“Librarians” and “Pornography”

Carrieif@aol.com has drawn to the attention of the Intellectual Freedom Round Table listserv to the story Librarians Won’t Give Child ‘Porn’ Book on the web site for WTVQ-TV in Lexington, KY. The story involves two “librarians” at the Jessamine Public Library who were dismissed last month for refusing to give a book they considered pornographic to an 11year old girl. The book was one of the volumes of Alan Moore’s series The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.

Alan Moore is a graphic novelist of high repute and the author of such works as Watchmen, V for Vendetta, and From Hell. He writes graphic novels for an adult audience. Indeed, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen’s ideal reader would be an adult with an encyclopedic knowledge of popular literature from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.  Moore’s vision of the world is bleak and that translates into stories that can be violent and often entail sexual violence. I have a friend—a fellow librarian—who is a graphic novel enthusiast, but who has quit reading Moore because he objects to the frequent occurrence of rape in his works.

That being said, the two “librarians” did not follow the policy of the Jessamine Public Library that “the responsibilities of the child’s reading must lie with the parents and not the Library.” Instead, they chose to remove the book from a hold shelf so it could not be picked up by the 11 year old girl. The Jessamine Public Library is to be applauded for its stand on parental responsibility. The two “librarians” deserved reproach for their decision.

Now, if you go to the story on the WTVQ-TV web site you’ll see that many of the comments on the story are by librarians who are quick to point out that the two staff members probably did not have masters degrees in library science and hence were not really librarians. Of course, from the point of view of anyone not employed in a library or a library school, they were librarians. Everyone in the library except the cleaning staff is a librarian.

The assumption behind this careful restriction of the title is a belief that true librarians would not have made the same error. I also think that the readers of the ACRL Intellectual Freedom blog might assume the academic librarians would certainly not make such an error. I disagree. I think all librarians (both in the strict and loose definitions of the title) at all levels of librarianship need to be reminded of our commitments to intellectual freedom and that the reminders should be repeated frequently.

In 1992, when Madonna published her book SEX, I remember the book on the approval plan shelves. We all, of course, gave it a look. If you have never seen it, you have missed nothing. It is a silly attempt to shock. The text is trite and the photos are a stale imitation of the work of Robert Mapplethorpe and other artists who truly explored the limits of sexual depiction. What has always stuck in my mind about the book is not any of its pictures or text, but a note a librarian left on the book:  “Please please don’t buy this trash for the collection.” The note was left by a librarian I deeply respect, but who had a strong personal reaction to the work. The sociology selector who was responsible for collecting materials on sexual expression and erotica ended up having a long talk with the concerned librarian. They discussed the role such a work would play in the collection and its likely importance as an artifact of the period and came to an agreement that it was appropriate for the library. In fact, two copies of SEX were ultimately purchased: one for a special collection on human sexuality and the other for the circulating collection (albeit the volume was kept in the closed stacks so it would survive intact and could be circulated).

All librarians reach these points in building collections whether our reaction is to sexual content or violence or hatred or gross human stupidity. We all, therefore, require reminders of our principles so reason will keep our feelings in check, so we will do the job of protecting intellectual freedom.

—Paul Beavers

6 Responses to ““Librarians” and “Pornography””

  1. Dan Kleinman says:

    Paul, interesting. But couldn’t there have been some other remedy short of firing? What are the possible alternatives? Is it possible the firings were made to make a statement, so to speak? What statement might that have been? Similarly, is there any other action the librarians could have taken such as advising the parents?

    Thanks. Interesting blog post. I blogged on this too. Click the link on my name to see what I said.

  2. Paul Beavers says:

    Thanks Dan. I have checked out your posting and the comments and I urge the other readers of this blog to give them a look. I was interested to learn that the specific volume in question was The Black Dossier, the third volume of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.

    I didn’t want to go too far astray in my blog post so I didn’t address the severity of the punishment. If the sole offense of these two staff members was to take the requested book off the hold shelf, I think firing them was far too severe. The point of my piece was that all of us (“real” librarians or support staff) will feel a strong antipathy toward some materials and, unless we are kept well trained on intellectual freedom issues, we act on our feelings rather than on our professional ethics.

    Firing these two women seems draconian to me. As seriously as I take their misstep, I think it calls for serious conversation and training and not unemployment. Indeed, by acting so severely, the Jessamine Public Library has made the punishment the focus of the story. I don’t think WTVQ-TV would have covered the story, but for the firing.

  3. Jim D. says:

    I agree that the firing was draconian, *IF* it was over just this one incident. The library is unlikely to disclose personnel matters, but I can’t help wondering if there were other incidents or if the employees in question refused to modify their behavior to comply with policy.

  4. Dan Kleinman says:

    I agree.

    It saddens me to see comments like this one from a university librarian: “I think they should have been fired. We have enough problems with censorship without our employees helping it along.”

    A university librarian. If taking a book off hold is considered “censorship,” what is it called when university librarians are ditching Scientific American magazine in droves just because the price is going up for university subscriptions? Might it also be called “censorship”? Is saving money an acceptable justification in multiple libraries while protecting children or acting in loco parentis in a single library is not? See, “Scientific American Price Change Defended; Oberlin Group Not Convinced; Library Directors Say They’re Disappointed, Will Let Market Respond,” by Norman Oder, Library Journal, 23 October 2009.

    Thank you. The university library/”censorship” of SciAm issue is an aside. Feel free not to respond.

    Be that as it may, your blog post and response are so informational, I’m going to be checking in on this blog more often. Thanks again.

  5. Jim D. says:

    Dan:
    Taking a book off hold isn’t censorship. Refusing to check a book out to a patron, on the other hand, is censorship, and that’s a more realistic assessment of what happened.

    I’m not sure what some libraries are doing with Scientific American, but yes, a library can make a financial decision about what to carry or not. In the cases I’m aware of, the paper subscription is being dropped, but the library still has online access through multiple pathways. In fact, MANY libraries are shifting MANY journal and magazine subscriptions to electronic only. That is not censorship, because patrons still have unrestricted access.

    As to “in loco parentis”, a public library has no legal right to do that, unlike a school (or even a school library). For a public library to decide what a minor patron can or cannot read or check out would infringe parental rights and responsibilities.

  6. John says:

    I hate the term intellectual freedom. While I disagree with censorship, the term intellectual freedom seems to indicated a lack of responsibility. I am sorry, but even public libraries must be responsible. The two librarians in question did indeed act responsibly, the library did not. I applaud the fact you agree that the firings were over the top, they were definitely that, but in this particular library, which I know because I am a resident of Jessamine County the graphic novels (which I love to read myself) are right next to the teen section. I understand that one of the two librarians fired for this actually was willing to compromise when the issue first came up and ask that the graphic novel section be moved so as not to be next to the teen section. A stop gap measure true, but one that would have saved a lot of trouble and heartache.

    The whole problem is the idea of responsibility, intellectual freedom is a fine term to spout when one feels threatened, however, there is also a responsibility that comes with that freedom, and the American Library Association is obviously all about denying that responsibility with the cute little phrase “it must be the responsibility of the parent…” All fine and dandy until we take a look at what is happening in public schools and with teen culture.

    I do not advocate Nazi style censorship by any means, but there is a certain point where some things are to be considered obscene, and even some comic book shop owners have stated that this particular issue of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is obscene and should be for mature readers only, one even went so far as to say she has warned parents of its content before they made the purchase for their children, because like most people with a dose of common sense, she realizes not every parent takes the time to read or look through what their children are reading. If they did the Gossip Girl “genre” of books wouldn’t be on shelves.