My how things change. On a blog hosted right here at Library Journal, an LJ editor has made a point of attacking the Annoyed Librarian on several occasions. And now here’s the AL hosted at LJ. Apparently neither of us is very careful about the company we keep.
Just think, a few weeks ago I was sitting in my lonely writer’s garret writing the AL. Now I sit in my beautful new corner office on the thirtieth floor overlooking the park looking for things to be annoyed about. Selling out to the Man? I highly recommend it!
Last week, of course, was
Band "Banned" Books Week, or BBW, the week when the ALA remembers that libraries used to promote books and reading instead of video games and Internet pornography. It’s also the week where those nice folks at the Office of Intellectual Freedom try to redefine "censorship" so they can make it look like they’re really protecting us from something powerful and sinister – like some rube in Bumflap, GA trying to get Heather Has Two Very Excited Daddies removed from the library. Oooh, I shudder at the power these powerless rubes wield over us all. Scary stuff!
An argument broke out in the comments section of my fluffy post last week over the meaning of censorship, what library schools are teaching about it, and what the ALA thinks. My most popular commenter (the ubiquitous "Anonymous") suggested I take a "refresher course" in ethics because I think it’s censorship only when governments suppress information, not when rubes protest the fact that a widely available book is in a particular library collection. It’s quite possible that I do need a refresher course. In fact, I’ve never had a course in ethics at all, though I do keep a copy of Kant’s Metaphysik der Sitten to pull out during faculty meetings. The concentration it takes to read it makes it easier to drown out whatever it is my colleagues are droning on about. In library school, I think the instructor of "Libraries, Society, & You!" might have spent a day on the topic, but in that class I tended to sit in the back of the room furiously scribbling in an effort to finish my dissertation and occasionally reflecting in retrospect that bangs weren’t really a good look for me.
However, unlike this particular critic, I’m really smart and I know that we can’t just make words mean whatever we want them to mean, at least if we want to communicate intelligently with other people. (I realize intelligent communication isn’t everyone’s goal, though.) Maybe in Library Cloud Cuckoo Land you can claim with a straight face that the book-challenging rube is a "censor." Outside of that land, the rest of us know what the word means. Consider for example this quote: "If there is a bedrock principle underlying the First Amendment, it is that the government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea itself offensive or disagreeable." — Supreme Court Justice William J. Brennan, Jr. in Texas v. Johnson. That’s right, the government prohibiting expression of an idea. Perhaps ALA has heard of it. Come to think of it, I’m pretty sure they have, because I found the quote on an ALA website called Censorship Basics. It’s about the only thing on the page, but it’s about as basic as it gets. If the government isn’t prohibiting it, and you can buy it easily, then it’s not censored, baby, and that’s that. The folks at ALA might not understand the concept because they live in a country with almost no censorship. Instead of considering themselves lucky, they give us book-challenging boogie men every year so we think they’re doing something worthwhile.
The ALA likes to play fast and loose with language, but according to one of my readers, at least one library school might be even more ridiculous in their use of language than the ALA. From the comments to last week’s BBW post:
I just got finished with a Modern Course in Ethics. You know, what you are calling a "refresher course."
I’ll just tell you right now: it has gotten worse then what AL is stating.
Before, what you state was the definition of censorship. "No library has to stock any book that doesn’t meet their selection criteria" was a perfectly Good argument. Today, the very notion of "Selection Criteria" is now also Censorship. A librarian browsing a catalog and selecting materials based upon ANY set rubrics, is censorship.
The original critic wasn’t having any of it, and suggested the commenter was either lying or a product of a bad library school. I’m not sure how we could establish that a library school wasn’t bad, but that’s neither here nor there. The commenter continued:
I don’t know if I should be miffed or offended with how you have purported to know precisely what was taught in MY Ethics course, the one I WAS in and you WERE NOT this very last summer, at the conclusion of my degree.
We spent a week on the subject of censorship [I know, absolutely not enough time!] and this idea was supported with readings and powerpoint presentations – and the definition of censorship in this class was quoted word for word straight from the ALA Literature. The readings in conjuction with this topic removed all concious librarian tasks from the collection development process.
I assure you, very much so, that this IS what was taught in my Ethics course as the definition of censorship, and it makes perfect sense because my MLS school, like most others, is VERY cozy with the ALA. It is afterall, an ALA accredited MLS hampstermill."
That has a ring of honesty about it to me, but I can’t verify it. Who knows for sure if this really was taught. Is there a library school professor out there even less intellectually rigorous than some of the ALA folks? It could very well be. Not all library school professors understand the distinction between selection and censorship. Partly that could be because they DON’T WORK IN LIBRARIES. Oh, and NEITHER DO THOSE FOLKS AT THE ALA. If not selecting a book is censorship, then most libraries in the country are censoring most books and every library is censoring some books. If anyone wants to give us the actual class and professor who taught this, that would be nice. If such a professor exists, he or she is probably not reading this because he or she likely can’t read at all.
But is this what the ALA actually says about the topic? Regardless of what some nitwit who managed to be hired to teach a library school course says, does the ALA claim that selection is censorship?
It turns out they don’t, at least not explicitly. That’s a relief. I’d hate to think my ALA dues are going to support people that dumb. Here is what they do say, on the website Intellectual Freedom and Censorship Q & A:
"Don’t Librarians Censor Everything They Choose Not To Buy For The Library?
No library can make everything available, and selection decisions must be made. Selection is an inclusive process, where the library affirmatively seeks out materials which will serve its mission of providing a broad diversity of points of view and subject matter. By contrast, censorship is an exclusive process, by which individuals or institutions seek to deny access to or otherwise suppress ideas and information because they find those ideas offensive and do not want others to have access to them. There are many objective reasons unrelated to the ideas expressed in materials that a library might decide not to add those materials to its collection: redundancy, lack of community interest, expense, space, etc. Unless the decision is based on a disapproval of the ideas expressed and desire to keep those ideas away from public access, a decision not to select materials for a library collection is not censorship."
Up until the last sentence, that actually made good sense, and good sense is so rare to find in ALA pronouncements that I want to applaud the effort. Good job, ALA! At least they don’t say that selection based on any criteria is censorship.
However, and with the OIF there’s always a however, their good sense is undermined by their lack of understanding of what constitutes censorship, and for that matter "intellectual freedom." First of all, a librarian might decide not to buy a book for her library because the book is stupid, stupidly written and full of stupid ideas. She says to herself, "oh my, this book is stupid. I don’t think we should waste our money on stupid books, plus I don’t particularly want stupid books in my library." That objection doesn’t bother me, and if the book is freely available for sale, it certainly isn’t censorship. The ALA would still call it censorship, though. On the same web page is their definition:
"What Is Censorship?
Censorship is the suppression of ideas and information that certain persons—individuals, groups or government officials—find objectionable or dangerous. It is no more complicated than someone saying, “Don’t let anyone read this book, or buy that magazine, or view that film, because I object to it! ” Censors try to use the power of the state to impose their view of what is truthful and appropriate, or offensive and objectionable, on everyone else. Censors pressure public institutions, like libraries, to suppress and remove from public access information they judge inappropriate or dangerous, so that no one else has the chance to read or view the material and make up their own minds about it. The censor wants to prejudge materials for everyone."
My goodness, what a load of fecal matter. So if some rube gets a book removed from some library, that’s the "power of the state" suppressing ideas? What a tremendous leap in logic. Since most book challenges seem to be about books for children, the argument becomes even more bizarre. So, EVERY book is suitable for children? Oh, even on the off chance some librarian actually removed a book, how does that suppress ideas for any of us? If a book is gone, does that really mean "no one else has the chance to read" it? How dumb do you have to be to believe this stuff?
The ALA likes to make everything "censorship" for a reason, though. They think it makes them look good. They don’t like to make distinctions between words. Ideologues never do. If we classify everything as "censorship," then stopping the poor rube from getting a questionable (or as the ALA would say, "questionable") book removed from some hick public library is just as heroic as fighting deliberate government suppression of information. Plus, it’s a heckuva lot easier to fight the ignorant rube than, say, the FBI or President of the United States. Win win scenario! We’re all supposed to go along with this semantic legerdemain so we can feel good about ourselves.They think it makes them look bold and heroic. I think it makes them look silly and stupid.
Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose.