Sunday, January 13, 2008

Thoughts On Censorship

My first experience with censorship in library settings was in library school. I had gone to the public library in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. I was looking through some books to read and I found several books in the section had words blacked out. I looked at the book carefully in the upper right hand corner of the cover of the book were the words, this book is safe to read. Someone had gone through the book and crossed out all the objectionable words. They left it on the shelf for others to read. I put the book back at the time.

I had an even more odd experience in a childrens room of a public library. There was a religious sect where I was working, I'm not going to reveal exactly which one, and they would go through the childrens books sometimes and draw little black suits and hats on the pictures to make sure that the pictures of men and women were completely covered. You could see faces, but no bodies. At first, I thought it was amusing, until I really thought about it.

These are two examples where people defaced books. This happens occassionally. What happens more often is that the library patrons steal the books or take the books out and never return the books that they find objectionable. It is quite hard to challenge a book in a library setting. You have to bring in a complaint form about the book. Then the library board and the director will review the title to see if it should be removed. Quite often it is not removed.

We have a really hard time keeping certain titles. The hardest books to keep aren't the books on sex, but the books on politics that people find objectionable. We have trouble keeping Karl Marx Das Kapital, or Hitler's Mein Kampf. They disappear quite quickly from the adult room. Other subjects also disapear like books on abortion, birth control, and sexuality. But, it is the political books which disappear most quickly.

Another problem is that people revere certain people and really want to be close to the books about them. Or, they prefer to own than rent the item. We put certain books as reference to limit thievery. This in a way is a kind of censorship. It is book protection. We have copies of books on Marcus Garvey or Haile Selassie in both the reference and the circulating sections. The books in the circulating section tend to disappear very quickly.

We also keep most of our books on the music business, and the law dictionary behind the reference desk as well. They will leave quickly and never come back if we don't do this.

I think protecting books is a kind of self censorship. Librarians also do self censor. I honestly do find some of the material on a personal level objectionable, but I know people want them. We have to be careful considering ordering books for teenagers and children. The idea of "community standards" sets the tone sometimes for what we are ordering.

A thing to consider is that a person might be reading it for other reasons than supporting a particlar viewpoint. A nurse might ask about how abortions are performed along with pictures of the operation. I've had this question asked more than once. For a while we had a person asking for every book on prostitution which we could possibly get. I have no idea what he was doing with them.


Cowgirl Betty said...

There's an interesting book about censorship by Marjorie Heins called Sex, Sin, and Blasphemy: A Guide to America's Censorship Wars. I don't quite agree with all that she states about all art and literature being profound or not pornographic. But I do agree it all should be protected as much as possible.

Great entry about censorship. It's something I don't think about every day, but it's something we all do in subtle (and not-so subtle)ways. I have comment moderation on my blog (and glad too).

ibpurpledragon said...

Censorship is abhorrent. On the other hand, I won’t take my grandson to some movies he wants to see because I don’t want to be the one exposing him to some of what is considered popular culture. I guess that means I am a censor. I won’t watch violent movies when my granddaughter is around. I guess that is self censoring. Books though, if we don’t have availability we can’t really learn. I just reviewed the Pelbar Cycle on my blog. Censorship figures prominently in the plot. Equally censorship is accurately portrayed as a detriment to progress. Keep up the good fight, keep those books on the shelf.

Shari Thomas said...

Great post!

I've never really thought about the self-censorship by "zealous" library patrons removing books and never returning them.

I believe we all "censor" each day as we make decisions as to what we choose to read, view, listen to, purchase, etc. Is that good or bad?

When we make those decisions on behalf of others (minors especially) it is seen as good... but when it comes to adults, especially such as library patrons, then it becomes a fine line.

My personal opinion about what I consider vulgar, or indecent may be far different from the next person, so what right do I have to force my view on that individual. On the other hand, how do I "protect" my own mind from what others who do not share my views, other than by "self censoring".

Gives great pause for thought.

SafeLibraries® said...

Very interesting post.

"The idea of 'community standards' sets the tone sometimes for what we are ordering." You should get an award for this. Sometimes libraries could care less about community standards. The Adamson v. Minneapolis Public Library complaint is a case in point. There are many more examples. So when I see a librarian honoring community standards, I really have to say bravo!

heather (errantdreams) said...

There are so many legitimate reasons to want to read an 'offensive' book---such as research, or the (lamentably rare) desire to have a greater understanding of various sides of issues. I abhor the fact that so-called 'protective' censorship ends up blocking these perfectly reasonable activities.

Book Calendar said...

The issue of the internet is a very interesting one. Pornography is a big problem when you have public internet terminals. People will look at things which they won't look at in their home if their identity is not known. We have a signup system now for the internet which requires a login using ones library card to get access. This has eliminated most of the blatant pornography. This is not "erotica" which I am talking about.

Anonymous said...

That is indeed pretty bizarre. I work in an academic library, so I suppose censorship is less likely to be happening. We do get books and media items stolen, but either because the student desperately needs them and has no space left on their account or because they're selfish... The video of Alien which the media department had in stock was stolen many times. Or rather many copies of it were stolen one at a time. We have less of an issue with DVDs because they're all in security cases.

Book Calendar said...

There is a big difference between an academic environment and a public environment. When I was in library school, I worked at the reference desk of the main library, not as an internship but as a part time employee.

The environment is already exclusive, it locks out most of the people who would come in from the public. Plus there is a real sense that people are studying and need what is inside a college to be there. Ideological fights are more about what gets published, not what goes onto the shelves.