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Another Problem with Banned Books Talk

One of the many problems with the ALA approach to so-called banned books is that it opens the door to easy criticisms by raging homophobes like this person.

The general gist of the criticism is that while librarians talk a good game about intellectual freedom and are against “censorship” and “banning books,” in fact their entire collection development process effectively bans books that librarians disagree with politically.

Libraries use Collection Development Policies (CDP’s) to determine which books they will purchase with their limited budgets. CDP’s hold that librarians should purchase only books that have been positively reviewed by two “professionally recognized” review journals. Guess what folks, the “professionally recognized” review journals are dominated by ideological “progressives.”

That’s pretty hard to argue with, because she’s right and we all know it. It doesn’t even mention that a lot of times it’s other librarians reviewing the books anyway, thus guaranteeing that the choices will be kept within the profession and that books librarians don’t like won’t be reviewed and thus won’t be purchased.

Considering the way the ALA defines intellectual freedom and censorship, it’s hard not to agree with the homophobic crusader here. Librarians do effectively keep certain kinds of books out of the view of readers. They do it because of their beliefs about what books are good or bad, and those beliefs are occasionally political in nature.

If library patrons ask for a book to be moved or removed from the children’s section, it’s “censorship.” If librarians make sure a book never gets there in the first place through a deliberately rigged collection process, it’s “selection.” Double standards prevail, making librarians look like hypocrites.

It’s a pity that a profession that so upholds intellectual freedom can’t come up with better strategies and arguments than to whine about “censorship” while effectively doing the very thing they complain about.

It must be possible. One could argue that certain types of books are motivated by a kind of hatred that’s inappropriate for children to see.

Will they ask for picture books that show the joy a little birdie experiences when after the West Nile virus deaths of her two daddies, she’s finally adopted by a daddy and mommy?”

Anyone who writes a book where children are happy their parents died of a terrible disease because they hate gay people so much is a pretty horrible person, after all, and keeping the product of their sick minds away from the kiddies is probably a good idea.

But not all homophobic books are necessarily hateful. Fearful, probably, but that never stops libraries from buying books. If there’s a book warning about the dangers of rapid climate change, then there’s a fearful book in the library.

One could argue that some categories of books are just dumb, or that they’re so devoid of scientific evidence that they’re useless books. Praying away the gay is about as useful as praying away the stupid. It just doesn’t work.

But that’s never stopped libraries either. Plenty of libraries have books about UFO abductions in the nonfiction section, and yet the scientific evidence for them is almost nil. Libraries also buy books advocating homeopathy, crystal healing, and other new age nonsense. Same deal.

One could argue that the books are religiously motivated, which is somehow inappropriate for public libraries. Separation of church and state and all that.

But libraries purchase Bibles and Korans and other religious texts. Some public libraries probably purchase religious fiction like the Left Behind books. There’s no good reason they shouldn’t. Religious readers are library users, too. So that argument is out.

One could argue that libraries are about more than intellectual freedom, that they have some other sorts of political values as well. Equality, diversity, tolerance, etc.

The homophobic crusader might reply that not buying homophobic books signals a lack of diversity. After all, the homophobic position is one of the voices out there, if not a majority voice anymore certainly a popular one, and a truly diverse collection would include it in the “marketplace of ideas.”

That one’s hard to refute. Equality and tolerance might work better. Books that claim certain categories of people shouldn’t be allowed to marry or raise children can claim to be among the diversity of voices, but they can’t claim to support equality, tolerance, or even democracy in a lot of America these days.

There are librarians who talk about libraries as places to promote equality and tolerance, but that’s not the “official” line.

The ALA Library Bill of Rights talks about providing books for the “interest, information, and enlightenment of all people,” which sounds promising along those lines, but then immediately says libraries “should provide materials and information presenting all points of view on current and historical issues.”

That sounds like library collections are completely neutral collections, but obviously they’re not. Go to your local library and find some aggressively pro-racism books there. What? There aren’t any? Does that mean that there are no local racists around?

The homophobic crusader was discussing the Schaumburg Township District Library, which apparently had pictures of librarians holding up “banned books,” “you know, books that are widely available in virtually every community library.”

She then lists some antigay books that the librarians could also take pictures of themselves holding. Since none of those books are considered “banned” by the ALA, that’s a pointless suggestion, but her point is valid. “Unlike the books the librarians are holding this year, these books actually aren’t in their library. Hmmm, I wonder if they were banned.”

If there are no books in your library’s collection talking about how awful gay marriage is, then your library isn’t providing materials presenting all points of view.

Librarians tend to be true believers about the banned book nonsense, and it’s pretty hard to reason with them but I’m not giving up just yet. The censorship talk is ridiculous, and librarians would be better off promoting what they do in a smarter way.

Librarians should just own up to the fact that they have a broad political agenda, and one that promotes equality while fighting intolerance.

They don’t defend gay penguin books because they really believe all points of view should be represented in libraries. The defend gay penguin books because they believe that gay penguins should be treated equally to straight penguins, and their constituencies have both gay and straight penguins. Or something like that.

They don’t seek out homophobic children’s books because they’re opposed to diverse viewpoints in the library collection. They don’t seek them out because they don’t seek out children’s books that promote intolerance, hate, or inequality.

It’s the same reason they wouldn’t buy racist children’s books, and they probably wouldn’t buy racist children’s books even if a library patron requested the purchase. There are just certain viewpoints that people devoted to freedom, equality, diversity, and tolerance don’t consider worth buying.

So go on talking about censorship and banned books, librarians. I know what you’re really about. You’re really trying to promote intellectual freedom, equality, and tolerance for all types of library patrons. You’re just afraid to say it in your collection development policies.



  1. Brava! I’ll be adding this to my list of Banned Books Week hoax articles.

  2. Good points.

  3. Frumious Bandersnatch says:

    Frankly, it’s not my job to present all points of view. It’s my job to reflect the educational needs and reading interests of my service community, since I’m using their tax money to buy the stuff. If a patrons voiced concerns over the library not having enough conservative titles, I’d examine my collection, and probably buy more. I would try to find reviews by conservative organizations or periodicals, so whatever I bought was the best of its type I could get.

    The reason I get more say in the collection than Mr. or Mrs. Public is because I presumably have a degree, the training, and the experience to make appropriate choices for my community as a whole. I know it’s popular to go on about how just because someone has a degree doesn’t make their opinion better than any other, but it very often does, in the field in which they have the degree…that’s kind of the point. Those who disagree can illustrate their convictions by choosing a random member of the community to perform their dental work or do their taxes.

  4. The Librarian With No Name says:

    In fact, my library has an entire section dedicated to racist, sexist, and homophobic material. It’s generally called “the Classics section.”

    Hah! Take that, greatest literary minds of the past centuries! Your social mores were really pretty terrible!

  5. Nathan Pease says:

    Wow. I’m not willing to concede the point that the “‘professionally recognized’ review journals are dominated by ideological ‘progressives.'” I’m surprised that you are so willing to do so.

    The language used in the quote has become so ideologically polluted that you are conceding not just her point but her use of terms in a pejorative way.

    I see no good coming out of such a position.

  6. California Librarian says:

    We do have a ton of Bill O’Reilly and Ann Coulter books on our shelves though.

    • Noutopian Librarian says:

      One of my fav AL columns in a long while!
      @California Librarian – does your library carry The Turner Diaries, or The story of Little Black Sambo, or The camp of the saints? Even if it does carry these, do you host programs by racists, or even anti-immigration activists? If like most public libraries, probably not. And with good reason – we advance a progressive (if not overtly political) perspective, and even though it is porous to wingnut fads and attempts to provide balance by carrying well-known screeds by writers on the right, not to mention the scads of Christian fiction and non-fiction, there is intolerance for extreme expression. The same is generally true of academia, most corporations, and pretty much any place that rational people associate for a common purpose. It has little to do with having a degree that makes one professional – there are plenty of wingnuts with library degrees – it has to do with a civilization that values some notions of human equality and welfare.

      This is why Banned Books week is important – the books aren’t really banned – that’s transparently false. However, the event highlights that there are always anti-progressive people who seek to suppress these humanist ideals in libraries and elsewhere, and that vigilance is necessary.

      I have no problem with libraries acquiring and making available racist, sexist, and anti-humanist tracts – I believe that all ideas deserve to be considered. I just happen to believe that if they are truly racist, sexist, or otherwise anti-humanist, they should be criticized relentlessly, and even ridiculed as appropriate.

  7. Lincoln Lyceum says:

    Collection development and book selection are still what put the”pro” in professional.

  8. Perhaps librarians are attempting to ‘ban’ mean-spiritedness by not purchasing racist or homophobic books.

  9. You’ve made the day of the folks over at SafeLibraries: Congratulations!

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