March 18, 2018

The Oldest Challenge: It comes from believers, parents, even librarians | Blatant Berry

John Berry IIIConflicts that pit our professional stance in favor of intellectual freedom against citizen pressure or our own impulses to suppress “inappropriate” expression is the oldest challenge librarianship faces. When the modern library movement was born, librarians thought they were gatekeepers. Early debates over whether fiction should be banned ultimately morphed into the profession’s current position: no one has the right to tell anyone else what they are allowed to read.

But new manifestations and remnants of that long-standing conflict continue, though the newer causes relate more to social, political, and religious issues such as racism, sex and gender prejudice, and, of course, the protection of children.

It is a rare U.S. public library that hasn’t experienced attempts by politicians, religious leaders, or even parents to force librarians to remove materials because they go against a belief, an ideological view, or a bias. Sometimes the censorship is successful, other times a library is able to fend it off and strengthen its stand for free expression. In some cases, it is the librarian who decides some item should be removed from the collection. Librarians I know have pulled Helen Bannerman’s The Story of Little Black Sambo from their children’s collections. Many have put sex manuals and “hot” fiction on locked shelves. Some acts of censorship by librarians can seem justified, while others appear to be efforts to get controversial material out of the range of community censors. Many a librarian has been intimidated by the threat of such controversy. [For more on this dilemma, see School Library Journal’s recent self-censorship survey.]

As a public agency, the library is always under scrutiny. Every citizen believes it is his or her library and its policies should be set “by the people.” That is not a totally misguided view, unless it leads to giving one group or perspective the power to silence others or deny their materials entree to the library. The expectation by some parents that the library will provide their children with only materials they themselves approve of is in direct opposition to our professional position that children have the same rights of access as adults, a precept not widely accepted by users. Few supporters will back a library that includes materials they deem inaccurate, offensive, or subversive.

These pressures make library management a difficult political act that requires a special set of skills rarely taught. Every library administrator has a heavy workload building robust relationships with community members of all persuasions and at all levels of leadership and influence. Constant effort is needed to educate them about the necessity of a firm defense of intellectual freedom and the inclusion of items in the collection that are abhorrent to some.

These alliances are strengthened when a member of the board moves on to another position in town. On the other hand, when the library protects its collections from would-be censors, they sometimes become ongoing enemies.

If you are already an experienced library manager, you know all this. If you are new to it, gird your loins. Challenges can come by surprise and win over officials and members of the library board or governing authority. Don’t wait to begin educating your board, local pols, and even—or especially—law enforcement, as was recently learned in Kansas City.

Indeed, everyone must be aware that the library is ready to defend free expression, free inquiry, and the privacy of users as they seek and find possibly controversial information. Solid relationships with and good service to the community are the best protection: where librarians have built staunch friendships, a censorship attempt can even build support for intellectual freedom.

 John Berry

This article was published in Library Journal. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

John N. Berry III About John N. Berry III

John N. Berry III ( is Editor-at-Large, LJ. Berry joined the magazine in 1964 as Assistant Editor, becoming editor-in-Chief in 1969 and serving in that role until 2006.