Annoyed Librarian
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Inside Annoyed Librarian

Why the OIF Can’t be Taken Seriously

Last week someone left a comment that the ALA OIF disagrees with me about “banned” books, and wondered what I thought of their arguments, such that they are. Since I hate to disappoint readers, I’ll engage one more time. The most amusing response was this one:

The briefest answer is this: public schools and public libraries are government agencies that operate pursuant to the First Amendment. Any official suppression of a book for the ideas it contains is unconstitutional censorship, a book ban.

Unlike the kind folks at the OIF, I’ve actually read the First Amendment, and there’s absolutely nothing in there that has anything to do with the “banned” books debate except the freedom of religion. The OIF has confused the freedom of speech with the freedom to read, and the freedom to read with the right to have the government supply your reading material. That’s a large logical leap. If a library chooses not to buy a book, or chooses to move a book from the children’s to the adult section of a library, absolutely no one’s freedom of speech has been abridged. I dare the OIF to find someone whose freedom of speech has been abridged. As usual, their arguments are confused and illogical.

Although I’ve written a lot about “banned” books, my primary objections to OIF shenanigans can be condensed to two.

1) By its own extremist logic, the OIF is incapable of arguing against making hard core pornography or excessively violent books or films available for young children. Everything is merely “information,” and everyone regardless of age somehow has a right to all that information. In the case of Internet pornography, they apparently have a duty to view the information if they happen to be passing by. Not only can they offer no argument against it, but if any concerned parents ask that such material be removed from the children’s section of a library, the OIF condemns them as censors.

Despite the high-minded rhetoric, practical instances of challenges almost always involve what is appropriate or inappropriate for children. Any group that is incapable of nuanced ethical argument distinguishing the needs of children from adults deserves not only to be ignored, but morally condemned.

2) The OIF uses deceptive language in their claims about “censorship.” I expect such dissembling rhetoric from politicians, but I prefer not to have it from my professional association. A library removing or not buying a book isn’t government censorship. Government censorship is very clear when it happens – just look to China or North Korea – but it is extremely rare in the United States. The OIF changes the meaning of “censorship” because it’s a strong word, and it makes their crusade against almost non-existent government censorship sound stronger.

Government censorship prevents the publication of information. Period. That’s what it means, and everyone but the ALA knows it. If a book were really censored, a library wouldn’t be able to buy it in the first place, much less remove it.  Recently, the Pentagon bought all 10,000 copies of the first edition of a spy memoir and destroyed them, claiming that they contained information that could be damaging to national security. This is the best attempt at government censorship I’ve seen in the United States since the Nixon era. Had they not bungled the affair by clearing the book and then later un-clearing it, it would be tempting to give the Pentagon the benefit of the doubt, because there are secrets of national security that protect American lives. It would still be censorship, but sometimes censorship is justified, and the right to free speech isn’t absolute. If the OIF really knew anything about the First Amendment, they would know this.

Because of these two flaws in OIF thinking, it’s difficult to take them seriously. By using such extremist logic and sloppy language, they manage to turn what should be a serious debate about intellectual freedom and tolerance into a farce. A defense of intellectual freedom is admirable, but it can be defended without resort to irrational extremism or deceptive language.

By defending Internet pornography for children (which is the implication of fighting and losing against CIPA) and crying “government censorship” where none exists, the OIF actually damages the credibility of the ALA among rational people. Nobody has a right to view Internet pornography on a publicly funded computer in a public place. To filter it out isn’t government censorship. To claim differently is both false and morally obtuse. Defending Internet porn for children doesn’t make librarians look noble; it makes them look like cranks.

However, they’re right that something in the First Amendment applies to the situation. The freedom of religion. One might notice that the OIF doesn’t often bother to defend their claims, but that’s only because they’re indefensible. They’re like articles of faith, there to be chanted by the true believers and ignored by everyone else. Once you accept the articles of faith, you no longer need to reason clearly or use language appropriately. You just believe.



  1. CIPA isn’t bad because it prevents children from accessing pornography; CIPA is bad because it requires filters, and every single filter on the market is absolute garbage that blocks the wrong sites, lets through the stuff you’re trying to keep out, and can be subverted by anyone who’s willing to spend two minutes learning how.

    What libraries needed was a “no porn” policy and the willingness to enforce it. Instead, we get a federal mandate to install broken, ineffective, expensive software on all of our computers.

  2. I’d like to ask a question without implying any opinion or side on the matter:

    What objective, logical basis is there to distinguish between the rights, protections, and needs of an ‘adult’ and a ‘child,’ and by what objective measure is the characteristic of childhood or adulthood reached?

    Thank you.

  3. OK…here is the problem with *YOUR* logic and what you forget about OIF, and ALA’s position.

    It is not my job as a librarian to decide what your kids see and read. It is the job of the parent. I let my kids have all kinds of freedom to see and read. They turned out just fine. (Two Eagle Scouts, and a lifetime member and now employee of the Girl Scouts, thank you very much. They are all college grads, one with a Masters. All with full time jobs, wonderful partners, and generally good members of their respective communities.)

    And there are communities where the government (not the federal, but the local) which does try to censor by not allowing certain publications or ideas.

    Get a grip, get a life.

    By the way….pornography is legal. Obscenity is not, but no one has defined obscenity yet!

  4. librarian-in-training says:

    I love this debate. It’s my favorite from ethics class. We took a close look at the ALA Bill of Rights, and realized there is no guidance whatsoever for librarians trying to decide how to provide resources for minors. The ALA mumbles something about how no librarians can decide according to chronological age what resources are appropriate. The obvious conclusion to draw is that librarians, unlike teachers, have no idea what children read. Great advert for library school. And librarians in schools.

  5. AL, you are so right. Just look how the OIF uses BBW to ridicule everyone, hundreds, who comply with ALA policy with the goal of shutting people up so kids retain access to inappropriate material despite the law. It’s deceptive and disgraceful. See “The Parent Trap: ALA Uses Banned Books Week to Ridicule Patrons Complying with ALA Materials Reconsideration Policies.”

  6. Bruce Sullivan says:

    This article says, “Unlike the kind folks at the OIF, I’ve actually read the First Amendment, and there’s absolutely nothing in there that has anything to do with the “banned” books debate….”

    On the contrary, the OIF is very familiar with the First Amendment. Additionally, they are very familiar with the extensive amount of jurisprudence surrounding it. OIF has not decided to have banned books as a pet project to scare parents, corrupt children, and drive social conservatives into apoplexy. Rather, they have developed their positions – which do change from time to time – based on intense scrutiny of that jurisprudence and constitutional scholarship. Whether or not a group or individual agrees with the outcome of that jurisprudence, still the law is the law.

  7. @Logic is Booty. [Ed: comment removed.] That was just rude. You don’t have to get mean to make you point. Logic was getting of course by bringing that up, but that’s hardly a reason to make a vile statement.

    @AL – I kind of view this debate as a mirror of the climate change argument. Either you are a believer or a denier and there is no room in-between. I understand you think the OIF goes too far with it’s blind pursuit of anything that smells of censorship – and yes, that it wrong of them. At the same time, most of the books I get asked to remove are not for pornography, obscenity or gross indecency. It’s almost always about religion.

    Should I remove the Koran because a person flipped out that we had that on shelf? How about books on witchcraft and the occult? Books proposing gay marriage or gay adoption are another big sore point.

    I have a hard time appreciating the “librarians are handing out porn” or “librarians are banning Harry Potter” arguments because they happen so rarely. Please, both sides need to stake out more reasonable positions and offer guidance as to how to realistically deal with the question of censorship.

  8. Nigel, thank you for the civility you bring to the discussion. You are absolutely right that vilifying each other brings nothing of value to this debate.

    The OIF and ALA have become fundamentalists on the issue of filtering and the internet. They’ve become radical on this issue and harmful to our profession. Their intransigence regarding filtering and CIPA damages their ability to provide the ethical leadership that we require from our professional organizations.

    Logic, while you’re correct that a parent should decide what their children can see or read, the government also has an interest in protecting the welfare of children. Unless you believe that viewing pornography is good for children or does no harm to them, I hope that you will agree that the government has an interest in protecting children from accessing pornographic material harmful to them. In CIPA, congress and President Clinton agreed that the best way to protect children from accessing internet pornography is to employ filters. The Supreme Court upheld CIPA and affirmed that it did not violate the first amendment. Mr. Sullivan, if the OIF and ALA are so familiar with first amendment jurisprudence and willing to change their positions, why are they so unwilling to change after the firm rebuke that CIPA brought to them?

    Professional organizations have been wrong before and are slow to change. The American Medical Association did not take a strong stance against policies barring African-Americans from state and local medical societies until the 1960s. The American Psychological Association classified homosexuality as a mental disorder as late as 1975. How many years will it take ALA and the OIF to admit they were wrong?

  9. librarEwoman says:

    I agree with Logic; it should be the parents’ responsibility to make sure their kids are not viewing content on the Internet that is objectionable to them. I am not saying that it’s good for children to watch pornography. I am saying that instead of parents depending on crappy filtering software and then blaming the library if the filtering software does not filter out everything they don’t want their kids to see, the parents should supervise their children’s Internet use. A parent’s presence and supervision is the best filter. Unfortunately, many parents do not supervise their kids or spend quality time with them. While that is unfortunate and problematic, it’s not the government’s responsibility to step in and provide the care and supervision of a parent, except for obvious cases of child abuse/neglect. CIPA is a governmental law which forces libraries to act as parents. Since every parent bases his/her parenting techniques on his/her own beliefs, how is it right for public agencies, which are supposed to adhere to no specific beliefs, to act as parents?

  10. It's Not You - It's Me says:

    Sure, parents need to parent. And they need to talk with their kids about what’s acceptable and what’s not. But when a working single mom sends her 15-year-old daughter to an after-school study program at the local library, shouldn’t she have a reasonable expectation that the kid won’t end up trying to do her homework on a computer next to a 50-year old quasi-pedophile getting his jollies off of a “barely 18″ website?

    Porn may be legal, but it’s not the government’s job to spend my tax dollars to help some horny old man (or teenager, for that matter) get an eyeful in a public setting.

    Don’t we have public indecency laws for exactly that kind of thing? Is pulling up porn in a public library so drastically different from exposing oneself in a public park that the one is constitutionally protected and the other gets you hauled in to the police station?

    AL said it well:
    “Nobody has a right to view Internet pornography on a publicly funded computer in a public place.”

    Please cite me some case law that upholds that “constitutional right”.

  11. Yay! I’m a troublemaker! And interesting note – OIF removed my comment (that they responded to) from the video to which it was attached. Or that’s what I’m assuming since it’s not there anymore and I didn’t delete it. I wonder if that counts as censorship? (SafeLibraries also commented on the same video – their comment is still there, but got ‘hidden.’) I’m tempted to comment again on one of their videos and let them know that AL has struck back, but given that Banned Books Week is over, I wonder if they’ll notice or care.

    Frankly, I find this whole situation terribly confusing. I thoroughly oppose the removal of non-pornographic materials from libraries, i.e. religious tomes like the Qu’ran or entertainment like Rowling’s “Harry Potter” series. But I would have a much harder time objecting if people demanded that a library’s collection of Hustler magazines be moved or removed. And I don’t think this is anything like the arguments about climate change, because anthropogenic global warming has been proven as well as science can be, while the arguments for “Banned Books Week” have holes the size of Wyoming.

    I’m not opposed to pornography, mind you – and in truth, I tend to agree with George Carlin on the subject. Mr. Carlin felt that violence was far worse than watching people have sex. Movies like the “Saw” series are surely worse than legal and consensual pornography. (I’ve never seen the “Saw” movies because I really don’t care for the horror genre. Some have called them “torture porn,” by which I think they mean titillating the audience through absurd and gory death, as opposed to consensual, if non-traditional, sex practices.)

    Incidentally, a correction to the poster who called themselves “Logic” – there is, in the United States anyway, a definition of obscenity. It’s called the Miller test. At the risk of being condemned for citing Wikipedia (gasp!):

    “The Miller test was developed in the 1973 case Miller v. California.[2] It has three parts:

    * Whether “the average person, applying contemporary community standards”, would find that the work, taken as a whole, appeals to the prurient interest,
    * Whether the work depicts/describes, in a patently offensive way, sexual conduct specifically defined by applicable state law,
    * Whether the work, taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value.[3]

    The work is considered obscene only if all three conditions are satisfied.”

    Anyway…I think it would all work out if they just called it what it is: Challenged Books Week. Or maybe expand it a bit and call it Challenged Materials Week. Or Challenged Stuff Week, since nobody outside of libraries knows what “materials” means in this context. Either way, you avoid the acronym problem (BBW…*cough*) and you’re not running about pointing at people and calling them censors when they really aren’t.

    As it stands…there’s a lot of pressure in library school to join the bloody ALA. I haven’t done it yet and I’ll probably avoid it if I can. Between the silliness of “Banned Books Week,” the ineffectualness of the ALA in regards to real issues (copyright reform, anyone?) and their repeated “oh, there’ll be jobs opening up any day now!” ridiculousness, I just don’t feel comfortable paying good money to sign on to their organization. I don’t care about the student rate because that’s still money I could get more use out of elsewhere (a new video game, for example). And I can pretty much guarantee that I’ll never go to one of their stupid conventions.

  12. Bruce Sullivan says:

    With regard to your question, ALA/OIF likely have not altered their stance regarding CIPA because they find it conflicts with basic library values as embodied (for that organization at least) in the Library Bill of Rights. Similarly, the ALA has consistently opposed the Patriot Act for comparable reasons. I don’t want to insult anyone’s intelligence other than my own, but those principles maintain that there is no difference between the basic rights of children and adults, and that idea is derived directly from the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” This debate is not about the ability of pedophiles to look up porn at the internet that children might see (I would assert that problem is grossly overstated and usually very easily handled by skilled professionals, and I would love to see documented research about how and when exactly a cursory glance at pornography in a library caused serious psychological trauma to anyone); it is about the idea that everyone – regardless of age, race, gender, orientation, class, etc. – has equal opportunity to information in a society, in a nation, in a democracy that calls itself free. We can install filters, we can employ closed stacks, we can practice self-censorship and strategic deselection/nonselection, and then we can call it safe, call it prudent, call it age-appropriate, call it CIPA; just don’t call it freedom, because it isn’t. While I can empathize with a parent’s concern about the vulnerability of an unaccompanied teen in a public library, still I would maintain that the proper way to prepare children of any age for exposure to undesirable items or circumstances is to instill values; true, a child may not respond as a parent likes or anticipates, but to paraphrase a much-maligned author, you can’t be the catcher in the rye forever.

  13. Bruce Sullivan says:

    Also, I would like to add that it is crucial that ALA/OIF maintain these positions, because obviously there is tremendous pressure to do otherwise. These positions are not liberal or conservative, and indeed those terms are largely meaningless in the cacophony of garbage that dominates media coverage of our political discourse in this country. If ALA caves and whimsically changes its positions, then we as a profession and as a citizenry lose our most powerful voice for freedom and personal responsibility.
    Furthermore, research into the development of CIPA will reveal the heavy-handed influence of companies with an interest in selling filtering technology. So, supporters of internet filtering should be aware that perhaps, just perhaps, protecting the kiddies from the big bad porn wolf was a secondary concern.

  14. needs a 'nym says:

    If the ALA is the citizenry’s most powerful voice for anything, then the citizenry is in serious trouble.

  15. a library student says:

    When asked to make my first Banned Book Week display I studied the ALA’s material and was upset at the misnomer. So I looked up truelly banned books like the Quran, Bible, Lady Chatterly’s Lover, Candide, Ninteen Eighty Four, etc… see list at wikipedia and
    I wrote a small explanation of banned vs challenged books and labeled the books on display accordingly. I have not joined the ALA, and I’m really not sure I can when I disagree on so many platforms.

  16. I’ve never belonged to the ALA and never intend to. The belief that our public libraries should let anyone view anything when ever they want on public computers because it would be a violation of the 1st Amendment is so out of line with the beliefs or our patrons that is shows how out of touch the ALA truly is with the citizens of this country. I received my MLIS from an accredited ALA school but other than the stamp of approval from the ALA school, I’ve known of nothing they ever did to help those of us who endeavor to be librarians. Have they done anything to stop the closing of libraries? Have they improved salaries? Have they improved our budgets? Have they provided free education to perspective librarians? Not that I know of, they just seem to want to whine about CIPA and banned books. How about an organization that actually does something to help the majority of librarians and not just those with an ax to grind against the government for “censoring” books and porn? What about the rights of the patron who DOESN’T want to have to see porn on the computers of a PUBLIC library? Should they just shut up and go home? And what if they don’t want to sit down and have to see someone reading Playboy or Penthouse at the next table or just across the aisle from them? Should they be silenced and have to put up with it? I don’t think so. They have rights as well and it is their library as well. Want to read, watch or endulge yourself with porn? Go home to the privacy of your home. NO ONE is saying you can’t view or watch or read it at home, just not in a PUBLIC setting. Get a life. Oh, and ALA, stop saying that you speak for all librarians, you don’t. Just the select few who choose to support your nonsense with their money.

  17. YS Librarian says:

    Real Case Scenario – Is it censorship or correcting an improper initial collection designation?
    This discussion always makes me think of this specific case because I think some librarians see censorship in what might actually be a mistake that needs to be fixed.
    In 1999, Hallmark & TNT put out a direct to TV version of Animal Farm, later released to video without a rating and with the following description: “Chaos ensues when animals take over the farm in this magnificent adaptation of George Orwell’s classic novel, which features the magic of Hallmark entertainment and Jim Henson’s Creature Shop. Set in the beautiful Irish countryside and populated with a wide variety of barnyard animals, Animal Farm is sure to leave the whole family squealing with delight”. The distributor was Family Home Entertainment.
    Now we all know that Animal Farm isn’t a book meant for small children but many such classic novels have been adapted for younger audiences and based on the description given our media specialist (who had missed the television broadcast) ordered this film for our Juvenile media collection. A library staff member with 5 & 7 year old boys checked it out and returned it to me the next day with concerns about its placement. Although she had stopped the movie as soon as she realized how “dark” the story was turning, it still gave both her children nightmares that night. I had watched the TNT broadcast and, when I realized this was the same program, asked our media librarian to consider moving it to the adult media collection. She initially balked but eventually agreed to watch it herself. The day after watching the show, she sent a heartfelt apology to be passed onto our staff member and her children, along with the information that the video would be moved immediately to the adult collection.
    Was this censorship? The video was not removed from the library, it was just moved to a different collection. There wass nothing to prevent any patron from checking it out. Our copy has had 218 circs and is still going strong. Another copy in the library system has gone out 200 times and two other copies had 167 & 182 circs before they were discarded.
    Was the move justified? Watch it yourself and you tell me – one film critic said “If anything, shots of animals hanging from the gallows or being beheaded heighten the horror of Orwell’s story, and though the results may not be subtle, they’re certainly effective.”
    Finally, I have to wonder – if the complaintant had been an average patron instead of a staff member, how many of us would have ignored her concerns as an overreaction?

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