They're banning books in Brooklyn! ALA, take your stand!
Well, they're sort of banning books. Or so it seemed.
Roger Kimball has a post at Armavirumque (the blog of the New Criterion) about the Brooklyn Public Library refusing to purchase the book Londonistan at the request of a library patron. You'll have to read the post for the full context, but here's an excerpt:
"For those in doubt about how deeply ingrained the latter sentiment is in the institutional life of our culture, I offer the following communication from [the] Adult Selection Coordinator at Brooklyn Public Library in New York. A reader had asked that the Library purchase Londonistan. He received this reply:
Thank you for your question. Normally, the library doesn't add a nonfiction title to the collection (and especially one that is potentially incendiary) unless a review from a trusted source (professional journals) can be found. Unfortunately, we have not found such a review for Londonistan. Therefore, at this time, the library will not be adding Londonistan to the collection."
Kimball goes on to criticize the reasoning of the librarian and note some of the other questionable non-fiction titles in the collection (including a biography of Ron Jeremy, the porn star, which wasn't listed in either the Book Review Digest or the Book Review Index, by the way).
He probably already realizes this, but collection development librarians can always find an excuse to add or not add a book to the collection. This person's attempt to rely upon a library policy is standard practice. When in doubt, point to the collection development policy! Oh, and when there's something we want that doesn't fit our policy (like a juicy porn star bio that isn't reviewed anywhere), well, a little flexibility in the policy won't hurt anyone. It's not good to be too rigid about these things, now is it.
In this case, though, it's not even clear there is a policy. "Normally," the response says. Which means we'll do whatever we like and fall back on this excuse when we don't personally like the politics of the book.
Kimball points out that according to the library website, "'Contemporary materials representing various points of view . . . including materials that reflect current conditions, trends, and controversies' are among those that the Library seeks to acquire." Right. He doesn't believe it any more than I do. Despite the pledged neutrality of librarians, I know for a fact that political prejudices influence collection development decisions. I've seen it happen many times. And even among librarians who would never do it consciously, there's the problem of blindness. If I never bother to find out about the stuff, I don't have to buy it, right?
I love the parenthetical bit about reviews. They have to come from "professional journals." And what counts as a professional journal? Is it professional for librarians? For the book trade? But it's a book about Britain and about politics. What about a political journal? Or a British publication? But you see the review has to come from a "trusted source," and if you're a librarian who disagrees with the politics of a book then of course you wouldn't trust a review from, say, Commentary or the New Statesman, periodicals that actually reviewed the book. But (gasp!) those are conservative publications! How could we trust them? We trust only completely mainstream and absolutely neutral library publications, and we know these "professional library journals" accurately reflect the world of books. So there!
Are we to believe that unless a book is reviewed in a professional library journal, they will never purchase it? No, that can't be it. They "normally" won't purchase it. You know, unless they really want to. Because apparently at the Brooklyn Public Library, actual requests from the public aren't really that important. I guess in Brooklyn their thinking is, I'm going to give the public what I think they should want. And if they're not happy? So what. I've already got their tax money, and they can't get it back.
Certainly many librarians don't care about offending people with their book choices. Look at the brouhaha over that children's book showing what a swell guy Castro is. And they definitely don't mind offending conservatives. That's their raison d'etre. But a group they really don't want to offend is murdurous Muslims, you know, the kind of Muslims who find people criticizing their religion and then do things like walk into crowded public buildings and blow themselves up.
Maybe, just maybe, that's the reason Brooklyn Public didn't want to buy the book. Maybe the librarian meant "potentially incendiary" literally. With the murderous Muslims he might be right. Maybe instead of being an instance of letting their political ideology influence collection decisions as Kimball suggests, they let their fear of being blown up do it.
It turns out that Brooklyn Public did order this book a couple of days before Kimball's post, so the book is not, according to the standard ALA definition, banned. (I think the standard definition of a banned book is a book someone somewhere in some library refuses to buy or weeds from the shelf.) Still, the initial response from the Brooklyn Public Library is odd and inappropriate. Even if they then decided to purchase the book, why that weaselly response from the collections librarian? It was pretty transparent that he was trying hard to find an excuse not to purchase a book that had been specifically requested by a patron. So much for every reader his (or her) book.