Thursday, February 22, 2007

Local Libraries, "Censorship," and "Information"

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."


tanner said...

AL, I don't agree with everything you say, but I've been reading your blog for a while now and I've come to respect you. Not only that, I LIKE you... I really like you. We'd probably get along really well drinking martinis at ALA and grumbling about the shoddy standards in academic libraries today...

Anonymous said...

AL, my calling you a yankee was fully tongue-in-cheek. I guess that doesn't go over well electronically.

I just take issue with the idea of pick and choose outrage over victim silliness. The same folks who think parents are completely right to object to a bit of nuaghtiness in YA books call folks angry about prayer in school and creationism "over-reactors" or "intolerant of other views". I think a strong argument could be made that protecting kids from religious brainwashing might be as good for society as stopping them from viewing dirty pictures. I think nay agree with this statement if we were talking about the Middle East.

The most common complaint I have heard in the newspaper about the ACLU vs. County COuncil flap is that the ACLU is taking away Christian freedom. This is just as silly as the aggrieved intellectual freedom fighter's siimilar complaint about a book removed from the library. You rightly point out that the book is available elsewhere unhindered. The ACLU is arguing the same logic - that the government doesn't have the responsibility to foster religious belief - it is available in private spheres.

AL said...

Thanks for the compliment, tanner, I'd be happy to drink martinis with you at ALA, but I'd prefer not to talk about libraries! I'll drink with anyone friendly, whether I disagree with them or not. I like amiable discussion, not making enemies, though I suppose I've made a few.

And anon, I was teasing a bit about the Yankee comment. I thought it was kind of funny, which is why I alluded to it.

I'm not sure we disagree at all about the victim culture and I might very well agree about that ACLU thing, but I'd have to know more about it. I'm always suspicious when any group in America claims its freedoms are being violated, because I look around and see a very open society. I think some groups feel unrespected, which may very well be true and which might lead them to be defensive, but that's different from not having freedom. And if that's the ACLU argument--that the govt doesn't have the responsibility to foster religious belief--then I'd agree. My only caveat is that I've long thought that the first amendment establishment clause upon which many of these legal cases are based has nothing to do with whether some local government group has a prayer. It's as much a stretch to say that a county council having a prayer is equivalent to establishing a church as it is to say one library not buying a book is the same as censorship.

I also think there is some social utility to religion, even for non-religious people, but that's an argument for tolerance of lots of religions within a liberal democratic framework, not for government support.

And I'm in favor of the separation of church and state, I just don't see how the establishment clause applies to the states.

Privateer6 said...

First off you are right on the money on your post. Selection and censorship are two totally separate things.

Second, in reference to establishment clause question in your comments post, if you review history, several states, mostly in New England, HAD established religious denomintaions that received support from state taxes. AND if you further review that era, you will discover that the individual states KEPT supporting these religious denominations because it did NOT violate the Constitution which prohibited the establishment of a NATIONAL religion. It was a period of up 50+ years before indivuals states stopped supporting religious denominations, with Massachutettes being the last state to stop the practice. And it wasn't because it violated the Constitution, it was because other denominations wanted their share of the tax money.

Degolar said...

I just read this and haven't had a chance to reflect or carefully construct a rebuttal or anything, AI, but I'll mention a few random things that spring to mind immediately. (And I haven't had a chance to read the actual book in question, so these are all discussions in the larger, theoretical sense.)

Information is more than simply raw data and lists of facts. To claim that fiction serves no informational purposes seems to display a real lack of understanding of literature, narrative, and the power of story. In oral traditions, for instance, almost all information was/is stored in narrative form. But even in print and digital cultures facts in nonfiction books are still often presented through a narrative structure and stories with fictional characters and situations can contain vasts amounts of useful information. Historical fiction would be an obvious example, but is hardly unique. Here is another example of information contained in a children's book, which springs to mind because friends and I were recently discussing it.

It seems like we both might have flip-flopped a little bit since the last time you referenced me. In that conversation you said:

That is an interesting question of whether we should give people what they want or what we think they should have, and it's all tied into the purpose of the public library. If the library's mission is educational, then it doesn't necessarily matter what people want. If I was teaching a class, and a student said, "I'm paying for this class, now give me what I want," I would reply that what the student was paying for is the expertise to decide on appropriate education. It comes back to another question of whether library users are clients who come to the library for identifiable library purposes, or whether they are customers that libraries should adapt to no matter what. There's no clear answer, but to say there must be balance seems to lean toward the customer model, in which case libraries have no purpose other than trying to please everyone, even if it means just entertaining them. Is there anything a library theoretically wouldn't do to get people through the door? Perhaps it's better to approach this question from the other side.

While we were debating the shades of gray in the middle instead of the extreme positions, I walked away from that feeling like I was endorsing public libraries as ultimately owned and controlled by their communities and should reflect their community's interests and values while you felt the communities should trust our professional judgment to educate and broaden their minds instead of simply pandering to their every whim. This time you are saying that communities should have local control, while I have to confess that my ultimate reason for sounding out is a personal value that the word scrotum should not be considered offensive and a desire to educate the public that the book shouldn't be judged based on a single word (if you didn't see Julius Lester's thoughts, I really like what he has to say).

And sorry for being such an irritant, but I'm enjoying the discussions.

AL said...

It's certainly not irritating. If I didn't find the debate engaging, I wouldn't respond. I think you bring good perspectives to the issues, which is why I mention your blog in particular.

My comment on this not being information in any important sense should be made clearer. You're right about that. If a library's mission is to support intellectual freedom and access to information, the question is why. Is it so that every child can read every children's book? Or is it to have literate and informed citizens in a liberal democracy? I'd say the latter, and the the former is only moderately important. As a citizen, I don't have any interest in making sure every book is available freely for everyone, but I do have an interest in making available "information" that is both necessary for citizens to be informed and useful for citizens to develop themselves into worthwhile humans. Children's books fall into this latter category, I suppose, but any given children's book wouldn't. And I don't see how anyone could argue FOR buying this particular book based on the argument that the library should provide access to information. What's so important about this book that it's necessary for libraries to own? As I've said, I don't care what libraries buy this book, but I also don't care what libraries don't buy this book.

You're right that earlier we were debating shades of gray, and I think your characterization of our earlier debate is accurate. My criticism of public libraries possibly isn't coherent. I'm not a public librarian and don't think much about them. But I find it strange that the public rhetoric about the importance of public libraries and the role they serve (and I don't disagree that they're important and useful) is put by the ALA in terms of the promotion of intellectual freedom and the grand educational role public libraries play, and yet what actually happens in public libraries seems to be that they'll do whatever they can to draw people in the door.

I think there's a contradiction between the educational justification of public libraries and the entertainment justification of public libraries. I know you and probably most librarians disagree with me on this. But what I would like to see is libraries trying to justify what they can do well and what they should be doing for society (primarily an educational function) rather than try to justify themselves by trying to become a catchall entertainment center in order to please everyone they can. It's BECAUSE I see public libraries as important that it disturbs me when they promote themselves as a free version of Blockbuster. And it also annoys me because I have absolutely no interest as a citizen in paying taxes so that people can watch free videos and play free video games. If that's what my public library primarily provides, then I have no interest in supporting it.

But I don't see how community control and education are necessarily contradictory. Communities have some control over public schools, for example. What is contradictory are the arguments that libraries should provide what the public wants and that libraries should provide what the ALA prizegivers want.

Lummox said...

I have a small issue with some of the statements made in this post. I am a regular reader and freind of Degolar's, so I may have a personal stake in this, but basically my issues are on some of the tings stated about the public library system:

"We don't really provide things for free, for one thing. Somebody has to pay, and the people paying should get what they want."

You stated that the information and the selections available are not free, they are paid for by taxes from the community. I partly agree, but only to a point. A person will pay for, maybe, up to about the price of 4-5 books a person (if that). So anything after those books are basically free, and as a patron, I take out about 15-20 books, CD's, movies, etc. a year (at the least). Also, what about the groups that are tax exempt? I'm sure that church groups or what have you that use the library consider it a free endevor. Heck, most of the time I am in the library, i'm not thinking about how much of my tax money has gone to this branch or that branch. Basically I am just astounded that there isn't more of a selection.
As for the libraries choosing the most popular books because it is what the community wants, I think if that were the case, we would all be reading Harpo's Book Club books and the New York Times best sellers, and not books from authors like Douglas Adams, Mercedes Lackey, or a myriad of other authors who do great works, but are never on any "top ten" list because the critics panned it. The library doesn't just pick the most popular books, they pick books that have meaning. Granted majority of them are by popular demand, but a lot of the books are just good reading that people want. The public is requesting reprints of Catcher in the Rhye, or To Kill a Mocking Bird, but the library reorders them when they get too ragged to shelve, and why? Because they are still good reading. They have a message. They have heart.

So maybe not ordering the "Scrotum Story Times" books because the community may not be comfortable isn't technically censorship, but choosing not to buy a book for the public based on a word, is.

I agree with both you and Degolar on a lot of points, and I disagree with the both of you on just as many. But that is the great thing about this country. I can do that. AND I can tell you about it too.

Maybe I'll write a book on it entitled SCROTUM, freedom to disagree. Think anyone will buy it for the library?

Degolar said...

There may sometimes be tension between the two goals/justifications and it's necessary to be clear about which one has priority in those cases (education), but I don't find them contradictory. It's possible to do both. The video games and blogs and coffee may get all of the press because they are new and push the boundaries of tradition, but we still spend much more of our time on storytimes and literacy programs for little ones, homework help and tours for the school-aged, and book discussion groups and informational programs for adults. Even though there is no way to justify them based on usage statistics, we spend thousands on databases and online information sources on top of our nonfiction collection, something for which there's no counterpart for the fiction and entertainment collections. We still have the educational functions at our core, just feel like we are able to offer some extras on top of that. I don't see anything wrong with wanting to serve both educational and recreational needs. Especially in light of the fact that there's a lot of crossover--reading for pleasure still helps kids improve their literacy, many patron's educational needs are actually hobbies (e.g. how to make the perfect martini), etc.

So if you feel libraries really have no business "entertaining," do you feel there is any justification for libraries to have fiction books? Because I think the justification has to be applied to all formats consistently--books for both reading and recreation means the same for magazines, music, videos, DVDs, computers, etc. Is your ideal/ultimate library one without fiction?

One other function our library system has seen as increasingly essential is our role as a community gathering place. One of the books our director references is "Bowling Alone," which talks about the growing trend toward social isolation in our society. We see the library as one of the solutions to that problem, and it appears the community does as well. Our facilities can no longer keep up with the growing demand for meeting and study rooms, for instance. I'd also make a connection to the immense popularity of social networking, that people are yearning for ways to connect and the Internet is providing a forum for that. You'll see my and many other library systems at the forefront of that effort as well. Going back to the video game issue--teens are most likely to get in trouble between the hours of 3:00 and 6:00, the "latchkey" hours. A prime reason is they are bored and restless and often have nowhere to go. If we can attract them to the library through craft programs or video games, we are helping them stay out of trouble. If they end up feeling comfortable enough to build a relationship with the librarians, then they might come to trust us enough to use the library for their other needs and we are back serving an educational function. That's the theory/justification anyway. But the point is that it's not just a question of educational vs. recreational justifications, there are others like the social one, and they aren't necessarily contradictory or exclusive.

Degolar said...

Oh, and thank you for the compliment. I feel likewise.

Norma said...

And it isn't as local as it looks. When our town "locals" objected to certain material to the board, outside locals showed up because the library receives state and federal funding and therefore, other locals, not our locals, carried the day.

Alexandra said...

It's always bad news when the ACLU gets involved, IMO. My objection to this whole whole piece of censorship was the sheer sillyness of the thing. It's just a body part, and it's not a rude name for said body part, either. And it's on a dog! Some people just need to lighten up.

Anonymous said...

2 1/2 years later, will anyone see this?

Parent, not a librarian, of a sixth grader in middle school. We're at half price books where they have a display of banned books, and my daughter tells me of a book on display that her school is somehow recommending. I don't like banned books, I'm a good free speech liberal and Jewish, so I buy the book for her.

Take it home, open up my browser to google why TTYL has been banned, and wow. Read the first 20 pages of the book.

Totally inappropriate for a sixth grader. In the 70s, would I have read this stuff in 7th-9th grade? Don't think so.

Boy am I a dummy.

However, wrt your post, if a library doesn't buy a book, it may not be censorship, however, if a library refuses an interlibrary loan, that sounds pretty bogus to me. How would that not be censorship?