There's been a lot of discussion, not just nationwide, but on the AL itself about the scrotum-biting dog book and related brouhaha, with tempers running high over "censorship" and intellectual freedom and the Left Behind books and other exciting stuff. One of my considerate critics even said I didn't understand this whole issue because I was a Yankee and based on my own admission wouldn't live in these small places where all the excitement is going on. To the person who called me a Yankee, I just want to say, you Southerners are so quaint!
I should say right out that I really don't care what kind of fiction, children's or otherwise, public libraries buy. I think most fiction, and for that matter non-fiction, is garbage anyway and not worth reading. I should also say that I don't really care what kind of fiction public libraries don't buy, and that's one issue here. From my jaded and snobbish perspective, I see two important issues--local control and "censorship." I put that work in scare quotes the same way the Banned Books folks would put "offensive" in scare quotes. I just checked and found that my local library system has ordered numerous copies of the book. And I don't care tuppence. And all the poor little children who want to read about scrotums can just ILL it from my system. I'll return my five copies once they're recalled.
I made fun of all the protesters because it always seems that people are protesting what some other people are doing in some other community, never their own. This is one problem with any ALA "censorship" protest. Okay, so some librarian doesn't want to buy a book because she thinks it's inappropriate for the local collection, which is there to serve a particular community. Why are we to believe that the "intellectual" "freedom" folks at ALA know more about what books are appropriate for a given community than the people who actually live there? I guess the people who believe this are also the ones who believe that some politician in Washington is better able to run their lives than they are themselves. If this was a protest from a local that the library wasn't buying a requested book, I'd feel differently about this. But it's not. The protests are, as far as I've seen, from people who are outraged that the library in a community they don't even live in isn't buying this book. I guess some people haven't heard of minding their own business and cultivating their own gardens.
The other issue is censorship versus selection. I find both it amusing and bizarre when anyone talks about censorship of books in this country considering that there seems to be no limit on what can get published and what "information" is available. When librarians started complaining about censorship and intellectual freedom decades ago, the situation was different, and I think librarians have played an important role in struggle for intellectual freedom. But things have changed, and the ALA still seems to think it's the 1940s and that there's a danger we won't have competing sources of information. With the relaxation of moral standards in the last 50 years and the increasing availability of sources of information on the Internet as well as in print, this argument isn't viable anymore. It just looks like some librarians are desperate to live in a repressive society so they can have something to protest.
Well, we don't live in a repressive society, and if you hate living around the conservative evangelicals in your tiny Southern town, then move to civilization. No, our society is far from repressive. Watch TV and movies, listen to music, surf the Web. How could a repressive society produce this stuff?
I also think the claim that one or a few or even many libraries not buying a book is the same as censorship, for whatever reason they choose. I guess my standards are repressive regimes that keep books from being published, imprison authors, burn books, etc. My opponents' standards are that some library in Bumflap, Oklahoma doesn't have the scrotum book, so our intellectual freedoms are challenged, as if there's anything intellectual about reading this children's book. Obviously different standards. When the government tries to censor information, then the ALA should jump all over it, but some library not buying a book is not censorship.
One reader responded to me on his own blog about this issue (and provided a helpful roundup of scrotum literature from Gelf Magazine for those interested in such things):
"True, not buying a book in libraries is not the same as government censorship, but I don't think the word is entirely inaccurate. A sense of the word still applies. There is probably almost nothing provided by libraries in our country that isn't available elsewhere for a price. We don't provide anything unique. What we do, however, is provide it for free. The idea is for libraries to be the great equalizer in a democratic society by providing information to all citizens without barriers. So, sure, anyone can still buy the book, and the cost of doing so may be a pittance. And it's hardly a source of significantly important information. But by choosing not to purchase this book, librarians are taking it out of the realm of freely accessible information. It may be a matter of principle as much as practical censorship, but it is a sort of marginalization of an information source."
I'm going to politely disagree with Degolar. We don't really provide things for free, for one thing. Somebody has to pay, and the people paying should get what they want. Isn't that what public libraries are for? To give the people what they want, not to give them what somebody in some other place wants. The strongest argument here is that "by choosing not to purchase this book, librarians are taking it out of the realm of freely accessible information." Is it really the case that these libraries both wouldn't order the book if requested by a local AND wouldn't allow interlibrary loan? Even if they wouldn't, it's still not censorship, but it would be irritating even for me. And if this book is removed from the domain of freely accessible information, so what?
My main quibble with this book is classifying it as a source of "information." Degolar himself notes that "it's hardly a source of significantly important information," and he goes a lot further than the ALA Banned Books folks seem to be able to do, but I would take that further. It's not a source of information at all in any important way that's worth defending. It's a children's story. The only "information" it provides is its own storyline and the cataloging information on the verso. This is another bone I have picked with the ALA--making everything into "information" is intellectually and morally sloppy and makes it impossible to rationally defend or criticize anything. If it's all just "information," then why do I need this particular book? Or why not get this book but not provide access to government information or useful reference sources or political books?
Not everything is "information," and if it is, then there is no argument that a library should get this book. In the intellectually sloppy and morally relativistic world inhabited by the Banned Books folks, they have no grounds whatever to argue that a particular book, or even a particular class of information, must be made available. "Information" is the great equalizer.
Why? Because of the obvious fact that libraries can't buy everything even if they wanted to, and they wouldn't want to even if they could. That's why we have selection. Even the Library of Congress or Harvard or the NYPL doesn't have everything. Since we can't buy everything, we have people to select what will bought based on local criteria--the local population, the student population, the curriculum. The only time selection metamorphoses into "censorship" is when somebody outside that local population doesn't like the way a library selects for its local population. The Banned Books folks with their sloppy word "information" deny that librarians engage in selection.
But I ask the intellectually and morally relativistic people who get so worked up over these books--what positive reason could you provide that this book should be purchased by any given library? You can't make an argument, because you've forsaken any intellectual standards of judgment when you collapsed everything into "information."