Annoyed Librarian
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A Bad Book Challenge

By a “bad book challenge,” I don’t mean a challenge of a bad book, but a bad challenge of a book. For the ALA, all book challenges are bad. I think reasonable people can disagree.

Somehow I missed the story last month about a book challenge in Greenville, SC. Neonomicon, a graphic novel by Alan Moore, was challenged by a parent after her 14-year-old daughter checked it out from the adult section of the public library.

It’s a weird story. First, the teenager had her mother’s permission to check out the book, and not just the the implicit permission that the mother knew she had a “juvenile adult” card and could check books out from the adult section.

She also had her mother’s explicit permission at the time of checkout itself. The mother is quoted as saying, “It looked like a child’s book.  I flipped through it, and thought it was ok for her to check out.” She thought it looked like a “murder mystery comic.”

While familiar with some of Alan Moore’s stuff, I hadn’t seen that particular work. However, a Google image search for “neonomicon” made it pretty clear that this doesn’t  look anything like a “child’s book.”

Second, besides the numerous naked people having sex in the book, which should be a clue that this isn’t a children’s book at all, the other clue should have been that the book was in the adult section of the library.

As in that section of the library where they put books for adults so that children don’t arbitrarily stumble across graphic drawings of a woman gleefully fellating a demon (Neonomicron #2 for the tasteless among you.)

If a comic book is shelved in the adult section of the library, it’s probably there for a reason. If you want Archie comics, go to the children’s section. If Archie comics are too simple for your tastes, but you haven’t graduated to real novels, then go to the “graphic novel” part of the adult section of the library.

The astounded mother claims to “feel that [Neonomicon] has the same content of Hustler or Playboy or things like that…. Maybe even worse.” Based on my limited experience, I’d say Hustler is nothing like Playboy, and Neonomicon is nothing like either of them.

Since the mother was unaware of the existence of adult comic books, it’s no surprise that she’s unaware of the way media ratings systems in America work.

“I really think if they’re going to carry this type of material there needs to be a rating on it…. There’s ratings on movies, music, video games.  My daughter cannot go to the video game store and get a mature video game without me there.”

The ratings on movies, music, and video games are all created by self-regulating industry organizations that have no power to decide what gets sold or borrowed. Other private organizations – theaters and retailers – use those ratings to decide what they will sell and to whom.

As far as I know, there’s no such organization for the rating of books, probably because Tipper Gore never discovered graphic novels back in the 1980s.

Public libraries have an implicit rating system, which in many libraries is broken into children, young adults, and adults.

Thus, the library in question did in fact have a de facto rating system. It’s called the adult section (in case you’d forgotten from earlier). It’s called that because despite the pleas of the ALA OIF, there are some books that librarians think are appropriate for adults rather than children.

The Greenville County library apparently thought that Neonomicon wasn’t appropriate for children. Hence, it was in the adult section.

Just as I get annoyed by the ALA claiming implicitly that all books are appropriate for all ages, I also get annoyed at busybodies who try to foist their own views on adult library patrons just because they can’t understand how the library organization works.

This is a good test case to draw a distinction between scenarios that the OIF doesn’t want you to distinguish.

If Neonomicon had been shelved in the children’s section (or, as far as I’m concerned, the YA section, but I’m flexible) and some parent had challenged the shelving location of the book, the OIF would go ballistic. Sensible people would shrug, take a look at the graphic demon sex, and conclude that the book should go in the adult section.

But when the book is already in the adult section, and it’s not pornography that the library might have a policy against, then there’s not really a leg to stand on besides the busybody leg.

I sympathize with the woman. If I had a teenage daughter, I wouldn’t want her reading Neonomicon. In fact, I definitely wouldn’t want to read it. But then I wouldn’t have flipped through it and said it was fine to check out, either.

The appropriate course isn’t to challenge the book for other adults, but to start a national campaign to get graphic novels rated and labeled just like video games and music. Then when visiting the library you would have some indication besides the placement of the book in the adult section that the books was for adults.

Everyone else could ignore the “mature” rating and read the book anyway, but at least you would have tried.

P.S. Does anyone know how this particular challenge ended, if it has?


Please note that new comments for all posts on this blog have been closed.


  1. Both Marvel and DC use their own rating systems, prior to which there was an industry standards organization, the Comics Code Authority, but they only provided a one-size-fits-all seal of approval, not maturity or content ratings.

  2. AL said, “Just as I get annoyed by the ALA claiming implicitly that all books are appropriate for all ages, I also get annoyed at busybodies who try to foist their own views on adult library patrons just because they can’t understand how the library organization works.”


    See: “Extensive Therapy For Library Thief; Crestview Public Library Not Responsible For Child’s Losing His Mind Over Stolen Adult Material”

  3. To be fair, library sections usually have more to do with reading level than media ratings. It gets conflated for the children’s section, but “adult books” means a very different thing in a library than it does in that shop downtown.

  4. I’m mightily annoyed too. TEASER ALERT: rant to follow.

    1) I’m annoyed that the ALA and far too many people in library management positions think so uncritically. Half the stuff they come out with contains contradictions right within the text, let alone under examination. Thinking about content, standards, access, context — this is what we entrust to our libraries and what I see is an apparent abdication of responsibility from public libraries. (I’m making a broad claim, not beating a safe libraries drum here.) What I see are statements like “one man’s trash is another’s treasure” or trotting out an exceptional example like “people thought Gulliver’s Travels was trash at the time” to justify willy-nilly acquisition policies.

    2) I’m annoyed with the (generally) weak responses to book challenges I’ve seen from libraries. The vast majority of book challenges, including the one noted in this post, raise important questions that merit consideration. Far too many library responses are bureaucratic refuse spewed from a word processor as a means of placating or exhausting the reader rather than providing something that helps educate or engage dialogue.

    3) I’m annoyed at the far-too-common attitude from library folk that it’s everybody else’s job to do something about important issues while theirs is to sit inside their institutional walls, safely “above the fray”. The AL just wrote “The appropriate course isn’t to challenge the book for other adults, but to start a national campaign to get graphic novels rated and labeled just like video games and music.” A few posts back, AL asked “do librarians need to know anything?” Yes, they do — otherwise what’s their value? They need to know about content and formats; human cognition patterns for text, images, audio; dialectic & semantic styles; historic and cross-cultural context for everything I just listed (and probably lots more). And they need to apply that knowledge in demonstrably productive ways. If it would be a good thing to label graphic novels, then by golly make a good case for it and lobby for change. One of my favorite lines from David Lankes’ stump speech to librarians is “the world has never been changed by those who ‘stand ready'”.
    We’d never tolerate from other professions what we get in our libraries:
    Financial planner: “I don’t know much about the financial product I invested your money in, but lots of people like it …”
    Doctor: “Some people think the best course of treatment is A, some B … so I gave a little bit of both to avoid making a wrong decision.”
    Fire dept officer: “Your gasoline can leaked gas all over your car while you were getting it for the lawn mower and you want to know what to do? Let me put a message out to my listserv to see how other people have handled this and if I get an answer, I’ll let you know.”

    C’mon folks. In America, we invest alot in our public libraries (nearly $12b for operating expenses in FY2009). We deserve more for our money. With our country facing so many societal and economic needs, we need you to do better — there are so many contributions librarianship & libraries can make. And to say it rather plainly: you need to do better because you’re being replaced by technology and other people that do a better job.

    I’m on your side; I really am. You know, for all the blah, blah, blah about systems & funding I’ve written about in comments here — perhaps the most valuable thing I’ve offered up is the candor of this reply. Tough … but love nonetheless.

  5. Darn … so fired up that I blew the hyperlink!

  6. Eye Roll says:

    Jean, you really need to get a new hobby.

  7. thelibrarina says:

    “The appropriate course isn’t to challenge the book for other adults, but to start a national campaign to get graphic novels rated and labeled just like video games and music.”

    Then we’d just have collection development policies that forbid the purchase of mature-rated graphic novels. My public library system purchases the “radio edit” versions of rap and rock CDs, and we don’t collect R-rated movies at all. This was the board’s decision many years ago, and it hasn’t budged since.

    It might not seem like a big problem until you consider that 13 of the past 20 Oscar winners for Best Picture were rated R. I am so tired of people ordering Black Swan and yelling at ME when they get a Tyrone Power pirate movie instead of Natalie Portman in a tutu.

    Graphic novel ratings would just be used as an excuse not to purchase anything too risky–or risque, as the case may be–without considering the merit of the item in question.

  8. Joneser says:

    It is difficult to imagine a reasonable library not taking a “location” complaint seriously – for instance, re-examining something to see if it indeed does belong in the “adult” section and not the juvenile ones. What with the time crunch for everyone, selection mistakes are made – or processing, or something. Re-examination of location, whether prompted internally or externally, occurs all of the time, only there is no press about it.

    I’m with Eye Roll on this one.

  9. Development Arrested says:

    If it’s any consolation, I didn’t care much for Black Swan myself.

  10. Wow – I have no idea what prompted the mess I dumped here yesterday. I’m so sorry.

    Perhaps it’s too much time spent wading thru the issues and not enough time in a public library.

  11. “If Archie comics are too simple for your tastes, but you haven’t graduated to real novels, then go to the ‘graphic novel’ part of the adult section of the library.”

    Ouch. I read graphic novels (yet still manage to make it through “real novels” too!), and I can attest to the fact that there’s a lot of crap out there, but that’s the way it is with any type of media format–be it a traditional novel, an audiobook, a music recording, a painting, or otherwise. There are also some great books that use sequential pictures and words together very effectively, and my ability to appreciate this technique does not indicate an inherent lack of sophistication or education on my part.

    Maybe I’m misreading AL’s statement, but it certainly seems to me that it’s prematurely dismissive of graphic novel readers and the graphic novel format.

  12. Alex Kyrios says:

    There are actual graphic novels, and there’s “graphic novel” as euphemism for comic book. If the protagonist is a superhero, it’s probably a comic book, regardless of thickness. (Probably, but not always; cf. Watchmen) There’s a fine line between graphic novels and comic books, and most people, librarians included, generally don’t bother trying to find it. Not that I think this would be a good use of most librarians’ time.

  13. No, library sections have nothing to do with reading level. Lloyd Alexander’s books and Winnie-the-Pooh have higher reading levels that most adult fiction (7th grade) and are generally in the juvenile section. Most adult fiction is written at a 5th grade reading level, but that is separate from theme and content.

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