them, maybe after a storytime went badly or I just re-read the book and decided it wasn't a good fit after all. It's a fairly normal thing to do and it almost never makes waves.

Marie said...

Nana, it's a really difficult thing. Freedom means freedom. MEIN KAMPF is challenged regularly but almost never actually removed, because at the end of the day it's not the book's fault that the Holocaust happened, or that anti-Semitism happened, and it's probably not the Rwandan book's fault that the genocide happened, either- it's the fault of the perpetrators and the politicians that instigated and inflamed the people who carried it out. I don't believe in banning inflammatory works- I believe in reading them and having the opportunity to use them to educate people about why it's wrong or finding the lessons we can take from them. But the fact remains they cause people pain and that's hard to defend sometimes.

Marie said...

Caite, yes, you're right, and there have been times when material has actually been banned in this country or in particular states or cities. And it still happens sometimes, and can happen at any time.

Audra said...

Wonderfully thoughtful post. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and experiences. You've made some tough calls!