Saturday, August 1, 2009

Is Re-Shelving Censorship?

An anonymous commentator recently asked if I thought it amounted to censorship that some libraries have chosen to shelve some books of Young Adult fiction, like The Perks of Being a Wallflower, in the general section (often mistakenly called the "adult" section), instead of in the Young Adult section. The answer I had to give is as disappointing to me as it is to many others: I don't know. I have no idea of the history or motivations behind those shelving choices, nor about the many other factors that might affect accessibility. A lot of factors go into shelving choices, and I just don't know the details.

The situation in West Bend is a bit different from that, though, since we are all aware of more of the relevant history and proposed changes. In West Bend, library staff have already made shelving choices that are well within the norms of library practice throughout Wisconsin and the U.S. In West Bend, we know that a group of parents have taken it upon themselves to override the shelving decisions made by the librarians.

Those who want the West Bend Library to re-shelve selected materials have given ample evidence that their INTENT is censorious. What unifies the books they've selected is that they talk about sex without adding fire and brimstone or mention homosexuality without adding condemnation. Their rhetoric about these books has been deliberately misleading, making perfectly ridiculous claims about obscenity and pornography. Looking at the facts instead of the hype, it is clear that this debate is about politics rather than pornography or protecting children. In short, their INTENT is to restrict access to materials that disagree with their socio-political position, and that is grossly censorious.

But does it amount to censorship in PRACTICE as well as intent? That's an important question, but difficult to answer. The difficulty is not in what is or is not censorship. The difficulty is in the Maziarka/WBC4SL petition itself, which is long on rhetoric but short on practical details.

How will their proposed re-shelving accomplish anything? Are there turnstiles or other barriers that prevent teens and youngsters from entering the general sections of the library stacks? Will there be signs or librarians or other adults intimidating or discouraging minors from entering the general stacks? Can a teen or child go to the general shelves, take a book, and sit in the library and read it? Are there going to be age-appropriateness monitors trolling the aisles looking for minors with books too grown up for them? Will minors be allowed to check out books from the general section? How will that be controlled? Will scanning library cards access a database that keeps track of who turns 18 when? Will minors using the library catalog be able to find the re-shelved books, or will they be restricted to a special catalog that pretends those books don't exist? The answers to these and other questions are crucial to understanding the re-shelving proposal.

Assuming you don't implement any of these controls, it isn't clear to me that just re-shelving (and only re-shelving) amounts to censorship in practice, even though the intent clearly is censorious. I'd be interested in hearing arguments about that, since I just don't know. To my way of thinking, this is simple and pragmatic rather than legalistic: if all you do is re-shelve, and you don't put any of these other controls in place, you've accomplished absolutely nothing. You will have allowed a group of political activists to waste the time and energy of library staff in reclassifying, re-cataloging and re-shelving books, but children will still be able to find those books in the catalog and on the shelves, read them in the library, and check them out.

On the other hand, if you implement some or all of the controls I've mentioned here, then you've clearly crossed the line into censorship in practice: you're controlling the flow of information based on the political alignment contained in that information. You will also have ruined the library, having pulled the rug out from under the principle of open access that makes the institution an important part of American life.

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. Well written and well thought out. And to this post, I say, "Amen!".

  2. Anonymous here again: I can't speak for the libraries that do shelve those titles in the general collection, but my guess is they viewed the titles as inappropriate for the YA section. Oshkosh, Brookfield and Waukesha are conservative communities, their librarians recognized this and shelved accordingly. Librarians make decisions like this all the time. Ask a librarian why their library doesn't subscribe to Hustler magazine: it's not illegal, and if it's a donation price is not an issue, and if you are in a big new building space is not an issue either. Are these librarians therefore "censors" if they choose to decline an offer of a subscription?
    "Banned Books"? 99% of those titles are challenged in the k-12 arena which is NOT the same as a public library. ALA should put that one to rest, sell by date is long one.

  3. Hustler magazine is not a good example for testing the principles of censorship. Given what obscenity law says about local community standards, Hustler actually COULD be illegal in one community and not in another. Also, Hustler appears to lack any "serious" value, so why would a library want to stock it anyway? The motivations for turning down a subscription could be many.

    As to more serious books -- including everything Ginny Maziarka has objected to -- it's still a question of intent and effect. If a librarian takes a book that ought to be in the YA section (a sometimes dicey call) and classifies it elsewhere, AND the intent is to discourage access to the book, THEN that's censorship. There could be other motivations behind that shelving choice, though. It's very difficult to say without knowing the details.

    But as I've said, if you combine that shelving choice with any other controls that keep people from finding or using the book, then it's censorship in practice, not just intent, and there's little to argue about.

    You are quite right that school and public libraries are not the same, but there are plenty of challenges in both to keep the ALA busy tracking them.

  4. When I started in libraries an employer asked me if I would purchase the new book by Madonna (that photographic one that caused quite a stir), I mumbled something about it lacking "enduring quality", and that it was spiral bound and therefore would not last. I think the interviewer just wanted to see if I had ever thought about what it really meant to choose between purchasing a title or not purchasing and if I could justify my position. What i really wanted to say was "no way! you are just asking for trouble. why squander all the goodwill generated over the years with the public. Put material in the library that challenges and provokes, but absolutely do not insult your public". That's not really the answer that some Intellectual Freedom advocates would particularly like, but I have learned over the years not to always succumb to the hegemony.
    Keep up the good work, your blog focuses on issues and ideas, not hyperbole and zealousness, and I appreciate that.