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Still No Censorship, Actually

Since librarians love to pretend there’s censorship in America so they can feel righteous about fighting it, let’s take a look at another contrast between something that’s clearly censorship and something that’s clearly not.

But first, let me say that while I like it when people use the library, I don’t like it enough to get a mohawk. Call me crazy if you wish.

So back to some more talk about “censorship.”

Out in Fargo, North Dakota, they’re hosting a traveling exhibition from the National Holocaust Museum: Fighting the Fires of Hate: America and the Nazi Book Burnings.

If you want to think about a place where censorship really took place, think about Nazi Germany. The government suppressed books and encouraged their burning. Now imagine that while piles of books were being set on fire, you courageously jumped into the pile to either put it out or maybe get burned to death. Either way, you’re a champion against censorship!

One of the posters from the WW2 era says, “10 years ago, the Nazis burned books, but free Americans can still read them.”

And guess what? Free Americans can still read them today! Yay! And you know why? Because no governments censor books in this country. That should have been obvious.

I’ll change my story on this if anyone can come up with examples of any supposedly censored books that aren’t widely available in America. Go ahead. Try. John Peter Zenger is laughing at your efforts.

Let’s move up to the present day for the sort of thing librarians sometimes like to call censorship, where in Cape Henlopen, Delaware they had what must have been one of the oddest school board meetings ever.

The school board voted to remove “The Miseducation of Cameron Post” from the ninth grade summer reading list, supposedly because of all the profanity, because ninth graders will have never encountered profanity before.

That prompted a high school student there to confirm to the board that in fact high school students use profanity all the time. I’m sure that wasn’t true when the school board members were all in high school. Back in the day high school students would use no words not acceptable in a 1950s sitcom.

It also prompted a mother to complain that instead of worrying about some swear words in a book, they should worry that her daughter was afraid to use the school restrooms because she was afraid of finding people smoking pot and having sex. That’s quite a high school they have there. Sounds like some sort of restroom monitor might be in order.

To its credit, the OIF, in a letter to the school board, didn’t actually call the move “censorship,” but I’m sure someone there was thinking it. Instead, there’s a string of dubious arguments and an insistence that the real problem was that the board didn’t follow the written procedures for removing a book from the reading list.

That last argument basically boils down to “librarians know better than you,” so it’s probably not going to persuade the school board.

They’re probably also not going to be persuaded by this one: “We strongly encourage you to follow the guidance provided by the U.S. Supreme Court, which has held that public school officials may not remove books from school library shelves simply because of their disagreement with the views or ideas expressed in the books.”

Unless a “reading list” is the same thing as “library shelves,” that entire paragraph doesn’t make any sense in context. Probably a form letter.

There’s also a bit about the importance of independent reading: “Preserving the right to access diverse books like The Miseducation of Cameron Post is especially important in the context of independent reading. Independent reading is a vital part of the learning process that allows for choice and exploration beyond the curriculum.” It goes on and on.

Let’s say for argument’s sake that this is true. If so, then the school board should find some books like that one and then assign them. There’s no argument anywhere that will prove this particular book is crucial for independent reading.

That’s one problem for the “banned” books crowd. No matter what the book, there’s never a reason why that particular book has to be saved, rather than any of the millions of books the library didn’t buy instead of that one. That, and every “banned” book is widely available in bookstores and libraries.

But once again a single book removed from a single high school reading list has made the national news, possible because the World Cup is over.

You can call it “censorship” if you like. That way you can feel as courageous as those Americans protesting Nazi book burnings.

It won’t be censorship, since the government isn’t suppressing them and the books are widely available, and the courage will just be in your head, but maybe that’s what some people need to get through the day.

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Comments

  1. noutopian librarian says:

    Ok, let’s suppose that AL is always right (instead of just almost always) and that suppression of books in libraries does not constitute censorship. After all, libraries should reflect their board’s idea of community values, right? So Tango makes three is excluded from a Nitwit, NY library, along with other books that might be seen as normalizing anything other than heterosexual marraige and families. Numbskull, NY community members notice this and decide this fits their community values, then Rubesville, MD, Jerryrig, MI, and Lastcentury, OR join in. Religious and ideological organizations are taking notice and soon, books seen as promoting a homosexual lifestyle are removed from school and public libraries in a substantial plurality of rural communities, along with significant numbers of suburban enclaves and scattered cities. Not censorship – after all the deviants who want access to these materials can just order it on Amazon.

    Next up – burning Beatles albums for god! Free Americans can stream their subversive music.

    OIF exists for a reason – it provides support for libraries who strive to maintain diversity of ideas and information in their communities. ACLU doesn’t exist for libraries, nor does EFF. One might not always agree with OIF stances on filtering software, or with definitions of censorship or banned books or other issues, but without the efforts of librarians who uphold the ethics of intellectual freedom, however imperfectly this may sometimes be, libraries are targets for narrow interests in their communities who are expert in using disinformation and populist appeal to effect “suppression.” (since we’re not calling it censorship!)

    • Jane says:

      If I understand the AL, she’s just trying to say that the OIF is being indiscriminant and manipulative in their use of the word “censorship.” We remove books from our collections and decide not to add items all the time without it being censorship. When we decide not to buy a college textbook, it’s not censorship. When we weed an old travel book, it’s not censorship. When we remove “And Tango Makes Three” because of the values inherent in the book, that pretty obviously is censorship. I think that the AL is just saying that everyone called a terrorist is not a necessarily a terrorist. Some are freedom fighters. I’m a little puzzled by suggestion that the ACLU and EFF doesn’t exist for libraries.

    • The Anonymous One says:

      But as librarians, we do make decisions on what to order and what to keep in the collection. So is it censorship if the decision is made by someone other than a librarian?

  2. Cape Parent says:

    The people who showed up at the last meeting to urge the Cape School Board to put the book back on the list were all Cape parents and students. The Board has a policy in place for questioned materials and a general complaint policy and neither were followed. Instead of following policy, they treated this book like it was an educational emergency, tossed their policy in the trash, and voted to remove it from the list. Every book on the reading list contains profanities except for one, and you really need to be asking yourself, “Why this book?”

    To give you more perspective, back in March, two Board members cited Delaware’s sex offender code when discussing an 11th grade AP teacher who assigned the book, Brave New World to her students. The Board members said that under Delaware Code, a teacher could be arrested like a child predator for having her class read the book. Think about that for a minute, that book has been read by high school students for over 50 years.

    This is a rogue school board…

  3. noutopian librarian says:

    Jane. I understand your confusion – the assertion was unclear. I meant that ACLU and EFF have a broader constituency than libraries. There is definitely some overlap in concerns with OIF, but only OIF considers intellectual freedom issues specifically with regards to libraries in the US with reference to the ethics of this profession.

    @Cape Fear parent. Rogue yes, but by no means uncommon – that’s why Banned Books week exists in the library community – to highlight these situations. Wishing you and your community the best with this.

  4. Matt says:

    “When we remove “And Tango Makes Three” because of the values inherent in the book, that pretty obviously is censorship.” Jane this is not what AL is saying. AL is saying it is not censorship when you remove a book if you can buy it on Amazon.

    Arguing semantics is straining at gnats. We at the community level are trying to preserve intellectual freedom in our community for all. Our reasons for removing or not are what you, Jane, are saying and whether we use the word censorship to describe it or not, it is an abomination.

  5. Peter Ward says:

    We all agree that removing an item from a library collection because of its intellectual content is a bad thing, right?

    • The Anonymous One says:

      Define “intellectual content.”

    • me says:

      If you’re not removing an item from a library collection due to: outdatedness (rarely applies to fiction), lack of circulation, or damage than you’re likely removing it for the wrong reason.

      Whether you agree with the “intellectual content” is irrelevant.

    • Frumious Bandersnatch says:

      No, actually. The reason we have the Master’s degrees in the first place is precisely so we can make professional determinations about the authority and utility of the “intellectual content” we’re devoting our shelf space to, without getting our personal beliefs and issues tied up in it. We’re supposed to be trained to select the right material for the right reasons, or why have Librarians in the first place? Selection is not censorship.

    • Bonegirl06 says:

      Not necessarily. If you are running out of space, you have to think about what is mission-critical. At my academic library, we are part of a school that specializes in certain majors and has very few students studying other things. We might get rid of the books that are less relevant to our students even if they are perfectly good books. Their academic content is sound, it’s just not the RIGHT academic content.

  6. Julie Desautels says:

    Censorship is the suppression of writing or speech because someone ‘official’ finds it objectionable. This can be as inconsequential as a parent forbidding a child to read a certain book or as important what happened in Nazi Germany and is happening in Iran. People do use it a little too willy nilly. A book being off the reading list hasn’t been censored if it’s still available in the library. A book that’s unavailable at a library isn’t being censored unless it’s specifically not being purchased because of it’s content. Hell, not even all censorship is bad; the police censor information so it doesn’t impede investigations all the time!
    You can think it is silly for people to use censorship to describe the removal of ‘“And Tango Makes Three” because of the values inherent in the book’ if it’s still available on Amazon but, it is still technically accurate, scope doesn’t apply.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Censorship
    http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/us/definition/american_english/censor
    http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/censorship

  7. Frumious Bandersnatch says:

    First, no one from the ACLU to Merriam-Webster stipulates that a national government must be involved to consider the suppression of literature in the furtherance of a political or religious agenda censorship. Second, the book burnings of WWII Germany didn’t begin with the Nazi government. They were largely instigated by the German Student Union, and other nationalist-leaning student organizations and community groups, so I guess that doesn’t count as censorship either? Of course, according to the definition AL keeps pushing, you could have just nipped across the border to Switzerland and bought your books there, so no harm, no foul, right?

  8. Sarah K says:

    Good news, guys! We’re not Nazis! Guess that means we’ve got nothing to worry about.

    Sorry, AL. I like your posts most of the time, but this particular hobby-horse reeks of privilege and pedantry.

  9. OMG says:

    OMG! THAT SAFE LIBRARY GUY HAS BEEN RIGHT ALL ALONG! OMG!

    • @OMG Thanks! But it’s not just me. Jessamyn West, former ALA Councilor, for example, said, “it also highlights the thing we know about banned books week that we don’t talk about much — the bulk of these books are challenged by parents for being age-inappropriate for children. While I think this is still a formidable thing for librarians to deal with, it’s totally different from people trying to block a book from being sold at all.

  10. That Thing says:

    I’m pretty sure that school board knew exactly what they were doing. Now it is gauranteed that The Miseducation of Cameron Post will be read by lots of students, instead of ignored completely like every other book on that reading list.

  11. The Anonymous One says:

    You know, we go around telling ourselves, “because we have master’s degrees, that’s why!” and “because we are trained in that,” but then we turn around and bemoan that the public is slashing our budgets. I’m NOT advocating that we remove books simply because one person suggests it, however, responding with, “because I know better than you” certainly doesn’t help any. Whether we like it or not, the public ultimately decides our budget and I think working with them to better foster understanding will benefit us more than being adversaries.

  12. noone says:

    I don’t know if this will meet your criteria, and, well, it is only one book, but when I was working at another public library we had a copy of this that was not available to the public (and had not been for who knows how long). It was just sitting on a shelf in the back workroom.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Show_Me!

    While it was not officially banned, it was effectively banned.

    • noone says:

      Please note, the book was effectively banned in the *entire* U.S., not just this library.

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