Annoyed Librarian
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Inside Annoyed Librarian

Judge Not, Lest Ye Be Judged, Unless It’s Convenient

Whether it comes to their love of Internet porn in public or their angst over the lack of popular ebook titles, librarians tend to have the same response: we can’t judge anything.

With Internet porn in public, some librarians will actually resort to saying something like, “who’s to say if it’s porn?” I admit, most librarians know it’s porn, and those that defend Internet porn in public usually go for equally stupid responses, such as that since porn is “Constitutionally protected speech” library patrons have a Constitutional right to view it in public at the library.

But I’m just talking about the first response for the moment.

Then there’s the “good books” debate, for lack of a better term. Should libraries spend their money on really bad but popular books, or should they spend money on better books and then promote them?

To that question, even more librarians than the public porn lovers would respond, “who are we to say what’s good and bad? We’re just librarians. We’re just tasteless bureaucrats who can do nothing more than look at a bestseller list and then order whatever is on it.”

Maybe it’s true that most librarians couldn’t tell a good book from a bad book. Perhaps they’re uneducated, despite their “master’s” degree. Or they just don’t read books, because libraries aren’t about books these days. For uneducated people who don’t read books, one book is as good as another. Any of them could be used to hide a gun or prop up a table.

But I digress.

If librarians can’t judge what’s porn or not or what’s good or not, then they have some explaining to do.

For example, they might claim that one person’s porn is another person’s erotica, but as far as I know no library has taken the Annoyed Librarian Porn Challenge, which would require them to put a copy of Hustler or some similar magazine in the children’s section of the library and then defend it against challenges. Why? Because they know it’s porn, and they can control whether it enters the building.

And speaking of challenges, when certain books are challenged, librarians jump on the bandwagon to defend them, often by saying what good books they are. “I know you hate gay penguins, but this book teaches important lessons about tolerance and respect and diving for fish.” Or whatever.

Finally, there are the book awards given by librarians, and the ALA hosts a lot of them. There’s the Newbery Medal, which you’ve probably heard of, and a whole bunch of other awards you probably haven’t. Most of those awards involve evaluating books and making judgments.

It’s not just the librarians on these committees that make the judgments, either. Other librarians buy books because they’ve won some award, even if it’s not handed out by librarians. No decent children’s library is going to be without the Newbery and Caldecott winners, because, you know, these are “good” books.

So when librarians claim they can’t judge what’s porn or not or what book is good or not, I have to wonder why they don’t buy porn in print if they can’t tell what’s porn or not, and why they give out so many book awards if they can’t tell good books from bad books.

The whole thing is very confusing. I have a sneaking suspicion that the claimed inability to judge is just a convenient fiction to be brought out whenever they get challenged for defending silly stuff, but maybe I’m just cynical.



  1. Oh AL, the sooner you stop expecting our fellow-librarians to be anything OTHER than ineffectual the less disappointed you will be.

    As for “I have a sneaking suspicion that the claimed inability to judge is just a convenient fiction to be brought out whenever they get challenged for defending silly stuff,” consider that this fiction is value-added in that it allows shirking of both responsibility (Can’t Do) and accountability (Didn’t Do). From what I can tell, avoiding responsibility and accountability are two tenets of the profession…

  2. Annoying Librarian says:

    I’d like to know how many libraries actually allow porn viewing. Seattle’s getting all this press for doing it, and I agree with you, they sound like idiots. When I was first out of library school, I thought it was very principled of the first library I worked at to refuse e-Rate money so they didn’t have to filter. But the library I work at now filters, and if we catch you looking at porn anyway, you’re out of here. And I think that’s fine. Maybe it’s just that I’ve gotten older, had kids, and changed my views. Or maybe I’ve “sold out to the censors.” But I bet there are a lot more libraries quietly prohibiting porn than allowing it.

    • Good for you, Annoying. Keep up the good work! Your judgement is what we’re paying for and there’s no doubt in my mind you can discern between someone researching breast cancer (the proforma example in these cases) and someone consuming porn.

      And, if you make a principled mistake and censor too much, let the patron make a challenge that will help clarify dimensions of the issue or open up new ones for consideration. This form of engagement with ideas & human practice — this being a nexus for public learning together (even though sometimes it’s messy and difficult) — this is what libraries need to do more in this age of information abundance. It’s a public good and well worth supporting.

    • Annoying Librarian — ditto. I’m sure that most libraries use filters. Mine does. You don’t see any articles being written about that, though.

    • I worked at a public library that “didn’t allow” people to view porn, & instructed staff to prohibit & report it, but, confusingly, refused to back staff up when they followed these directions. So, really, a blind eye was turned on porn-viewing, so to speak.

  3. Once again, you’ve touched upon a key issue. Stances like these are huge strategic mistakes for libraries.

    Here’s what I see libraries doing:
    1) Behind the fig leaf of professional neutrality, maintaining a posture of disengagement with anything that involves potential conflict, controversy, critical-thinking and accountability.

    2) Foregrounding services that preserve that disengagement and can easily be outsourced or automated.
    * Auto-fulfillment and circulation of popular materials
    * Providing “free” wi-fi and computer terminals for job search, email & social media
    * Community center & meeting rooms

    Libraries are quick to trot out a list of other “impacts” (literacy, community transformation, fortifying democracy) but they crumble pretty fast under examination. Besides, I’ll bet these types of intangibles are becoming less influential in the public’s perception of libraries than:
    1) A general sense that the internet has made libraries obsolete;
    2) What they see in libraries, which is lots of retail-type activity;
    3) A high profile issue like library porn.

    For libraries to remain relevant and viable, they need to strengthen and sell their discernment. They need to stake a firm claim to a domain and establish expertise and professional standards for it. They need to say “This is what we do and we do it better than anyone else.” Saying “we have books, we have computers, we have meeting rooms” is not enough.

    Nurturing discernment will take some time. A kick-start would be to get on the right side of the pornography issue by.
    1) Examining the stance on libraries being a general “information access” point. See “D’s” recent comments in this forum for some good insights.
    2) Being true community leaders and getting the public involved. Lead the need. Help generate public thought and dialogue about the benefit and harm of free-flowing “information”. Generate dialogue about the type of communities we want to live in and the type of places we want our libraries to be.

  4. librarEwoman says:

    What I find really interesting in this post is the question of what books and other media are “good,” and who is most qualified to decide what is good. Many library patrons still do view librarians as good people to ask for reading suggestions. So, as Jean said, they do see that we have a special ability for discernment when it comes to reading choices. This is a good thing.

    That being said, what I consider to be “good” ranges very widely. I think The Heart of Darkness and The Scarlet Letter are good reads, but I also think that Hunger Games and Ship Breaker are wonderful reads, and I’ll even go so far as to say that romance novels by the likes of Nora Roberts are good reads. It just depends on what type of reading experience someone is looking for at a particular point in time. There are books that are good because they’re highly thought-provoking, but there are also books that are good because they’re full of adventure and edge-of-your-seat thrills, mysteries, or romantic escapism. What makes them good isn’t what genre they are, whether they’re “classic,” or whether they’ve won an award. What truly matters is whether they offer a well-crafted story that draws people in, engages them, and transports them into the world of the book.

    With non-fiction books, the question of what is “good” seems to be more clear-cut. Does it give the information it claims to in an organized, understandable, well-written, well-illustrated (if there are illustrations) manner?

    Librarians are typically well-read, in a wide variety of genres. This gives us strength to provide reading suggestions of a wide variety of readers. As soon as we get too elitist about what we consider “good,” we’ll become irrelevant to many of our patrons.

    • librarEwoman (and others) – please pardon the frequent comments … it’s just that I’ve been agitating for 3 years to get some substantive dialogue going about our libraries and (unbelievably) this has been the most fertile ground. Whassup with that???

      In any case librarEwoman, your statements about what constitutes a “good read” are so right on! You’re a person who has clearly thought alot about this and has a breadth of knowledge. And, you can communicate your expertise to others. Reading your criteria was informative for me and I know I’ll sub-consciously apply it to the next work of fiction I read. Thank you! This is what librarians should be doing instead of running for cover under the pathetic refrain “giving the public what it wants”.

      Your articulation about content is what promoting reading and fostering a culture of reading truly means. This is the leadership in a specific domain I referred to in my earlier comment. This is adding value rather than merely doing the retail work of pushing content objects around. This is worthy of public support.

    • RA 101 in a nutshell. Unfortunately, content seems to be of less import to the profession than the device on which it is to be read.

      And as for “giving the public what it wants”, that is a double-edged sword. Readers want things for a variety of reasons, and it’s not always our place to decide whether that want is important or valid. So yes, we do “hide” behind that, if you want to phrase it that way.

    • Why is it unbelieveable that this site is one you can turn to for actual discussion of issues? It always has been. In general – here you will hear the lament of the library employee who works on desk dealing with patrons – putting up with poor polices etc.

  5. Formerprof says:

    Back when I was Currentprof, I would always challenge my new students with this one…If libraries want to offer popular material, why don’t they have more porn in the library? Porn is extremely popular, way more popular than Hollywood movies or anything Elsevier has ever even considered publishing. Porn DVDs would really bring in the business. And to a whole new group of users who haven’t set foot in a library since 8th grade.

    Sacred cows skewered, hypocrisy exposed, minds blown…mission accomplished.

    There really is no reason not to have porn in the library, except we all know it’s personally and socially destructive and we know it when we see it so we avoid it.

  6. Most of my co-workers have terrible taste in books. To me there are always the guilty pleasures but I agree that a library should try to pick what is literary rather than what is popular. Librarian can’t do that? What is wrong with us looking at reviews of books and making a judgement based on that? We buy so much junk that when we get it, even the patrons don’t want it. We buy $5 paperbacks of paranormal romances series all the time but I have to ILL Faulkner.

    In my area, the people doing the ordering get what they like as long as the popular stuff. It’s easier that way. I try to order stuff I think we need as a library but usually get those requests rejected.

    Maybe if we actually read the book reviews for some things…

  7. Hold up for a second … My understanding is that collection departments use professional reviews to determine the majority of their purchases. Is this not the case?

  8. AL, you said no one has taken you up on your library porn challenge. You know, of course, that ALA Presidential Candidate Gina Millsap said this, right?:

    “I respectfully submit that I believe that the Board of Trustees should affirm its current Library Materials Selection, Circulation and User Confidentiality policies with two changes. 1. Lift the restriction on R-rated films in the Circulation policy. 2. Discontinue the practice of putting certain magazines behind the service desk, including Playb0y. That will ensure that we are consistent in the way we provide access to all library materials and ensure user confidentiality.”

    Source: “Letter From Gina Millsap, Executive Director; To Topeka and Shawnee County Public Library Board of Trustees; Dated February 13, 2009; Re: Expression of Concern from Mrs. Kim Borchers,” by Gina Millsap, Topeka & Shawnee County Public Library, 13 February 2009, 4 pp.


  9. If I do a screen capture and post the picture in back, and one of my female co-workers complains, I’m in trouble for sexual harassment. But if a patron calls the same co-worker over because he is having ‘problems,’ then it is just part of the job. Acknowledging the righteousness of the complaint in the first instance acknowledges, implicitly, that it is porn.

  10. librarEwoman says:

    Yes, we do use professional reviews. Many of the folks who write those professional reviews are librarians. I hope that these librarian reviewers never become as elitist as the AL when deciding which books are “good” enough for a library collection.

  11. librarEwoman says:

    According to the AL, if a book is extremely popular, its quality is highly questionable. This type of thought-process is elitist. The message it broadcasts is: “The people we librarians serve aren’t able to spot a good book. I am superior, however, and can show them what they should be reading, instead of the drivel they’re currently reading.” In reality, it’s a very rare case that librarians see no literary merit in an extremely popular book. For the most part, we tend to agree with the masses in discerning “good” books. Why? Not because we just accept whatever happens to be popular. Librarians love critiquing books and debating about which ones are “good.” The real reason we agree with the masses most of the time is that we don’t have a monopoly on the ability to spot a good book. The best books are the ones that most successfully speak to the human experiences shared by all of us.

    • I’m not sure if you’ve accurately summarized the AL’s position. What I read the author saying is what “D” and I have said below and Spencer has said in previous posts … that libraries should use their training and professional resources to cull out material that meets some established quality standards.

  12. Judging the materials we provide is not just convenient, it’s our job.

    Most of us can identify pornography pretty easily and when we pretend we can’t, we’re just being deceptive and manipulative. “Who’s to say what is pornography and what isn’t.” Well, in a library, that would be us, the librarians. We’re supposed to be skilled at selecting material for our collections and if we’re not, we should get out of the way and let someone else do it, someone who is willing to be responsible to our communities for the collections we provide. If we choose to allow pornography in our libraries via the internet, we should take responsibility for that and stop pretending that, for libraries, the internet is all or nothing. We need to stop abrogating our responsibility to provide a safe environment for our employees and customers and acknowledge that allowing pornography in our libraries hurts our ability to do our job.

    Worrying about supplying popular versus high quality materials is probably a false dichotomy. We can do both. I’m as invested as being perceived as being deep and intellectual as anybody. Someone more secure in their intelligence probably doesn’t feel a need use the word “dichotomy.” But to my ears, disparaging popular stuff does make a person sound like a snob, by which I mean that we suggest that the people who consume popular materials lack intelligence, taste, education, and refinement. I usually do that when I’m feeling insecure. Surely we can offer materials that people do want, the popular, and materials that people should want, the excellent. It’s a little silly suggesting that we have to choose between the two.

    • Re: Judging the materials we provide is not just convenient, it’s our job.

      In 2010 I saw a library marketing campaign whose tagline read “If it’s out there, it’s in here”. In my view, a library should not be a mere extension of the outside world; within specific domains it should curate and make accessible the higher quality material from outside world. Books & DVDs of fiction, non-fiction and reference materials are a few of those domains. Otherwise, what makes a library any different from the many retailers out there offering the same products? Not much, except their high cost of operations at public expense.

      As you say, what we’ve deemed is a public good is paying people like you to make choices about quality on our behalf. And I’ve observed widespread abrogation of that responsibility. Sadly, what I see far too often is what Libraryman described: libraries simply opening the spigot and pushing along whatever flows thru it. There’s some good stuff in there, for sure, but also lotza crap. Lots. I also see a real confusion about reader’s advisory among library staff, who often reply to patron inquiries by naming a few titles other people are reading/requesting versus something more targeted to the patron’s interest based on criteria taught in library school and hard-coded into some of the software tools. I’m not quite sure what to make of it.

  13. The Annoyed Librarian is right, of course. Here’s some hard evidence:

    Former ACLU leader Judith Krug, who joined ALA and stamped ACLU policy on her newly created “Office for Intellectual Freedom,” said:

    “A librarian is not a legal process. There is not librarian in the country—unless she or he is a lawyer—who is in the position to determine what he or she is looking at is indeed child pornography.”

    “Libraries vs. Police in a Suit Sparked by Porn; Kent Case Centers on People’s Rights and Protections,” by Jeffrey M. Barker, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, 13 August 2002.

    Krug’s gone now. Has anyone restored common sense to the “Office for Intellectual Freedom”? This AL post is evidence that nothing has changed.

  14. Talking about judgment of what constitutes porn sidesteps the question. We just use it as an extreme example that is readily available.

    The Annoyed Librarian challenge doesn’t really hold water. You wouldn’t put pornographic materials in a childrens’ section because you wouldn’t put DIY books on how to build a shed in that section either. You select books for the childrens’ section; you don’t filter books out of it.

    So even if I judge that an item is porn, I am no further ahead. I have an idea where it won’t go. It won’t go in the children’s section. It won’t go on the display rack. Perhaps I should throw it away, but then why did our library buy it in the first place? Are librarians seriously buying all sorts of pornographic materials for their collections?

    The issue is really not with what libraries collect, but with what patrons access over the Web. And that’s a lot trickier. Why should I be peering over someone’s shoulder to check if they’re looking at porn? What if they are doing their banking? That’s private information that I shouldn’t be looking at. Librarians aren’t saying that they don’t want to judge what is and isn’t pornographic, but that they don’t want to judge patrons for what is and isn’t acceptable use of the library’s resources. It’s just too much policing.

    You have to look not only at the offending material, but at the method you would use to monitor it as well. There is no censorship software that is perfect, and not enough of a market to drive competition between the vendors. Beyond that, blanket solutions will always have the problem of a patron not being able to access a website for legitimate purposes because the software has blocked it. Paying somebody to monitor all websites accessed through the library’s Internet connection would cost a lot, and possibly be illegal.

    The issue has a lot less to do with judging what is and isn’t pornography. There are logistical challenges to the censorship of public Internet resources that a single public library system is incapable of addressing on its own.

    • “Why should I be peering over someone’s shoulder to check if they’re looking at porn? What if they are doing their banking? That’s private information that I shouldn’t be looking at.”

      I’ve walked by a patron watching porn and it has caught my attention out of the corner of my eye. I’ve never walked by someone staring at text or numbers on a screen and been compelled to turn to make sure they weren’t doing something “wrong.”

    • Ben, your question “What if they are doing their banking?” brings me back to the question of what distinguishes a library from any old retail establishment with wifi. I ask this every time I visit a library and observe the majority of patrons using computers for email & Facebook, playing computer games, watching dumb videos.

      It’s hard for me to continue supporting an institution that says “we’re going to spend public funds on resources (computers and internet access) without a clear purpose … and, we can’t be held responsible for how these resources are used”.

      I know the lack of mission and boundaries is hard for library staff too. Andy Woodworth & numerous library commenters expose facets of the problem in A Reference Dilemma.

    • Joe Schallan says:

      Well, Jean, many public libraries have mission statements. At one place I worked they had theirs framed and hung in the staff breakroom. I found it, battered and dusty, where it had fallen off the wall and lodged behind a bookcase. Despite the long neglect, I bet it took a hundred hours of committee work and a great deal of high-mindedness to produce it.

      In any case, public libraries have mission statements, but in practice most librarians want to be mission-free. Having a mission implies values, and having values implies making judgments. The modern librarian wonders “Who am I to be making a judgment about how public funds are spent? I’m here to be reactive, not proactive. We give ’em what we think they want.”

  15. Marian Liberrian says:

    Here’s a question:
    Patron looks at foot fetish sites–photos of women showing off thier feet, fully clothed but a bit suggestive. He’s doing this in a rather public area. Should this be considered porn? The photos are old school “cheesecake” at best but there’s a reason he’s printing these out… Is he out of line?

  16. Formerprof says:

    Ben makes some good clarifying points. But ask yourself this: Besides a few degenerates (including some librarians), who is going to complain that there’s not enough porn in libraries? Librarians have gotten themselves in this position because you’ve hinged your professional identity on being the protector of the 1st amendment and archenemy of censors everywhere (except Cuba).
    Now you’re in a position where you have to defend the indefendable due to misplaced professional priorities.

  17. Hi Joe – I’ve read tons of library mission & vision statements, SWOT analyses, list of BHAGs, surveys, etc. Most of ’em are bureaucratic flotsam.

    We don’t need 17,000 public libraries across the country and the hundred thousand others to be doing mission and vision statements. It’s a waste. What we need is some leadership to ‘get real’ and ask:
    – What do we want our libraries to be?
    – What do we want our libraries to do?
    – What will it take to get ’em to be what we want and do what we want?

    I’ve been trying to get this dialogue going within the library community for 3 years without success. The dialogue is a very public one, but will gain absolutely no traction if the library community hasn’t seriously engaged it first.

    The library community doesn’t have to answer the questions, but they do need to engage and inform the discussion. Haven’t seen a willingness to do that yet.

  18. “I ask this every time I visit a library and observe the majority of patrons using computers for email & Facebook, playing computer games, watching dumb videos.”

    Firstly, the major difference between a library and retail establishment that provides wi-fi is the fact that we provide the computers as well for those that can’t afford their own laptops. Secondly, it’s ridiculous to try and police every single person on a computer and tell them they can’t look at Facebook or Youtube (Especially when so many libraries have Facebook pages and Youtube channels). That is just ridiculous.

    However, I’m sure like many other libraries the internet use times are limited. In our case to 30 minutes and one hour with extensions only given for those doing research, genealogy, homework, resumes, job searching, etc.

  19. ipsolibrarian says:

    They allow porn viewing at the Boston Public Library. It’s disgusting to look at that stuff in a public place. We find patrons wanking in public all the time. It’s horrible.

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