Book Challenges in Academic Libraries

Thanks to Banned Books Week, we’re all familiar with book challenges in public libraries in the United States. Does this ever happen in academic libraries in this country?

I ask only because I’ve been intrigued by this story over the past few days. The challenge isn’t in the United States, but New Zealand. A New Zealand Nazi and Holocaust denier has complained to a university library that a master’s thesis examining his Satanic Neo-Nazism is a "smear document." Though, as the Chronicle article notes, "ironically, only a few years ago, Mr. Bolton complained bitterly when another New Zealand university pulled a master’s thesis because of its Holocaust denial. He asked, ‘Is Canterbury University in the business of denying academic freedom?’" He wants the thesis removed and some money from the university to sooth his damaged feelings. The university library has in fact removed the thesis while the complaint is being investigated.

At a certain level, the story is comical, obviously. The hypocritical Nazi Satanist doesn’t like criticism. Those Nazi Satanists never do, I suppose. That a thesis approved by the university has been removed even for an investigation is a bit troubling, but I’m hoping that it’s just a ploy to get the Nazi Satanist to shut up for a while.

While think about this, I ran across this post in my Google Reader (I’m slowly catching up on my blog reading after the overscheduled hell of last week). It’s one of the Gypsy Librarian’s useful article summaries, this time an article on academic freedom and academic librarians. It’s depressingly clear that the Gypsy Librarian has no protections for his academic freedom, but what would he need protection for? Well, lots of things, including teaching and just generally speaking about anything. I’ve always avoided the tenure track, but I’m thankful for my own quasi-tenure nonetheless.

Collection development is typically the place librarians would want their academic freedom protected. I’m just not sure of any places where the academic freedom of collection development is challenged. Do things like this happen in American academic libraries? There’s mention in that blog post of things like the so-called "Academic Bill of Rights." But if anything like that were to apply to libraries, surely it would be to request more books representing conservatism than the attempt to suppress alternative titles. This doesn’t seem too radical. Provided the money was available, are there academic librarians who would refuse to buy conservative books? No, I take that back, there might be. But should we consider those librarians anything other than partisan ideologues who don’t share the values of scholarship? I’m not particularly concerned with the Coulters and the Limbaughs, but academic libraries with any sort of politics collection should have some Russell Kirk and Richard Weaver.

It seems to me there’s little ground for book challenges in academic libraries. Public libraries have an obligation both to the principle of representing various viewpoints as well as to their communities. Like it or not, they have to at least respond to book challenges from their public. Who in the academic community would challenge a book, though? Professors? That seems hard to believe. Students? I can’t imagine they’d care, but even if they did they have no authority over a library collections, and for good reason. In research libraries, at least, students are not the primary community for the collection. They use only a residual part of the collection.

However, it’s always possible I don’t know what I’m talking about. I’ve only worked in collection development for two libraries – one college and one university, both in the mid-Atlantic – so maybe challenges of this sort would be taken seriously in Texas, where the Gypsy Librarian resides, or in Alabama, where I spent my college years. I’m hoping not, though. I wouldn’t want the same thing to happen here as happened in New Zealand.

2 thoughts on “Book Challenges in Academic Libraries

  1. You write that “That a thesis approved by the university has been removed even for an investigation is a bit troubling”. If you looked at the thesis I think you would agree that the thesis being passed, then edited, is even more troubling.

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