Banned Books Week 2: Politics and challenges

I knew, as soon as I started seeing media reports about this, that I wanted to spend at least a little time this year talking about the Sarah Palin censorship related issues – and some other stuff that’s related.

The myth:

As many of you may have seen, there’s been emails flying around about how Sarah Palin tried to challenge a whole big long list of books when she was mayor of Wasila. Except there’s an immediate problem: many of the books on that list weren’t published at the time she was mayor.

I figured this out as soon as I looked at the list: it’s one of the “Top 100 books banned” compilation lists put out by the ALA as part of Banned Books week, and I’ve seen a number of them go by over the years. But Snopes has a nice summary (including relevant quotes), but I was reading about it as things came out on (here has a nice summary of her issues and links to the relevant posts) and there’s a bunch of other links from Library Journal here.)

Short version? She did ask (apparently 3 times) about challenging books – she says she was asking about process, the record is a little less firm about that. The librarian was fired for ‘lack of support’ but reinstated fairly quickly after public complaint.

But, frankly, I find this far less interesting than broader issues.

What role do personal beliefs play in government choices?

Politicians bringing personal bias/choices into challenges is not unheard of – there was a challenge in 2006 in Illinois where a school board member who was elected “amid promises to bring her Christian beliefs into all board decision-making” challenged the inclusion of 8 books on class reading lists based on excerpts from the books she’d found on the Internet.

The books were retained, but included “Kate Chopin’s The Awakening; the Vietnam War books Fallen Angels, by Walter Dean Myers, and The Things They Carried, by Tim O’Brien; Stephen Chbosky’s teen angst tale The Perks of Being a Wallflower; the best-seller Freakonomics; Toni Morrison’s Beloved; Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five; How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents, by Julia Alvarez; and The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s-Eye View of the World .” (quote taken from the full story here)

Now, obviously, this also plays into the issue of context (having a book generally available in a library versus on a suggested reading list versus as a required assignment are three different ones) but it does raise the question of how an individual’s beliefs, preferences, or priorities affect their political decisions.

Me, I think that one part of being an ethical person with authority of some kind (as politicians are, and as school principals are, and so on) is that you need to start by assuming that professionals are, in fact, following professional standards. You might be wrong – and it’s always good to have a method of cross-checking. But as a starting assumption, it seems like the place to start.

What does it mean to be a professional?

Now, I generally believe that each person should be able to make decisions for themselves about what they want and don’t want to read. (And that parents should generally be able to make those decisions for their children – though as the kids hit their teenage years, I think sensible parents should start backing off.)

But I also believe it’s important to recognise that we train people as professional [whatevers] for a reason.

This doesn’t mean we can’t ask about the reasoning behind a choice – after all, people do get stuck in what they’ve done, or they may make a bad call in a particular situation. But again, starting from the reasoning that they’re making choices for a particular reason well-informed by common professional practices is a good place to begin.

A digression about professional education:

The library profession is a little trickier than others: for a long time, the MLS or MLIS degree (Master’s of Library Science or Library and Information Science) degree was the entry level degree for the profession – it’s the degree that lets you do more of the professional decision making, and less of the day to day grunt work of shelving, processing, etc. You’d need it to do more than simple reference questions, too.

These days, due to budget cuts and other considerations, many libraries are using more non-MLIS holders for some of these functions, but overall collection development (“How do we decide which books we’re buying” is generally still overseen by a MLIS degreed person.)

What does the MLIS cover? Depends on the program, but my coursework included

  • Introduction to Library Science (overview of the profession and different options – required class)
  • Intro to Cataloging (how we put together standard info about books so people can find them – required)
  • Intro to Reference (answering people’s questions with useful information – required)
  • Reference for the Humanities (one of my areas of background.)
  • History of the Book (One of my undergrad majors was in Medieval and Renaissance studies, and I was trying to decide if I wanted to angle for rare books/archival work.)
  • Public Library History and Theory (a *fascinating* class in all the ways the public library has changed over time, and how that reflects political and cultural shifts.)
  • Library User Instruction (how to teach people how to do things in a library – also a lot of survey design and project planning stuff, so we’d know how to present a complete program proposal.)
  • Academic library administration (an administration course was a requirement)
  • Collection Development (how do we decide what books/items to buy, and what are the issues)
  • Information Policy (how do we develop information policies and where do they come from?)
  • Communication for Leadership (highly recommended by my school, as library work often involves working closely with a team of others)
  • Information Seeking Behavior (how people look for information)

I’ve also done another class in Reader’s Advisory, or how you answer the question “I like X book – can you help me find some more like it?” or “What should I read next if I like A and B and C?” through professional development funding.

My program was fairly varied as I wasn’t sure (and still am not) exactly which type of library I really wanted to work in. These days, I usually define my professional interests as being about helping people find information that matters to them, and about issue of information policy and education around technology, especially Web 2.0 type resources. But I also love talking about reader’s advisory and collection development (which explains why I’m currently quite happy with my current job – a college-bound high school gives me lots of chances to do all these things.)

So what does this mean for libraries?

Librarians generally order books for one of three reasons.

1) It got good reviews in a professional review resource.

There are a number of these – Booklist, Publisher’s Weekly, School Library Journal, to name just a few. (There’s also all sorts of specialised resources for particular topics or types of focus.) Reviews focus on their utility for libraries, so the Booklist reviews often have a last sentence that suggests who the book might particularly interest, or notes on Young Adult potential crossover.

Here, we go through the Booklists every few months, and order things that look of interest to our collection, plus #2 and 3 below. We also look at a few other resources regularly – there’s a publication of University Press books of potential interest to school and public libraries that we order a fair number of things from each year.

2) Someone requests it.

Sometimes this is a specific request (“Can you get This Specific Title?”) and sometimes it’s a request for general books on a particular topic. Here, where a lot of our selection is assignment driven, we look at trends.

For example, we usually have at least one person interested in doing their US history research project on the Salem Witchcraft Trials – so we have a bunch of books about that, and pick up major new works when they come out. Or we got several books about the Armenian genocide after people chose it as a topic for two years.

3) Librarians see a particular gap in the collection.

This is the one where the most professional judgment is often involved, because you’re both judging what a gap looks like and what you’re going to use to fill it. That said, librarians will use their knowledge of the entire community they’re serving, the existing collection, their budget demands, resources at comparable library systems, and professional review resources and other tools to help figure that out.

Library wholesalers produce lists for collection development. For example, you say the size of library you have, and they send you a list of “A good collection in US History for this size library might really want to think about [this list].” where that list hits major titles in the field that are suitable for the collection (so a high school will get different titles than a public library – different age ranges, different needs). Who puts together these lists? At most of the wholesalers, this usually involves someone with library experience and background, and generally their MLIS.

4) There are a few other options.

We’ve started subscribing to a paperback subscription service: we send them money, they send us 18 paperbacks each month. We’re doing it as a quick and easy way to get a range of fun pleasure reading – most of the books are light romances, thrillers, mysteries, SF and fantasy, etc. with the occaisional media tie-in novel. Think airport books. We don’t pick the titles in advance, but we’ve been fairly happy with the selection – and, of course, if we ever had serious concerns about a specific title, we could just not add it to our collection.

Back to our politician:

Your average local politician may be a very good person, and very interested in many things. But what they usually *aren’t* is someone who is fully aware of all of the different issues, demands, and resources in either a school system or a library. This is only reasonable: even people who work in those school systems or libraries often aren’t aware of all of those things: they’re most aware of the bits they work with regularly.

And of course, an outside perspective can sometimes help people see something that could be done more effectively. And it can help someone to ask questions about things that help everyone see new potential resources, opportunities, and approaches.

But at the same time, I think it’s important to respect the professional training and background – not to mention daily experience – that goes into decisions in schools and libraries. And that means a few things:

  • Learn what the policies are. How do classroom assignment titles get chosen? What selection criteria does the library use? It’s good to have clear policies (that are flexible enough to adapt to changing community needs.)
  • How do these fit into other libraries, other schools? Obviously, other institutions might be messing up on something too – but if a bunch of other schools are including a book, there’s probably something of merit in it.
  • Learn about the entire community that’s being served. And if you’re representing the entire community, don’t just cater to the bits you like or agree with. More on this in a second.
  • Treat the teachers, librarians, and administrators like reasonable professionals, and be aware of power issues.

From the other side:

Likewise, librarians and teachers can do the same things.

  • Have policies. No, really. Now. Look at common issues that have come up over the last few years, and adjust. Make sure your policies cover actual practice – whether that means changing the practice or changing the policy. Have the policies somewhere you can hand them over.
  • Know why you’re making particular choices. Can you explain why you want to use a particular book in class in a couple of sentences? Doing that is not only going to help you explain if someone has questions or concerns – but it’ll help you better explain that choice to students.
  • Behave like a professional. No one’s able to read every professional journal in their field – but keep up on the high points. I find that reading a couple of email lists, skimming several more, and keeping my eye on about 10 library blogs doesn’t take too long – and it means I’m really likely to hear about major issues pretty quickly, which means I can look at what I’m doing.

Know your community:

Back to knowing your community. Public libraries and public schools are supposed to serve their entire community – not just the folks who agree with them or look like them, or who want the same things. (Private schools have more leeway in a lot of ways, because they’re dealing with a much more closely defined community.)

This means that as well as serving people who believe that sex should be confined to marriage, you need to make sure there are resources so that those who make other choices know more about their options. You need information so that those who are being abused (emotionally, verbally, physically, sexually) know that they’re not alone – even if those descriptions are uncomfortable to read.

It means knowing that there isn’t just one religious group or one ethnicity or one point of view – but that you need to represent those in your community and beyond. (This is part of the Library Bill of Rights.) And it means not just buying to your preferences, but to the needs of the community to ensure a balanced collection.

Ok, going to stop here for today, since this is plenty long.

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