Ensuring Inclusive Collections
Informed vigilance about intellectual freedom issues is the best method for maintaining collections that represent, honor, and inform our patrons across the full spectrum of the communities we serve. Attention to recent attempts to restrict intellectual freedom in Tennessee and across the nation can foster an alarmism that thankfully does not seem to be merited according to the excellent statistics and information available from the The American Library Association about challenged materials.
The ALA graphics at the above link illustrate challenges by year, reason, initiator, and institution. The first surprise I encountered in examining these statistics is that the most recent year of reportage, 2010, evinces the lowest number of challenges by far in over a decade. I was also surprised by how far down the list of reasons for challenges concerns about LGBT content (see “homosexuality”) seem to be (Also see the ALA pages about “Frequently Challenged Materials”).
Recent Tennessee legislation has brought a focus on LGBT issues in our state1
that has garnered reportage nationwide, especially due to the apparent fixation certain members of our legislature seem to have about the “furnishing of materials on human sexuality other than heterosexuality in public school grades K-8”. The quotation is from Senator Stacey Campfield’s SB0049, touted as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill. There is much that has been written about this legislation, often from a poorly-informed perception of what this bill actually contains. In an effort to inform rather than persuade, I encourage you to read the text of the bill yourself
, and also to remain vigilant in general about current legislation
that can affect access to information.
More good news is that the ALA provides brilliant online tools
to prepare and educate information professionals and their support networks regarding these kinds of complaints. Among the most interesting of these tools to me, probably because I am guilty of a visceral response to would-be censors that is not broad-minded, relegating them to a two-dimensional “bad guy”, is the online document “The Censor: Motives and Tactics”.
While I will never see them as the good guys, it is important--especially when one is dealing with a censor directly--to acknowledge that they are acting from their own very powerful sense of being the good guy. As ALA puts it,
“The term censor often evokes the mental picture of an irrational, belligerent individual. Such a picture, however, is misleading. In most cases, the one to bring a complaint to the library is a concerned parent or a citizen sincerely interested in the future wellbeing of the community. Although complainants may not have a broad knowledge of literature or of the principles of freedom of expression, their motives in questioning a book or other library material are seldom unusual. Any number of reasons are given for recommending that certain material be removed from the library. Complainants may believe that the materials will corrupt children and adolescents, offend the sensitive or unwary reader, or undermine basic values and beliefs. Sometimes, for these reasons, they may argue that the materials are of no interest or value to the community.
Although an attempt to stereotype the censor would be unfair, one generalization can be made: regardless of specific motives, all would-be censors share one belief-that they can recognize "evil" and that other people must be protected from it. Censors do not necessarily believe their own morals should be protected, but they do feel compelled to save their fellows.” Intellectual Freedom Manual(6th, Office for Intellectual Freedom, ALA, Chicago, IL, 2002, pp. 366–369.)
In my own library, I try to prevent censorship before it happens, but this prevention most certainly does NOT involve “pre-censoring” through the collection development process. I like to think, in fact, that my high school library collection is delightfully subversive. Rather, I am lucky enough to be able to assert an instructional piece to formalize library orientation, and in that orientation my most significant goals are to both market and protect the collection.
The marketing part is to talk to newly-minted high school students about our collection in terms of its design for not only high school students specifically, but Fulton High School students in particular--our audience is them, and they are the ones we work to please, so the items in the collection were selected because we were convinced they are the ones our patrons want to read; thus, if they have never found the “right” book before that made them want to read, they are on the cusp of the perfect opportunity. I can then segue into the concept of the high school library as different from their middle school library in that we are not limited by a younger audience; therefore, they will find books that talk about sex or drugs or use the eff word...(talk about marketing!) and that we will do our best to give them a heads up about those titles in case they (or someone at home) will find that content objectionable. I am then sure to tell these patrons that I will NEVER tell them that they can’t check out a particular title, whether it’s because of their age or their reading level or their eye color or whatever distinction or whatever somebody at home might think--they know what’s okay or not at home, so I say for crying out loud read it at school if you feel you need to. They absolutely get to decide for themselves, but--here is the protecting the collection part--ONLY for themselves, not for anybody else. It’s okay for a book not to be okay for them (or someone at home), but that doesn’t mean that it’s not right for somebody else.
To help give readers a heads up, I try to prioritize my own reading of the books in the collection to emphasize the titles that have or may develop a reputation as the most “edgy”, so that I have a well-informed perspective on these books before they go out to readers, and I can help those readers make a good choice for themselves about what might make them (or, again, someone at home) squeamish. You have seen me note in this column before that squeamish or some variation of that emotion is okay--it’s a response that reminds us that we are human. But when it comes to what is “appropriate” for readers in your community of patrons, I like to paraphrase the author (and anti-censorship hero!) Chris Crutcher. I heard him speak in November of 2007 at the ALAN conference in New York about the sometimes edgy content of books. I wish there were a transcript so I could quote him directly, but basically he said that every time we say that the content of a book should be censored and that it is somehow unworthy to read, we are saying that some child’s own story--the life they have lived--is unfit to print. Books sometimes reflect life as we would like it to be, but often--and what is most magical about the best writing, to me--is that books often reflect life just as it is, and for so many, that life is tragic and grueling and messy and difficult to know about. We owe ALL of our patrons an opportunity to see themselves reflected in our collections, even when the life they have lived is enough to make anyone squirm.
1. e.g. SB 0049, SB 0632, SB 0426
Karyn Storts-Brinks is the librarian at Fulton High School, Knoxville, Tennessee. firstname.lastname@example.org