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Inside Annoyed Librarian

What Librarians Censor

The burning question of the day is, why do librarians censor porn?

It can’t be that library patrons wouldn’t like porn. Oh, sure, the same people who complain about “sexually explicit” books that libraries so buy now would complain, but the ALA recommends fighting them at every front.

We know that at least some of the public would like them, because porn sells like crazy. Plus, there are already plenty of people coming into public libraries to get their porn fix.

There must be at least some porn lovers out there who would prefer printed porn rather than Internet porn. The same private viewing booths I’ve been recommending to libraries instead of Internet filters could also be used for a little discreet reading. Even better would be the ability to take them home.

It can’t be the poor quality of most porn. Libraries buy plenty of books of poor quality.

But libraries almost never buy porn books. Take a somewhat well known series, the Letters to Penthouse. Dozens of volumes of this series have been published. I’ve seen them sitting on the shelves in major chain bookstores. Can you find any in libraries? Sort of.

A relatively recent one is the mildly titled Letters to Penthouse XXXI: serving it up hot and dirty. A search of WorldCat revealed that only two libraries in the country own this book, one in Delaware and the Queens Public Library. Queens must have a porn bibliographer, because that library actually does seem to have some porn.

This is a recent title, too, from 2008, so it probably wouldn’t have been weeded for not circulating, as if porn books would ever not circulate steadily.

That’s pretty much the case for every volume in the series, some of which are owned by no library at all.

Or take a look at this book, Samson’s Lovely Mortal: Scanguards Vampires. 130 glowing user reviews on Amazon, some of which are probably real reviews. It’s got explicit sex and vampires. Vampires! You know this book would fly off the shelves.

How many libraries in the country own it? Two.

Go a little milder. One of the most popular books of “erotica” on Amazon is Orgasmic: Erotica for Women. It gets great user reviews.  The only libraries in America that own it are LC and the Los Angeles Public Library.

With some exceptions, usually the closest a public library will get to porn or strong erotica are romance novels. Some romance novels definitely sexually explicit, but they’re targeted almost exclusively to women.

What, don’t men deserve some sexually explicit literature to call their own? Since libraries buy romance novels but not Penthouse letters, I guess not.

Speaking of Penthouse, do you know how many public libraries have current subscriptions to Penthouse Magazine? As far as I can tell, none.

Why are libraries censoring Penthouse, and Letters to Penthouse, and vampire porn?

According to the ALA’ definition, it seems like censorship. Censorship, according to them is, “A change in the access status of material, based on the content of the work and made by a governing authority or its representatives. Such changes include exclusion, restriction, removal, or age/grade level changes.”

They could, I suppose, emphasize the phrase “change in the access status,” but exclusion based on the content of the work would seem to represent censorship as well. And pornography, even “legally protected” pornography that librarians love so much, is excluded from almost every public library because of the sexually explicit content of the work. It might not be a “change,” but it’s definitely exclusion.

What gives? When it comes to defending Internet pornography in libraries, plenty of librarians hop on the ALA bandwagon. Why not do the same for porn books? After all, the ALA poster says READ, not WATCH. Librarians should be trying to get people to read, and plenty of people read porn.

For example, studies have consistently shown that boys lag behind girls in reading level at every age. From what I understand, teenage boys love porn. You want teenage boys to read more? Give them some porn books and take away their cell phones. They’ll read.

Thus, by censoring porn books by excluding them from library collections based on their content, libraries are refusing to do their part to improve the reading scores of teenage boys. Nice.

If some parent or patron complains about a sexually explicit book, librarians go nuts defending it. If that book was excluded from the collection because of its sexually explicit content, then it would be “censorship.”

Is it not then censorship if libraries don’t acquire numerous examples of a large and popular category of books because of their sexually explicit content? It seems to me that based on ALA logic, most libraries are indeed censoring printed pornography.

If excluding sexually explicit materials from libraries is censorship, then just about every library in the country is practicing it. If there’s a policy against porn, then the same arguments can be used by patrons to challenge a lot of other sexually explicit material.

Librarians defend Internet porn and sexually explicit books from public challenges all the time. Why not really put your money where your mouth is and start buying porn books and subscribing to porn magazines?

Or just admit that libraries removing or not buying sexually explicit materials isn’t “censorship.”

You can’t have it both ways.

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Comments

  1. This sounds like the standard collection development conundrum: if libraries collect everything, why don’t they have more of X? Replace the word “porn” with any number of highly controversial subjects or topics: conspiracy theories of historical events (9/11 being the most recent), origin of life theories, political opinion of the extreme edges, or hate/racist materials. In using the last subject, the same argument could be made for that; if people have access to racist websites, why doesn’t the library have more materials that reflect that racist point of view? Overall, the question you raise isn’t just limited to porn.

    There are also some pretty standard rebuttals to the conundrum: a finite amount of shelf space and a finite amount of money. The latter argument is the ultimate trump card since more space can be created a lot easier (by way of creative storage tricks) than a larger budget line.

    I think there is another good rebuttal in there as well which can be summed up as ‘resource management’. There is only so much staff time and energy and it should not be wasted on defending a couple of collection choices. This ‘we have better things to do’ doesn’t jibe well with the principle of intellectual freedom, but it does make for smoother sailing in the library, less stress overall, and more focused on other services and duties. The purpose, this rebuttal would suggest, is to serve the community, not to court controversy.

    I think it’s easier to defend access to online porn rather print porn because the online access is dictated by the user rather than the library staff. Library users make the choice to view porn, not library staff members. There is no choice being made on which materials to purchase; it’s just there already. People can go where they want to online. It gets librarians off the hook for judgment calls, it provides a basic defense of “we don’t tell or judge people on where they go online”, and it provides subject matter that would otherwise not be found.

    Sounds like a win to me.

    • Ms. Joneser says:

      Online porn is a lot more “out there” in a library than is printed porn. More patrons are exposed to it involuntarily because it’s hard to NOT make it visible only to the user signed in at the computer. They are not “making the choice to view porn (or not)”. It doesn’t get the librarians off any hooks; it puts them on lots of new ones.

      Then there are all sorts of restrictions on e-rate access and filtering. What library is going to refuse to provide e-rate Internet access (assuming it is their only option financially) on the grounds that they can’t provide unfettered access to porn? Say bye-bye to job searching, unemployment applications, tax forms . . . . Try to defend that to your funders, especially in these budget-slashing times.

      Sounds like a lose to me.

    • D says:

      Hey Andy. These rebuttals are unconvincing. Using finite shelf space and finite funds as a justification to deny such purchases has always been disingenuous. Believe me, if libraries purchased porn they would rarely stay on our shelves. The current age of eBooks and online subscriptions to periodicals makes this argument even weaker. If I offer to pay for your library’s online to subscription to Hustler, it won’t take up any shelf space or cost you money. I’ll bet no library would accept this offer. The argument about resource management is illogical and subjective. It sounds like it’s based on someone’s mood and opinion and not a good way to decide what is collected and what is rejected. Whether it’s library employees or patrons who make the choice on which materials to purchase is irrelevant to deciding if the library should collect pornography. As librarians, we need to be responsible for the collections we make available, including materials we offer via the internet. We need to face up to the fact that we make judgements about our collections and that we regularly and appropriately censor materials to fulfill our mission.

    • @Ms. Joneser:

      The use of privacy screens and other measures are remedies to involuntary exposure, but admittedly they aren’t a 100% perfect solution. And it won’t be, people demand the other extreme which is the complete filtering of pornography. I find that akin to people demanding for cars that don’t crash; the combination of humans and technology does not give a luxury of a perfect solution in this case. People would rather be ruled by dramatic “what ifs” than create reasonable mitigating circumstances.

      Your e-rate point is a non-starter since an adult can ask for filtering software to be removed for their use. Libraries can accept the e-rate and educate their community as to how to get the filter removed. It’s that simple.

      @D:
      “The argument about resource management is illogical and subjective. It sounds like it’s based on someone’s mood and opinion and not a good way to decide what is collected and what is rejected.”

      We’re not robots, we are people. As objective and logical as we strive to be, we are all human beings with preferences, opinions, and inclinations. If you want a computer to pick the collection, then hire the Amazon Recommends program. Otherwise, as it is subject to human involvement, it will not be the bastion of Vulcan-like logic.

      “We need to face up to the fact that we make judgements about our collections and that we regularly and appropriately censor materials to fulfill our mission.”

      In accepting your statement for the sake of argument, then that action goes well beyond porn. It goes into any number of controversial subjects; human sexuality, conspiracy theories, and politics, to name a few. Meaning, it *would* be appropriate to censor books that state that gays should be terminated, that 9/11 was a inside job conducted by Israeli agents, and that President Obama is not a citizen. Why? Because they don’t further the mission of the library (and, quite frankly, they are not very academically valid positions).

      I’ll agree that we make judgments about the collection. It’s a constant re-evaluation of how it meets the community needs. But I still hold to my position that there is a difference between the materials desired and the materials that can be actually purchased. Just because I don’t have the budget resources or shelf space to purchase every single Neil Gaiman doesn’t make me a censor; it means I don’t have the funding or the room. You might consider that to be disingenuous, but reality is known to do that.

  2. Amused says:

    One reason might be that we couldn’t afford to keep replacing the porn when it didn’t come back. Either the patrons would enjoy so much they’d keep it, or those who object to it would steal it to keep other people from reading it. That’s what happens to our witchcraft books.

  3. ElderLibrarian says:

    I don’t think that my library has 100 percent porn, but we got plenty of books that serve up pages of sexual goings on as part of their story. An extra bonus are graphic novels, since they have pictures too!

  4. Lola says:

    I agree with ElderLibrarian, there is plenty of porn lite in libraries. Zane flies off the shelf (and often doesn’t get returned) for just this reason.

  5. Spekkio says:

    A couple of thoughts….

    1. One could argue that it’s not so much censorship as “chilling effect.” In other words, librarians might consider pornography for library collections if it weren’t nearly guaranteed to be challenged, defaced, destroyed, or stolen…not to mention the bad publicity, breathless coverage on the local news (“Special Report: Your Tax Dollars Being Used for Porn!”), protests by religious groups, etc. I suppose you could say it’s self-censorship…or pre-emptive censorship…but it’s probably not nefarious.

    2. Two words: Miller Test. If the ALA was sure that the law was on their side, they might have encouraged public libraries to add porn to their collections in the hopes that it might go to court to set a precedent. But the precedent was already set and it’s not bloody likely to be overturned, thanks to stare decisis and the current composition of the Supreme Court. So the ALA talks a big game, particularly during Banned Books Week…but they’re not going to pursue battles they know they can’t win.

    Incidentally, I’ve been reading Naomi Klein’s “No Logo” and – for what it’s worth – she defines censorship as including efforts by religious authorities to suppress materials. If you go by that definition, then yes, many of the materials being fought over are battles over censorship.

    Last thing: readers at Slashdot have independently come to the same conclusion about censorship versus challenge that the Annoyed Librarian has:
    http://news.slashdot.org/story/11/09/28/0323214/Libraries-Release-Most-Censored-Books-List

  6. Spencer says:

    When I used to work at B&N we had a “community standards” clause in our policies. This meant Playboy went behind the counter- due to community standards dictating it’s not out on the shelf. So, even bookstores do it.

    However, it is censorship- no matter what reasons there are for it and how valid they are. We do carry 9/11 conspiracy books. We carry homeopathic cures books. Hell, we carry books by Kevin Trudeau- and he was in prisonfor fraud! As a major library system, we have these books as least SOMEWHERE in the system. We have erotica in english and spanish. We even carry playboy- but you have to ask the librarian for it- at our main library. we do not, however, carry penthouse letters.

    Now, one has to ask oneself- what the difference is between these. What’s the line we draw. Also, does it have anything to do with the fact that the profession is dominated by women and they just don’t want to buy these materials? (I don’t know if it does, but it seems like it’s a question that should be asked.)

  7. Rebecca says:

    You’re forgetting that a big part of collection development is reviews. If librarians aren’t reading reviews of the stuff you’re talking about, then guess what, it’s not anywhere on their buying radar. Simple as that.

  8. notopianlibrarian says:

    I believe there are 2 primary factors. The first is the power of sexually repressive mainstream culture that values and glorifies violence, but marginalizes and penalizes sexuality. The second, more recent factor is an emergent female-centered morality that fosters a sexual culture that reflects its values but marginalizes and penalizes sexual expression that don’t. Both factors affect libraries profoundly – the first through challenges and so-called community values, but the second even more so since a preponderance of librarians are female and the culture of libraries reflects female-centered values over male-centered or balanced perspectives.

  9. anonymous says:

    a: It’s censorship.
    b: Not all censorship is intrinsically bad or unjustified.

    See how easy that was?

  10. outsider says:

    Its a conspiracy: the library custodians have subverted the ALA and blackmailed Hugh Hefner to ensure that they don’t have to clean up the library messes left behind by teenage boys with porn books.

  11. anonymous says:

    re: One reason might be that we couldn’t afford to keep replacing the porn when it didn’t come back. Either the patrons would enjoy so much they’d keep it, or those who object to it would steal it to keep other people from reading it. That’s what happens to our witchcraft books.<<

    Ebooks. Next question?

  12. LaVerne says:

    Presumably, notopianlibrarian, you’re referring to heterosexual females; because verifiably, what you state has not been and is not now the case for a whole host of us who are not – including the experiences of trans- colleagues.

  13. teetop says:

    Visual pornography is designed to entice people to masturbate. That is it’s sole purpose. We do not want, in fact have prohibitions in place to prevent, people masturbating in the library. So there is no reason to carry it. It isn’t censorship, it’s zoning.

  14. noutopianlibraian says:

    @LaVerne. No, I was referring to females in general, and as with any generalization, it is not one size fits all. There are many sex-positive females, hetero, lesbian, trans, bi, etc. as well as many females who enjoy or are tolerant of visual erotica (aka porn). At the same time, the scientific evidence I’ve seen (which has it’s own biases but comes from both readings of female and male researchers) demonstrates that by and large, males enjoy and seek out visual erotica. Written porn is commonly stocked in libraries, across the sexual preference spectrum, but not visual porn. As with all moral-based choices, there are valid justifications but they are all demonstrably power-over (re: Starhawk), i.e. the decision-makers morals exercise power over others, regardless of evidence. Those who support this, librarians among them, believe they are right. Outside of their mindset, it is a bit absurd. My own perspective remains that, as repressed and twisted as mainstream sexual mores are in this culture, it is probably for the best. I can only wish that I could impose my morals and temper depictions of violence and warfare.

  15. rpglibrarian says:

    After reading these comments, the discussion seems to boil down to this: most libraries do not have (visual) porn in the stacks because it is easier for them not to have it.

    In this case, is it a good thing or a bad thing to do what is easiest? I don’t know. I think it depends on the particular library, the policies and values that are in place, and if the librarians who work at said library would enforce or challenge those policies/values.

  16. LaVerne says:

    @noutopianlibraian:

    …All of which refutes your

    “but the second even more so since a preponderance of librarians are female and the culture of libraries reflects female-centered values over male-centered or balanced perspectives” statement.

    My own living experiences inform me – derived not from any women and gender cultural studies textbook – that

    1. Within the world of librarianship, females (the preponderance of whom are heterosexual) possess scant, authenthic “power-over”, but some “power-to”; ie, to carry out the will of the true decision-makers and power-possessors (PR campaigns notwithstanding).

    2. Its been my observation (and this of hets and those non-hets who so desperately seek and need their approbation) that what pathetic little capacity they do enjoy is so heavily co-opted, so utterly conflicted, that their own so-called “female-centered values” “female-centered morality” are consistently compromised by their own self-loathing.

    (..And this I’ve witnessed even among -especially among- Ivy League directorship).

    3. If this were not empirically so, then reams of Court dockets of embattled trans- librarians who have had to go to fisticuffs against their own female-dominated library associations would not exist.

    4. And I’ve yet to see the “fostering” of cultural values of dominatrix dames (hets or other) “reflected” within librarianship – even by practitioners within the “profession” [which either validates or voids out both of your initial contentions].

  17. Techserving You says:

    Hilarious.

    A couple reasons for them not purchasing porn… it’s the sort of stuff people would just steal, rather than check out (and yes, it’s pretty easy to steal books even if they have security strips and the like) and it’s also the kind of stuff people would… er… soil.

    I do agree, though, that the very same librarians who claim that not collecting something is the same as censorship, do not collect porn, or many other things, and don’t call it censorship. I think it’s only censorship if they’re not collecting gay porn (at least if it’s requested.)

  18. Techserving You says:

    Hilarious.

    A couple reasons for them not purchasing porn… it’s the sort of stuff people would just steal, rather than check out (and yes, it’s pretty easy to steal books even if they have security strips and the like) and it’s also the kind of stuff people would… er… soil.

    I do agree, though, that the very same librarians who claim that not collecting something is the same as censorship, do not collect porn, or many other things, and don’t call it censorship.

  19. Techserving You says:

    (Please note I got an error message multiple times when I tried to submit my first comment, so then I wondered (irrationally) if it was not going through because of something in the content, hence removing the last snarky sentence, as seen in the second post… but I stand by that snarky sentence. Gay erotica is collected when similar materials for heterosexuals are not.)

  20. Elena says:

    I seriously do not think porn is promoting reading, but rather promoting certain bodily functions as was mentioned in Teetop’s post.

  21. JimBob says:

    You’re right. Librarians contradict themselves all the time. That’s what happens when you’ve sold your soul.