|Photo by peskylibrary on Flickr|
Well, Banned Books Week is officially over. I don’t really have a problem with the event, though it’s hard not to make snarky observations. Thankfully, the Annoyed Librarian has already taken care of the snark, so I can get along with my day.
Anyway, reading about all of the banned book displays and banned book read-outs has got me thinking about how highlighting
banned challenged controversial books matches up with the policies recommended by the ALA. Surprisingly, these displays are a violation of ALA policies on intellectual freedom. Specifically, it seems that a lot of the hoopla surrounding banned books is in direct violation of the ALA’s official position on labeling. That’s right…by pulling controversial titles from the general collection, assembling them into a special exhibit, and encouraging patrons to read them, librarians are going against an official policy of the ALA regarding censorship.
Labeling and Rating
Long before our society was overrun by gay penguins and sparkly vampires, conservative and religious groups had a different problem: Commies. Those damned pinkos were everywhere and they needed to be stopped. So, concerned citizens started pressuring libraries to place big, fat stickers on any books that might be considered “subversive” or “un-American”. Of course, the ALA was having none of that, so in 1951 it released an official Statement on Labeling that condemned any attempts to label a book “subversive”. As the statement argued “labeling is an attempt to prejudice the reader, and as such, it is a censor’s tool.”
The statement on labeling has been amended a handful of times over the past 60 years, ultimately ending up as a statement on “Labels and Rating Systems.” Here are the five core principles regarding labeling:
- “The presence of books and other resources in a library does not indicate endorsement of their contents by the library.”
- “Labels on library materials may be viewpoint-neutral directional aids that save the time of users, or they may be attempts to prejudice or discourage users or restrict their access to materials.”
- “Prejudicial labels are designed to restrict access, based on a value judgment that the content, language or themes of the material, or the background or views of the creator(s) of the material, render it inappropriate or offensive for all or certain groups of users.”
- “Viewpoint-neutral directional aids facilitate access by making it easier for users to locate materials.”
- “When directional aids are used to forbid access or to suggest moral or doctrinal endorsement, the effect is the same as prejudicial labeling.”
The ALA also provides this helpful FAQ on labeling, if you’d like (slightly) more explanation.
Are Banned Books displays viewpoint-neutral?
The statement on labeling makes it pretty clear that there are only two types of labels: directional and prejudicial. That’s it. The call number on the spine is a finding aid, so that’s an acceptable directional aid. Same goes for barcodes. A sign that says “Fiction” is okay, and it’s even permissible to make a display for a summer reading list, because “assembling materials that will be in high demand for a limited period of time helps library users find them.” But, as the ALA repeatedly insist, any non-directional label is prejudicial. So, where do the Banned Books displays fit in?
It seems clear that a Banned Book display would fall under the “directional aid” category. But, the ALA is explicit that when a directional aid is used “to suggest moral or doctrinal endorsement, the effect is the same as prejudicial labeling.” Moral or doctrinal endorsement, huh? What am I doing if I actively encourage people to read a select class of books in order “to draw attention to the danger that exists when restraints are imposed on the availability of information in a free society“? Sounds to me like I’m…wait for it…suggesting moral or doctrinal endorsement. Oh, snap! We’re endorsing a particular moral stance towards the freedom to read! Oh, double-snap! That means Banned Books Week displays are a form of prejudicial labeling! Yes, I’m completely serious about this. According to the official ALA statement on labeling, Banned Books Week is a biased treatment of specific library materials. Sure, it’s a bias in favor of something librarians think is morally acceptable, but according to the ALA it’s a “prejudice” all the same.
By yaffamedia on Flickr
Celebrating banned books…with extreme prejudice.
Before you assume I’m a conservative zealot like that jackass from SafeLibraries, let me add that I’m all about the freedom to read. I love Banned Books Week. I used to read And Tango Makes Three to my son regularly and if he wants to read those controversial YA books with mature themes, I’m all for it. The problem isn’t with Banned Books Week. The problem is that ALA policies on censorship are inconsistently applied and poorly defined.
The Statement on Labeling was a purely reactionary gesture at the height of the Red Scare but, for whatever reason, subsequent amendments have only increased the derp. In a nutshell, the statement is founded on a straightforward false dilemma: labels are either directional or they are a prejudicial “censor’s tool”. Period. But, there is no reason at all to suppose that these are the only two options for labels.
A simple example of acceptable labeling would be the case of a label indicating that certain pages are missing from a volume. That sort of label is not a finding aid, but it’s also not an instance of censorship. To take another example, if my library decides to go with an OPAC that allows user reviews, public lists, and links to book reviews (which we’re deciding right now) then we are enhancing records with non-directional information. But is this prejudicial information? I think not.
But, you know what, these are boring examples of how libraries might inform patrons as to the quality or value of their collections. They suffice to show that the statement on labeling is B.S., but let’s try something more challenging. What about bowdlerized books? I’m sort of thinking that bowdlerized books should be labeled as such, if only to prevent patrons from mistaking an expurgated text for an original. What do we tell the Freshman English major who checks out the Charles Lamb edition of Romeo and Juliet, where the roles of Mercutio and the Nurse have vanished? Or, more recently, what do we do with that copy of Stephenson’s Reamde that Amazon just reworked on the fly? Shouldn’t we indicate whether a book on the shelf is the censored or abridged version, at least so that we might be consistent in our moral opposition to censorship?
Or, what about instances of fraud? If it turns out that a book in the collection is plagiarized, falsifies data, or the author just made everything up, should you include a little descriptive note in the MARC 500 field? Something like, “hey there, it turns out the author plagiarized, so here’s a link to the original version of this work” or ” ‘sup bro, just wanted to let you know that even though this book is shelved with the non-fiction books, the author admitted that he just made everything up.” Can we do that? Did you know you probably do it already? Yeppers, take a look at your library’s record for James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces. What’s that little bit in the 500 field? Oh, crap, it’s a non-directional note! Dear God, your library is an affront to intellectual freedom! You heartless pinko censor, you!
|“THE LITTLE RED BOOK OF GOSSIP GIRL IS THE UNIVERSITY OF MAO ZEDONG THOUGHT!”
by fortinbras on Flickr
We aren’t prejudiced, we’re discriminating
Obviously, there’s more to maintaining a collection than slapping on a barcode and then washing our hands. The simple fact of the matter is that the Statement on Labeling is poorly written. But, I think the tension between the statement and Banned Books Week points to a larger issue: that official ALA policies on intellectual freedom are inconsistent with other library values and ignore the important distinction between prejudice and discrimination. Librarians advocating for intellectual freedom are not prejudiced, they’re discriminating, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Prejudice involves passing judgment without adequate knowledge or relevant reasons. But, sometimes we do know something about the books on our shelves and we believe that our patrons need to share in the same information. We know how to distinguish between different information sources, and we know how to distinguish between relevant and irrelevant bibliographic data. Likewise, sometimes we do know something about intellectual freedom and we believe that we should spread the word. Obviously, we have constraining moral rules, ideals, and virtues. Out of respect for autonomy, we’re not going to command a patron to read or not read a particular book. But, as discriminating experts on intellectual freedom, there’s nothing wrong with advocacy.
If we took the ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom at it’s word, we’d not just have to abandon Banned Books Week, but abandon most forms of library advocacy (want kids to get library cards? sorry, that’s indoctrination). I realize that the ALA doesn’t really want to end library advocacy. Nor does it want to turn its back on issues of intellectual freedom, censorship, literacy, and the other moral concerns of libraries. But, we can’t go about understanding intellectual freedom through policy statements, and I guess all I’m pointing out is that any librarian interested in promoting intellectual freedom is making a tacit admission that the “official” policies on intellectual freedom can be safely ignored. Though, I wouldn’t go so far as to ban them…that’s just what the ALA would want.
|By anirvan on Flickr|
[and, by the way, I got bored of this post and decided to move on to more interesting stuff halfway through writing it. but, whatever, it’s my blog, I’ll do what I want, yo.]
[[crap. that was a non-directional label on my own post. I am so screwed.]]