Rant of the Wild Librarian: Sign of the Apocalypse

An incredible story has been making the rounds of the American Library Association Young Adult listserv.  I’m not on that particular listserv, but a co-worker sent the story to me, as well as her thoughtful reply.

Ten minutes after I read both, I asked the writer of the original post, Dr. Caroline Thomas, for permission to quote her here:

I teach Young Adult lit to grad students (i.e. adults).  One of required books to read is the Golden Compass.  A group of students are forming an organization to try to force the removal of the book from my required reading lists so other students won’t be forced to read something so offensive to their belief systems. No plans for growth here.  Obviously they have no clue as to the term academic freedom.  I can hardly wait to hear what the provost says.  I know what the dean will say.  The really funny thing is that I am retiring at the end of the summer and won’t teach the class again anyway . . .

It’s difficult to know where to begin with this,* so I’m going to break it down.

Adult grad students . . .

Are trying to protect other adult grad students . . .

From a work of young adult fiction . . .

That they don’t personally agree with . . .

While they’re studying to become librarians.

I’ll pause a moment to let that sink in.

To be strictly honest, I was sorely tempted the first time I read this to be extremely offensive to several belief systems, unless they support sustained swearing with the occasional punctuating blasphemy.

The mildest thing I could have said is that whoever taught these students about Intellectual Freedom must have graded on one hell of a curve.

Let me offer a remedial definition:

“Intellectual freedom is the right of every individual to both seek and receive information from all points of view without restriction. It provides for free access to all expressions of ideas through which any and all sides of a question, cause, or movement may be explored.”

—American Library Association

Please for to note these key terms:  every individual, all points of view, without restriction

It also worries me that these grad students don’t seem to have much of a clue about what a librarian does and what a librarian is.

Here are a few points to ponder:

It’s not a public or academic librarian’s place to protect anyone, even children, from ideas.**  Quite the opposite—in fact, it’s far too often exactly the opposite.

This post isn’t about defending The Golden Compass. It wouldn’t matter if I loved it or hated it or if people I respect thought Mr. Pullman was all but drawing devil horns on the polar bears.***

It wouldn’t matter if a book featured sparkly vampires and set back female empowerment a few decades by romanticizing what is essentially an abusive, dangerous, infantilizing, and creepy relationship . . .

But I digress.

This point is, it’s a librarian’s place to determine the genre, subject, reading level, and location of any requested item.  It’s the place of the parent, guardian or adult reader to determine if the book has appropriate content.

Librarians aren’t parents, even in loco.  Librarians aren’t babysitters.

Librarians are librarians.

Patrons ask for an item or information.

We find the item or information.

We give them the item or information.

If someone other than the parent or guardian of that specific patron tries to stop the patron from accessing that item or information, we protect that person’s right to have that item or information made available to them.

The only exception to this is when the distribution or public viewing of the item or information is a violation of city, state, or federal law.  Our computer use policy, for example, follows state laws forbidding the viewing of pornographic images where minors might see them.

Do we fit a collection to its audience?  Of course we do.  I’m not saying that adult-level information should be sitting in a middle school library or in the children’s section of a public library—although I’d argue that comprehension rather than content should be the priority.

I’m saying that the personal beliefs of the librarian should be taken out of the equation.

 The only belief that should affect a librarian while on the job is the belief in  the right of every individual to both seek and receive information from all points of view without restriction.

I don’t have to personally like a book or agree with its premises to hand it over to my patron.  I’ve even recommended books I personally dislike because the patrons wanted something similar to other books I don’t like.

Because that’s my job.

And speaking of jobs, I certainly hope there aren’t many libraries of any type that will welcome librarians who believe in censorship instead of common sense.  And while it’s possible that a few of these offended grad students have already been hired at such a facility and are merely catching up with job requirements, I doubt this is the case for everyone.

The rest might think long and hard about the repercussions of their decisions to take away their fellow students’ ability to think for themselves.

My co-worker described those repercussions beautifully in her reply to Dr. Thomas:

Sorry you are dealing with censorship from your students.  If in your shoes I might take a moment to sincerely thank said students for their attempts at completely biased, wide-reaching censorship.  Censors like these ensure that books like The Golden Compass stay on Banned Book Week lists, appear in national and international news stories in a variety of forums, and keep these books in print.  By attempting to quiet the “offensive” works and steal the rights of others, they are very effectively increasing sales, increasing circs, and keeping these books accessible to others.

Hundreds of us have read your e-mails today, and I don’t think we’re a particularly quiet group.  We talk to others, we e-mail, we blog.  Those of us who work directly with teens sometimes highlight censorship attempts, talk about the books, and use these crimes to spread the word about intellectual freedom.  Perhaps you can remind your students that it is entirely possible that never again in their lives will they have such a “positive” effect on spreading the word about these belief-system-offending books.

I wish you the best.


I would also invite these wannabe librarians to ask themselves if they believe they can agree with and follow the ALA Code of Ethics, particularly points two and seven.

If they don’t, I hope they consider another line of work.

To protect other people from learning the wrong things.


*When my husband asked me about the throbbing vein in my forehead, I found myself trying to say five things at once, at least one of which was in my special Road Rage language.

**I’m leaving private and corporate libraries out of this—they aren’t my area of expertise and bringing in specialty collections and intellectual copyrights would muddy the waters.

***I did like it, if we’re keeping a record, though for that record, I did think it slowed down a little too much in a few places, but that’s a fair trade for Mr. Pullman’s descriptive style.