Rant of the Wild Librarian: Just Plain Filthy

This is the Thirtieth Anniversary of Banned Books Week and I’m not sure whether to be pleased that people have been officially fighting censorship for at least this long or completely frustrated that we still have to remind people that, as the Supreme Court told the School Board of Island Trees, New York, in 1982, it isn’t particularly legal to keep the public from accessing books like Slaughterhouse Five “simply because they dislike the ideas contained in those books.”

Not even if they’re “‘anti-American, anti-Christian, anti-Semitic and just plain filthy.”

The American Library Association, as you might suspect, is all over Banned Books Week, and has provided a terrific timeline of Banned Books, highlighting one challenged title for each of the thirty years.

Even after all these years in a public library setting, I wasn’t expecting The Night Kitchen by Maurice Sendak, though the reasons are about as facepalm-inducing as one might imagine.

But it’s difficult to predict every little thing that might enrage other people’s sensibilities—though there are certain subjects that are practically guaranteed to do so.

About twenty years ago, when I was working for the summer at my hometown public library, a patron came up to the desk with a biography, meant for adult readers, of a movie actor who shall remain nameless because I honestly can’t remember who it was.  The patron said he wanted me to “be aware” of something in the book and opened it, not to a torn page or the impression of a bacon bookmark or even commentary rendered in magic marker,* but to three very specific publisher ads in the back.

Two of these ads were for annotated filmographies of gay cinema and one was for a book about a male character struggling with his sexual orientation in Hollywood.   The wording and images in these ads were not, as I recall, explicit.

He also told me that he was sure the person who had ordered the book for the library had no idea that sort of thing was in this otherwise fine biography of a fine actor, but he wanted me to be aware that it was “just in case someone else saw them.”

I gave him a complaint form, which was standard procedure, and took the book away, even though he said he would put it back.  This was also standard procedure— we had been told how creative people could get when it came to sparing other people from items they didn’t like.**  Or didn’t want other people to like.

What I did not say to him—because I didn’t know how to express it and had no authority to do so—was that no one was forcing him or anyone else to buy the books in those ads or to approve of them.  The library could not control what publishers advertised in their own publications and was not going to remove pages from a book out of fear that someone might know that certain books exist or are available for purchase.

It is not the place of a public library to support or disapprove of any particular concept.***  It is the place of a library to make a variety of fiction and non-fiction materials available to the public, who are then free to choose what they wish to read, view, and believe.

One’s responsibility to protect others from ideas and concepts ends at the boundaries of one’s own immediate family.

But I didn’t have to say any of this, because the library board said it all when the patron attended the next open meeting and asked what the library was planning to do about the “filthy things” in the book.

“So you want people to know that the library supports this kind of perverted lifestyle?” asked the patron.

“We want the public to know that we do not support censorship,” said the Board president.

It’s as simple as that.


*Librarians have all seen worse, believe me.  If you’re reading to take your mind off a heavy cold, please use a tissue and turn your head when you sneeze, okay?  Snot is intended to be nature’s superglue.

**And from typos, too.  If you ever feel compelled to physically correct the grammar and punctuation in a library book, please don’t.  I do sympathize, but it’s still considered vandalism—and to be honest, you aren’t always right.

*** Except possibly for the arguments against tax levies for public libraries, because c’mon people, seriously?



27 thoughts on “Rant of the Wild Librarian: Just Plain Filthy

  1. Oh god. Am busy imagining a bookmark glued together with old bacon grease, snot, and worse. Blech.

    I love this post, and I kind of want to put “One’s responsibility to protect others from ideas and concepts ends at the boundaries of one’s own immediate family” on a t-shirt.

    • Yes, library work isn’t all glamor and galas.

      That might be a wordy t-shirt, Laura—maybe an extra-soft throw pillow, instead? It could come in handy during political-ad season. 🙂

  2. I have taken to reminding people that homophobia is the one surefire indicator of closet homosexuality, and that they should not to be so vocal if they’re trying to stay on the down-low.

    Once again, I am eight years old.

    (I want one of those throw pillows.)

      • It scares me, too! My hope is that campaigns like Banned Books Week continue to draw attention to this issue. As long as we vote, it’s in our power to have a judiciary that is more tolerant of viewpoint diversity.

  3. Go Ask Alice was banned? I read that when I was about 10 or 11 – I can’t remember much about it except it was anti drugs. Interesting choice to ban.

    And although censorship is not funny, the phrase “just plain filthy” makes me laugh.

    • Yeah, Alice wasn’t much of a role model, but there are frightened people out there who believe that keeping children ignorant and ‘innocent’ is the way to keep them safe.

      “Just plain filthy”—now there’s a tee-shirt! 🙂

  4. Good post, Sarah. As a mother, I censored books for our son, but only, of course, until he was mature enough to make his own decisions. Beyond that, I do not believe in censorship – just common sense. I think it would be harder to work in a library today, because so many people feel their “senses have been assaulted.”

    • There’s a difference between parenting one’s own children and trying to control everyone else’s, Maddie—I wouldn’t call what you did for your son ‘censoring.’

      I don’t know if it’s tougher or not—there have always been people ready to burn books in the effort to stop ideas that make them uncomfortable.

      • Yes, I agree 100%. I probably shouldn’t have used the word ‘censor’ with regard to parenting. And I would never presume to tell another parent how to raise their children, just as I was irritated when others felt it was ok to tell me. We homeschooled our son, and for some reason, people felt they were entitled to question and grill me about the wisdom of our decision and what we were doing. But that’s for another topic. 🙂 … The librarians in two counties loved us!

    • Maddie: My mother checked out “Forever” from the library, because I wasn’t old enough to do it myself (had to be at least 13). She told me she would read it first, then decide if I could read it. She was being a parent. You know, doing her job? She did tell me it was okay to read, and was even a little proud when I told her I had been reading it at the same time she was, since she left it lying around.

      Point is, she was being a parent. She was deciding what she wanted her children exposed to, and when. What she didn’t do is decide what all children should be exposed to.

      • Yes. My husband and I talked about this often. Not only do we not want someone telling us what to do with our children, we would never tell someone else either. Same with convictions. I don’t want to live someone the convictions of someone else.

  5. The truly sad thing is most of the people who want something banned have never actually read the thing they want to ban, and thus have no idea what the book is really about. People can find something offensive in everything.
    Of course I’m the aunt who buys her neices and nephews books that are probably beyond their ken, just because I believe that knowledge is power. (My sister wasn’t really excited about the Elvis biography I gave her son, because it was a little more graphic than he was ready for at the time, however, I knew she’d be right there reading it with him – English teacher – and he was mega into Elvis at the time.)
    Oh, and I was in charge of obtaining replacement pages for damaged items in our library. The stories I could tell. Haz-mat suits were needed at one point!

    • There’s a question at the bottom of our Item Complaint form that asks the patron if they read or viewed the entire item in question. I’ve only seen this answered ‘yes’ twice.

      And does it seem to you that a significant potion of the population stacks their library books next to the kitty litter? There seem to be a lot of confused cats out there…

  6. In the Night Kitchen? Seriously? Bridge to Terabithia was one of my favorite books, ever. I cried every single time I read it. And The Bluest Eye…oh.
    But now I have a new list of books to read! Yay!

    • Seriously! We have displays of banned books at each of our library location—complete with stop sign label-bands for the occasion—and we’ve already had to refill them.

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