Tuesday, August 4, 2009

And What Will Labels Accomplish?

The most recent form of the WBC4SL request, at least that we know of, asks for changes in shelving and for the placement of some kind of warning label on some books. I dealt with the re-shelving question in an earlier post, so let's take a look at labeling.

There is probably room for argument as to whether labeling amounts to censorship, and to what degree. At the very least, such labels seek to discourage young people from reading certain books, and seek to discourage parents from allowing young people to read certain books. Whether or not those goals are achieved in practice depends on a variety of factors.

But as with the re-shelving question, I don't think we have to get caught up in the legalities of labeling and censorship. The plain practicalities are clear enough.

So I ask the same questions about labeling that I asked about re-shelving. What other controls are going to be in place? Will kids be able to find labeled books in the catalog, or will they be restricted to a catalog that omits those entries? Will they be able to go to the shelves where labeled books are stored, or will they be locked out of that area? Will kids be able to sit in the library and read the labeled books, or will there by "appropriateness" monitors trolling the aisles, pulling labeled books out of kids' hands? Will kids be able to check labeled books out on Tuesday if they've turned eighteen on Monday, but not before?

So controlled a situation might be too much even for the WBC4SL (at least I hope), so let's assume that such controls are not in place. Let's assume, for the sake of argument, that all we're talking about is putting a warning label on some books.

What will this achieve?

For one thing, it won't keep the kids away from the labeled books, since in our hypothetical scenario they'll be able to find them, read them, and check them out.

For another thing, it won't help parents make choices about what books to let their kids read. Think about that for a bit.

How could the proposed label possibly help parents make such choices? We've yet to see a practical list of criteria that will be used for deciding which books get labeled, so how can anyone know what the label means? Does a book on art history get a label because it includes a picture of Michelangelo's David, or the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, in all their naked glory? Does a book on evolution get a label because some think it's unchristian? Do we all agree that Baby Be Bop should get a warning label but It's Perfectly Normal should not? Or is it the other way around? Should the Bible have a warning label on it for its descriptions of incest, lewdness, murder, genocide, and idolatry, or should the position it takes on those matters make it immune to such labeling? Should Tim LaHaye's books on the End Times and the Second Coming be labeled because they'll scare the daylights out many children, or because they represent the views of some Christian denominations but not of others?

If all the label means is "Maziarka Objects," is it really useful? Can I trust that if there's a label on a book then there must be something in it that I don't want my kid to see? Can I be sure that if there is no label, there's nothing in it I don't want my kid to see? Of course not, since it is unlikely that any two people's standards are exactly alike, and the standards for the application of these labels have not been spelled out.

So after all is said and done, after library staff have miraculously read the minds of the WBC4SL who won't plainly state the standards they think should be used, after the librarians somehow come up with a set of standards they can put into practice, after they've spent time and energy identifying the books that meet those criteria, and after they've stuck labels on the books, every parent is in exactly the same place as before: the parent will have to look at a book to determine if it's appropriate for a particular child at a particular point in that child's development.

So my closing remark on labeling is exactly the same as it was for re-shelving. This doesn't have to be so complicated. There's an easy way out. There's a simple solution in which there is no censorship and nobody's time is wasted in frivolous political pursuits: let the librarians do their job and let individual parents make decisions about their own children's use of library materials.


  1. Very good points. Then there is the fact that the non-fiction books already do have "labels" on them via the dewey decimal system (and sometimes their titles, like you pointed out with "It's Perfectly Normal"). Books about sexuality are shelved next to other books about sexuality; it is very obvious to anyone what the books are about.
    And then we have the real possiblity that younger teens will pick up books just because of a label and out of curiousity read a book they might not have otherwise been interested in. Kids are pretty good about self-censoring and picking books that are at their level; but add a red sticker and a little curiosity and that would change. A protective parent might prevent that, but aren't they trying to "protect" the children who's parents aren't watching out for them?

  2. And placing the books in question in the regular non-fiction section increases the chance a young adult will stumble upon a book on sexuality that isn't intended for that audience. The WBCFSL folks really haven't thought out the various externalities of what they're asking for.