For folks who might be new over here, I go by Jenett online. I’m a librarian in Minnesota, and I think knowledge is power. This blog is mostly about my religious life and group work, but every year during Banned Books Week, I’ve made a point of posting a series of posts about freedom of information access issues. (And I always do a special focus on religion and freedom of information access issues.)
Please feel free to ask any questions. Just be aware I may be a little slow to get back to you, as I’m on the board for a sizable public community event this weekend, and will be away from my computer much more than usual between now and Sunday night (and tired and worn out when I’m home!)
I’m anticipating 2-3 more posts on this topic this year after this one – but because of my other commitments, they’ll probably finish sometime next week.
Banned Books posts to date:
- Introduction to this year (includes links to posts from past years)
- A particular look at how politics can play into this.
- A discussion of how context matters.
These posts are also mirrored to my LiveJournal (most of my entries there are non-public, but the Banned Books week posts are public, and have some extended discussion in the comments.)
The question of controlled access:
There are three different things I want to talk about in this post: rating systems, ‘behind the counter shelving’ and the question of people stumbling across things they don’t want to see (or their parents don’t want them to see.) All three of these are somewhat focused on parents being able to better control what their kids see – but they also have implications for adults (some good, some bad.) And, like everything else I’ve talked about this week, they’re not simple issues.
Behind the counter:
This is in some ways the easiest. In this model, certain books are kept behind the counter – a library staffer has to fetch them for you. People who’ve used rare book collections or genealogy resources or historical archives are probably quite familiar with this: in that case, it’s done to preserve the materials and protect them.
When it’s done with general books, however, it’s a little trickier.
Certain books have a history (statistically demonstrated) of being more likely to go missing – these are usually the books about sex, the books about magic and modern Paganism, plus sometimes a few others. Some libraries have chosen to place these books behind the counter to help stop repeated losses (and the need for replacement.)
In other cases, libraries have been pressured to have a restricted shelf because parents or other residents are concerned about the effect these books will have. (I’m going to come back to ‘Someone might be offended’ in a different post in the next few days.)
So, what’s the problem? On the surface, the books are still available, right? The problem is that many people will not ask for books on these topics if they have to talk to a librarian who might be disapproving. Many people I know have had poor experiences with someone putting down their interests in the past (and especially on these two topics) – and they’d much rather give up on the information, or look at (sometimes far less informative or useful) resources online.
The other problem is that it places an additional barrier. I’ll be up front here: I’m Pagan. [see the bottom of my about me page for more info] While I’m heterosexual, most of my social circle identifies as something that falls into the GLBTQ grouping. I believe sex is a normal healthy wonderful thing in the right circumstances (not just in marriage) – but that people need accurate and reliable information to help them make healthy choices. (Not just about specific sexual issues, but about relationship questions as well.)
So, when these kinds of books go behind the counter, that’s telling me – an adult, who pays taxes, who contributes to my community, who works to help provide education and information in a wide range of ways – that some of the things I’m interested in, I need to go through a gatekeeper for. You’re telling me that my choices (which are legal, mature, and responsible) are less worthy than other people’s.
It also ignores all sorts of other things. Do we add an additional step to checking out books on home canning, because doing it wrong can cause botulism? Car repair manuals because a mistake might lead to a major accident? Books on getting online, because someone who isn’t careful can have nasty things happen? No.
So while I get that people have reasons to treat religion and health and sexuality a little differently, I can’t say I agree – or that it’s a sustainable choice for libraries or communities.
Another suggestion people have is the idea of rating systems – of somehow flagging books based on content (roughly similar to movie ratings.) Librarians have been against this since the idea first got brought up in the 1950s.
There are physical issues: maintaining labels like this is time consuming and complex, because it takes additional thought, not just standardised practices. (Plus, many libraries now outsource their processing to the wholesale sellers: we get about 90% of our new additions already labelled and with protective covers: all we do is property stamp them, add a quick note about price and date added, and shelve them.)
But there are practical issues. Let’s pick out a few based on challenges that actually happened:
- Is a mention of menstruation inappropriate in a book for 10-14 year olds? Bear in mind that many young women either have or know someone who has their period at the age of 11.
- Is discussion of bad things happening to children, teens, or adults deserving of a rating label? In what circumstances? How graphic does the language need to be? How does someone determine that without reading the entire book carefully start to finish?
- Sex and religion are often hot topics in challenges – but people also have disagreements about medical ethics (think Jodi Piccoult’s My Sister’s Keeper), politics, language (and writing style), and appropriate ways to spend time. Do we flag all of those separately?
- Different things will offend different people: some people are offended and upset by mentions of non-Christian religions or of choices that are not the ones they’d make. Equally, I’m frustrated by books that imply Christianity is the only possible true religion (and by some other kinds of choices.) The library has to serve both needs.
And that’s just for a start.
What’s a better alternative?
Parents can choose to limit their children’s reading. Many parents I know read books ahead of their children, so they can either talk carefully about any issues of concern. And adults can make use of a wide range of resources to help them find books that suit their tastes – online reviews, booklists, suggestions from people with similar tastes, etc.
Many librarians are also very good at helping parents find the best options for their situation – as long as parents are willing and able to be clear about what they feel is appropriate for their family, or the specific kinds of books they’re looking for. (Librarians are not mindreaders!)
A little patience helps, too – a librarian can do a lot more for you if you give them a little time to check other resources and don’t just demand a list in the next 5 minutes. Many online resources exist these days to help you find books that suit your values and needs. But it’s your job – not the library’s – to do much of that work, because only you know what you want and need for yourself and for your children.
I’m going to leave ‘randomly stumbling on something’ for another day, because I’m short on time, and on sleep, and I’d like to be more coherent for that post.