I should subtitle this post “The Librarian is the Filter,” or perhaps “The Librarian is the Filter.”
My first librarian as filter post received a couple of comments, and since I don’t get many comments that fact alone was exciting. Maybe I should be more provocative, but in general I’m too willing to see the other’s point of view to provoke too much.
Here’s part of one of the comments: “The mayor of Oak Lawn, IL, said, “There is a difference between censorship and sponsorship. If someone wants [Playboy], that’s fine, they can buy it at a store.” It appears you would agree with that mayor’s statement. Do you?”
My initial response was that I assumed “the mayor of Oak Lawn is responding to a censorship or banned books controversy of some sort. The censorship/sponsorship distinction doesn’t seem to me to make much sense. I don’t think that a library not buying Playboy constitutes censorship, if that’s what you’re getting at, though I also don’t see how a library buying Playboy constitutes sponsorship of its content in any usual sense of the word.” Certainly the implication of my initial post was that the librarian’s job was to decide what to do in the collection, and that not putting something in the collection (in my case Self-aggrandizing Amateur Philosophers or SAPs) was not censorship. In the case of academic libraries, putting scholarly works in the collection is a step towards establishing authority, but it isn’t sponsorship of the content so much as sponsorship of the process of peer-reviewed scholarly publication. Adding other items to the collection also isn’t sponsoring their particular content so much as recognizing their cultural or intellectual value. As part of the larger process of publishing, collecting, and disseminating the human record, the librarian’s job is to make such decisions.
My commenter, Dan Kleinman of safelibraries.org, is understandably concerned with pornography in public libraries, particularly if it’s available to children. My immediate response to this was that “if pressed, I suppose I would argue that not buying something is a matter of selection rather than censorship, but one of the joys of academic librarianship is not being faced with the selection controversies that plague some public libraries.
I wouldn’t want my young daughter hanging out in the public library reading Playboy or stumbling across Internet porn, but as long as the children’s section is kept free of pornography and creepy adults I don’t know that I have much of an opinion on the issue, though I suppose I wouldn’t want even the adult portion of the library to start looking like an “adult” bookstore.
This is such a local issue, as collection development usually is. The public library I visit the most (the Ewing Public Library in Ewing, NJ) seems like a decent enough place to me with what seem to be appropriate collection choices for the community, though I’ve rarely ventured outside the children’s section.”
Mr. Kleinman also noted that “I’ll expect you to be very guarded in discussing this topic. The ALA does not take kindly to librarians not carrying the party line.”
I don’t think I’m in any danger from the ALA regardless of what I say, since there’s little the ALA can do to me. The ALA doesn’t even have a party line for academic libraries as far as I know. Just to show how bold and provocative I can be, I’ll say that honestly I don’t care what the ALA has to say about these issues, because ultimately it’s not the ALA that decides what to select. That, as I’ve noted, is the librarian’s job.
However (and here I fear I will not make Mr. Kleinman happy), the implication of my position is that the librarian is the filter, not the ALA, but also not the “community,” whatever that term might mean in context. It’s the librarian’s job to decide what is selected, and if it becomes anyone’s job but the librarian’s, then there isn’t any reason to have a librarian. I realize there’s a move on nationwide to deprofessionalize certain aspects of librarianship, but I resist that deprofessionalization for collection development.
The librarian certainly acts with the interests and needs of the community in mind. I’m not talking about the librarian as lone decider of what gets in and what stays out, with no input from anyone. I would be a bad selector if I ignored the current curricula or faculty research or whatever might be very timely, but I would also be a bad selector if I didn’t keep in mind that the users of the library are not just the people currently around, but those of the future as well. The librarian’s job is to synthesize all these disparate demands as well as possible.
I don’t feel as comfortable addressing public libraries. I worked in a great public library for two years, but not as a professional librarian, so I can’t speak with much authority on the subject. But it still seems to me that the librarian is the filter there as well, much more of a filter than librarians in big research libraries, since collection budgets and space are typically much more limited. It’s the librarian’s job to decide these things. If the community is unhappy, then fire the librarians or get rid of the library, but librarians can’t be dictated to by the concerns of a group of citizens, no matter how large, and still remain professional. Even if every single person in the community wanted to get rid of something in the library, it would still be a violation of the professionalism of librarians to demand that the librarians themselves get rid of it.
Either trust the librarians or dismiss them, but don’t expect them to forgo all professional judgment. The librarian’s job is to consider not just the community, but the larger culture, and to present in microcosm the truth of the world as much as possible. Librarians have to consider not only the parents concerned that their children might be turned into homosexuals by reading about gay penguins, but also the gay children wrestling with their sexuality in a confusing culture.
So what about porn in the library? Honestly, I don’t like it. If my library, or at least the children’s section of my library, started turning into a haven for pornography, I wouldn’t go there anymore. I disagree with the view that every type of information should be made available to every person of every age, and I think most parents would agree. My concern isn’t one of prudery about sex or pornography so much as the knowledge that not all information is appropriate for children. Just as I wouldn’t ask my 8-year old daughter to read Descartes and understand his significance, so I wouldn’t show her a pornographic website and ask her to understand what’s going on. Having A Man with a Maid in the children’s section would be as absurd as having the Critique of Pure Reason there. Books and websites on sex education are fine, but no young child is going to be educated about sex by watching Youporn.
But that’s my judgment as a parent. Regardless, I still have to trust the judgment of librarians to filter or select. If absolutely everyone in the community is in disagreement with the librarians’ choices, then perhaps it’s time to get rid of the librarians or the libraries, though I can’t imagine that ever being the case. Individual librarians either have professional judgment or they don’t. They are either competent or incompetent. They have reasons for their collection decisions or they don’t. As a class, however, we have to trust that librarians have professional judgment and reasons for their decisions or there’s little point in having librarians.