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.