The Librarian as Filter, Part 3

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, 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.

9 thoughts on “The Librarian as Filter, Part 3

  1. Enjoying the posts, just found you through someone else.
    Just thought you’d like to know Mr Safe Libraries seems to cruise a lot of the library blogs/sites now to leave comments about how ALA is corrupting the moral fabric of society.

  2. You make good points again, Mr. Bivens-Tatum. And I am happy my previous conversation sparked some further examination of the issue for you.
    I am sorry a commenter named “Andrew” had to besmirch me by saying I wrote on a bunch of library blogs–ad hominem arguments never work–and he ignores the ALA’s ability to get its message out in the media nationally (sometimes without disclosing the true source of the information) while complaining about me. Please do not think any less of me because of “Andrew.” One would think free speech people would not mind if I involve myself in legitimate debate.
    Be that as it may, let me say this. I agree with you that “I don’t think that a library not buying Playboy constitutes censorship.” But the ALA does not. When the attempt was made in Oak Lawn, IL, to remove the magazine from the public library, top ALA leadership ridiculed the individual who started the effort as a “would-be censor,” among other things. Here is the exact quote from the library’s director who is also an ALA Councilor showing that top ALA leadership believes a library’s not buying Playboy constitutes censorship:
    PLAYBOY: Although the Oak Lawn Public Library Board of Trustees proceeded in a careful and measured manner in deciding not to comply with the demands of one patron for the removal of Playboy magazine from the Library’s collection, the report of our Board’s action at their June 21st Meeting was featured prominently in the Chicago Tribune of Thursday, June 23 and also published in the ALA OnLine for June 24. Consequently, I [Jim Casey, Oak Lawn Public Library Director] was congratulated and our Board was praised on a number of occasions by many ALA members who had noticed the story. ALA President-Elect Michael Gorman sent a personal message to me for our Board of Trustees on June 25. “Dear Jim: Please convey to the President and members of the Oak Lawn Public Library Board my admiration of, and thanks for, their principled stance against would-be censors and self-appointed arbiters of what may not be read and viewed by the patrons of your library. Such pressures seem to be on the increase – all the more reason to thank and support those who defend intellectual freedom. Best wishes, Michael.”
    That Chicago Tribune story, by the way, is where the ALA’s de facto leader Judith Krug of the OIF said, “I get very concerned when we start hearing people who want to convert this country into a safe place for children.”
    I agree with you again when you said, “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.” I am happy to see you feel free to talk openly about the ALA, but not all librarians feel so free. More to the issue you raised, in the Oak Lawn Public Library case, the head librarian was also an ALA Councilor. Using his position as ALA Councilor, he reached our to the entire community of ALA Councilors and secured the assistance of an ALA President Elect and the leader of the ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom to ensure the magazine stayed in the library despite the town government asking the library to reconsider its decision not to remove it. Frankly, the Oak Lawn community didn’t stand a chance. Local control was and is literally impossible in that library.
    To this day, actually, the Oak Lawn community is still being controlled by the ALA, as ALA awarded books containing pervasively vulgar language are being recommended to school children, the school district even apologized for not informing the parents of the vulgar content, but refused to remove the book claiming it was award winning. The school policy is no one gets to use vulgar language, but the school board ignores that policy to ensure children get ALA award winning vulgar books for which it had to apologize. Had the ALA not awarded the award to the book, the school would not have recommended it–it said that’s why it was selected.
    So saying “ultimately it’s not the ALA that decides what to select” is wishful thinking. Minneapolis was another community forced to follow ALA dictates. See for a truly shocking story. Sample quote: “More cruelly, the reality of children being sexually victimized by adults became a depressing and recurrent image of every day life.”
    I have to say, however, your solution of firing the librarian or getting rid of the library seems too drastic. Better might be to point out to the librarian that, by way of example, the statute that created the library specifically includes certain materials to be collected and possibly excludes certain others. If the librarian is acting outside the law explicitly or implicitly, this could be shown to the librarian who may then wish to voluntarily follow the law. True, as seen in the Adamson v. Minneapolis Public Library case linked above shows, sometimes librarians could care less about following the law to the detriment of entire communities.
    By the way, you say, “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.” Who else would remove it? It seems to me you are implying nothing can ever be removed from libraries for any reason where the community has decided it should be removed. Is it professionalism to defy the entire community’s request to remove material that is present in violation of a library’s enabling statute, for example?
    But I’ll bet you were just speaking rhetorically and you do not really expect librarians or entire libraries to be removed. Similarly, I’ll bet you do not think it unreasonable for a librarian to remove material that does not fall within the library’s collection/selection policies or that does not fall within the language of library enabling statutes.
    I hope you are enjoying this conversation. I am. Thank you very much. It seems we agree on quite a lot again.

  3. Not meaning to attack. Just a comment that more and more I’ve run into posts from stating how bad ALA is. I have a problem that with all of these comments I’ve seen (and the website) that ALA controls libraries and librarians. I have no problem with you stating your viewpoints, but I think you overreach on ALA.
    ALA, like many other places including the New York Times, gives awards to books. There are indeed certain awards that are held in higher regards, such as the Pulitzer prize. This list has a number of the awards:
    I see right away Caldecot which is sponsored by ALA and is considered vital in many libraries, but its a picture book. Doesn’t contain any of those negative words you mention.
    I do see the Newbery, and will agree with you, some of those do contain words I wouldn’t want my kids to read.
    But the horn book is just as vital in many libraries, given by the Boston Globe.
    There is no doubt that there are many books kids shouldn’t read. However, attacking libraries isn’t the right way to keep them from reading it. Or attacking anyone. It is up to the PARENT to be involved in their child’s lives.
    Too many people (and no I don’t know if this includes you) really don’t have a clue what their kids do. They assume that when they aren’t around their child acts as they do around them. But they don’t. I’ve seen kids come into the library to look at Myspace and some of those pages are quite bad. But can I make the assumption that the parents didn’t teach their kids?
    I have no problem with you wanting to protect your child and highlighting issues, but don’t attack every library that’s associated with ALA. Don’t assume that because there are some libraries that go by ALA’s every word, that all do. We are all unique individuals, just like yourself, and we all follow our own path.

  4. Andrew, you are correct, and I’m happy to discuss issues with you. In this case, you seem to have made me the issue. I am not.
    The ALA is a terrific organization. I am a member. The ALA has a section called the Office for Intellectual Freedom. It is this section that drives the negative policies into libraries nationwide. I am careful to distinguish librarians from the top policy makers at the OIF. I even have a Good Librarians page:
    And the main problem has nothing to do with me at all. It has to do with the OIF forcing its way in local communities either openly, as in Oak Lawn Public Library, or through the use of misinformation, as in El Paso Public Library. I would not care if people volunteered to expose their children to harm. But when they are lied to and expose their children to harm when they think they are actually helping the children, then I have every right to point this out to members of those communities. Is it fair that communities should only hear one side of a story? And if a library is violating a law, is standing on the side violating the law even a legitimate side of the story?
    The ALA is the nation’s self-arrogated censorship police. Does it strike anyone as odd that when the ALA finally gets a little push back people like me are ridiculed for speaking out and the real issues are not addressed?

  5. Mr. Kleinman,
    I suspect you’ve misinterpreted what Mr. Bivens-Tatum wrote concerning censorship vs. selection. Most librarians would agree with him that it’s usually “selection” when a librarian chooses to purchase a title or cease purchasing a title. Selection or deselection decisions might be made due to a high volume of requests, low circulation, or for a number of other reasons.
    When patrons begin pressuring the librarian to make selection decisions that run contrary to his professional opinion of what is right for the library, however, *that* is most definitely an attempt at censorship.
    I’m intimately familiar with the Oak Lawn example you cite because I lived and worked in neighboring suburbs for 25 years, until 2006. No children had access to check out the magazine, as it was kept behind the counter and only made available to adult patrons upon request.
    Also, you complain that “The ALA is the nation’s self-arrogated censorship police.” Mr. Kleinman, I have to wonder, who appointed you and your organization to police what my children and I can read?

  6. Anonymous, besides attacking the messenger, you make factual errors, though likely innocent errors. You said, “No children had access to check out the magazine, as it was kept behind the counter and only made available to adult patrons upon request.” False. The magazine is available to children of all ages — they just need to ask for a page range to be photocopied and it will be provided. Proof:
    So you are not so “intimately familiar with the Oak Lawn example” if you did not even know the library makes Playboy available to children. With access to Playboy, the children are likely more “intimately familiar” than you.

  7. I’d like to know where your page come from and how you were able to have an image of it. A lot of your links are to your own site. I’d just like to see some support from someone’s site other than your own.

  8. Fair enough. Just know I did that because people change links and I wanted to ensure the document stayed in one place.
    Now the document came from the library’s own web site. Let me find a link to it.
    Lovely. I’m using Google and I get this ironic message: “The word ‘playboy’ has been filtered from the search because Google SafeSearch is active.”
    Good thing I saved the document. The library redid its web site, even getting a new URL, and I can no longer find the document online. It was about 3 years ago, after all.
    A simple email to the director will confirm it, however. You want to do that?

Comments are closed.