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?




Anti-Bullying and Censorship: That’ll Teach Them

I usually have some idea about the day’s blog post in advance—stop laughing—but this morning, I had nothing in mind except a vague essay on why I should really think about eating breakfast before I’m ensconced in my cubicle and the only options are sugar-free peppermint gum and diet Pepsi.*

But I’ve winged it before—breakfast and blog—so I trusted that a post would present itself sometime during the day.

I really need to stop tempting the universe like this.

Because the first thing I saw when I opened the paper for processing was an article about the Erie Elementary School.

And now I am furious.

Seems that they have an Anti-Bullying Collection at this school, which is a terrific idea.  Except, well, some of the parents don’t think some of this collection is appropriate.

While I’m anti-censorship, I am in favor of age- and level-appropriate materials, so I decided to hold off on my automatic reaction and read on.

The unacceptable materials?

The Family Book by Todd Parr, who has made a name for himself telling everyone that they are okay no matter what and he means you, too.  Because there’s one sentence in there that says that some families have two daddies or two mommies.

One.  Sentence.

And, knowing Mr. Parr’s style, perhaps a thick-lined drawing of two figures in skirts holding hands and two similar figures in pants holding hands.**

God help us.

What’s  even worse, in the eyes of these parents, are that some of the materials in the Anti-Bullying Collection came from . . . wait for it . . . the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Educational Network.  There’s no mention of what the materials contain in any of the articles I’ve read, but as we all know, cooties are a big concern at the Elementary School level and there might be a stamp on it somewhere that says Gay or Lesbian on it.  And what if the children ask questions?

Now, this . . . stupidity. . . happens all the time, every damn day, so at this point, I wasn’t so much surprised as saddened.

And then I read on.

A committee was formed to study the matter and the Board held a public session to discuss the matter, which is all good practice.  Usually, with something this ridiculous, the committee recommends that the materials stay and the Board follows the committee recommendations, the vocal few bluster about how the world is traveling at light speed in a handbasket and it all dies down.

In Erie, the Board listened to the vocal few and removed the materials before—or so I’m told—most of the community knew anything had been challenged in the first place.

Funny Animal Captions - Animal Capshunz: Even Lions Have These Moments

But my real problem with this isn’t how certain people are still battling the Big Bad Gay Boogieman with the Shield of Willful Ignorance and the Lance of Woefully Uninformed Panic.

It’s that once again, two very different actions are being confused:

Teaching elementary school children that we must be nice to everyone and not hurt anyone


Promoting and endorsing explicit sexual practices to elementary school children

When people mistake the first action for the second—and it’s truly stunning how often it happens—they tend lose all sense of proportion, sweep everything off the shelves before whatever it is they haven’t actually read gets to the children, and end up teaching those kids lessons they may not have intended.

The thing about kids is, they’re constantly looking for confirmation of everything you tell them.  That’s the way they figure out how the world works.

You can tell them, We have to be nice to everyone and they’ll bug you for a complete list:

Differently colored people?   On the list.

People with glasses? Yes

Sick People? Of course

Small people?  Uh-huh.

People who don’t read as well as the rest of the class?  Yep.

People in wheelchairs?  On the list

People who can’t hear or see?  On there.

People who laugh all the time at nothing?  Sure.

People who cry all the time like big babies?  Yes and let’s discuss how you phrased that.

People who love Thomas Hardy’s poetry? Well . . . okay.

The kid who sticks paste in his ears and hums the National Anthem while he picks his nose?  Yes.  You don’t have to eat lunch with that kid, but you have to be nice.  And if someone else isn’t nice to him, you need to tell a grown-up.

People who are mean to me?  Tough one . . . but yeah, they’re on the list, too.

And that’s great.  But another thing about kids, is that they pick up the stuff you don’t say much better than they ever listen to the stuff you do.

You can tell them, We have to be nice to everyone and they’ll notice what you aren’t saying about certain people.***

Two boys holding hands?  Go out and play.

A girl who isn’t interested in boys when everyone else is?  Go out and play.

Kids who have two mommies or two daddies?   Go play.

Anyone who has been tagged, even in an off-handed way, as gay?  That’s not a nice thing to say.  We don’t use that word.

They may not know what a gay or lesbian person is or does—because heaven forfend we given even the simplest elementary-appropriate explanation of, say, two like-gendered people holding hands—but they will get the message that there’s something wrong with these persons, so wrong that it looks like it’s okay not to be nice to them.

And since kids are constantly looking for confirmation, some of ‘em will test it out in the real world by not being nice to the people they think aren’t specifically on the list.

I’m sure all of you have made the connection, but let’s drive it home, shall we?

That testing?  It’s bullying—and people die from it, one way or another.

No damn joke.

But what really steams me about all this idiocy is the response of the school system, which makes me wonder how Anti-Bullying Collections were ever accepted in these schools in the first place:

According to the Superintendent (emphasis mine), “People see a headline and they respond to something. They don’t understand that it’s very important to us to continue teach what we’ve taught and continue to take care of our kids the way we always have . . .  People from 30, 100, or 1,000 miles away don’t really understand the entire story.”

Oh, I think we do, dear.

What’s more, so will your kids.


I found a video news report of this, but it won’t embed. Here’s the link, if you’re interested.

I’m relieved to see that there’s already a petition circulating in the community to get these materials back on the shelves.  I hope that’s enough and if it isn’t, I hope the petitioners step up the fight.

Because this is unacceptable.


*Don’t try this at home kids, my lips just went numb.

**I don’t know for sure, because the library’s copies are all checked out.

***I’d include people of size, but that’s another rant.

But if we fail to act . . .

I don’t do politics.

Or rather, I don’t do politics here, except for my election year “Go Vote Now or Stop Complaining” pep talks.  This isn’t to say I don’t have some serious views on some serious issues,* just that I prefer this space to hold other things.

But for this, and in light of yesterday’s quote from Dr. King,  I’m making an exception.  We may not make any difference, me and my little blog, but I have to try.

Because if these two acts pass, I might not have a little blog at all.

And neither will you.

So please, hear me out:

The acts in question are the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Preventing Real Online Threats to Economic Creativity and Theft of Intellectual Property Act of 2011 (PIPA). 

SOPA is intended to expand the ability of United States law enforcement and copyright holders to fight online trafficking in “copyrighted intellectual property and counterfeit goods.”

PIPA** would give the United States government and copyright holders “additional tools to curb access” to “rogue websites dedicated to infringing or counterfeit goods”, especially those registered outside the States.

Why would someone who would like to make a little money out of this writing gig someday be opposed to something that opposes online piracy?   Why would a librarian prefer theft to copyright law?

I’m not.  And I don’t.

BUT. . . if these laws pass, the Internet, flawed as it is, is over.

No more clips.

No more quotes.

No more book reviews.

No more embedded sharing.

No more YouTube.

No more links. 

See that last one? That’s the kicker, right there.

What is the Internet?  It’s content, right?  Good, bad, indifferent, skeevy, putrid, lovely, fascinating, valid, bullpoop, whatever, it’s all content.

And how is all that individual content connected?  How is the WWWeb woven?

Links.  Right.

Here’s my understanding of the kind of thing that could happen if these acts pass, and, yes, I’m making it personal:

One day, I’ll post a link to a poetry site that contains thousands of poems because I want you to read a verse that I don’t have permission to copy and I don’t want my blog shut down or rendered invisible to search engines—and I sure don’t want to be fined or jailed.  So I’m really, really careful.***

But say that site contains one poem out of thousands  that they don’t have permission to use. I didn’t catch that one, or even see it, because I may like reading poems, but assessing thousands of them for permissions is a major job.

And the poet or someone in the government finds out and decides to file an injunction against that site, which is shut down or rendered invisible to search engines, and the owner, who is fined and/or jailed.

Depending on the wording of that injunction and whatever lawsuit(s) might be brought—and even though I never even heard of that one pirated poem or landed on its page—I could be charged with copyright infringement or promoting infringement.

Shut down, rendered invisible, fined or jailed.

Eventually, no one will be able to link to any source outside their own content for fear of the possible consequences.

Internet over.

And International connections could be lost the same way—no more visiting the London Museum online, no more international research, no more non-government-approved international distress calls answered. 

And just to make this part personal:  no more reading the blogs of—or having our blogs read by—our non-US-IP using friends, who will be the only ones using links anyway.  Goodbye Downith, Nina, Bobbi, Sarah P., Siobhan, Marie, Gary, Zoë . . .

This is the equivalent of killing a hornets’ nest with a nuke.

Better explanations are here.

And here.

And especially here.

Wikipedia, Boing Boing, and several other sites and blogs are shutting down from Midnight to Midnight tomorrow, January 18th, a protest coordinated by americancensorship.org.

So you’d better read the above links now, or you might have to wait until Thursday.

In solidarity and support, there will be no new post on my little blog between Midnight and Midnight tomorrow.

If you’re a US reader,  I encourage you to use the small amount of time you might have used reading Poetry Wednesday and write to your congressperson to tell them that stronger measures may or may not be needed to curtail copyright theft—but these aren’t it.

Thank you for letting me rant—I hope to be allowed to do so for many years to come.


*Most of which seem more like flippin’ no-brainers than ‘issues’ to me, but everybody feels that way, no matter what side they’re on, right?

**Which is a rewrite of the proposed Combating Online Infringement and Counterfeits Act (COICA), which was killed in Congress.

***Not that I’m not careful now, but I’m not paranoid about it and if there were complaints, I’d comply with a reasonable request from appropriate channels to fix the situation.

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.

Puppets Against Banning Books, Eventually (PABBE)

I posted this first video during last year’s Banned Books Week, but I’m gonna do it again.

It offers a good explanation of why banning books isn’t a good idea and has a hungry sock puppet.  What’s not to like?


And for something a little more contemporary, I give you a video that highlights the most recently challenged books. No puppets, but the soundtrack is kickin’.