Libraries and Censorship

by Karen Coyle
Talk prepared for the Asilomar Microcomputer Workshop, April, 1995
The library's answer to censorship is quite simple: no censorship. In case that went by you the first time, I will repeat it: no censorship.

But what does "no censorship" actually mean? The American Library Association policies on access to information include the following statements:

Books and other library resources should be provided for the interest, information, and enlightenment of all people of the community the library serves. Materials should not be excluded because of the origin, background, or views of those contributing to their creation.
Libraries should provide materials and information presenting all points of view on current and historical issues. Materials should not be proscribed or removed because of partisan or doctrinal disapproval.
Libraries should challenge censorship in the fulfillment of their responsibility to provide information and enlightenment.

A "no censorship" stand is, of course, complex. There is always the issue of treating children as a special case, which seems to be the direction the Internet may be headed in. The idea is that some materials just aren't suitable for children. The library response to this is quite firm:

Denying minors access to certain library materials and services available to adults is a violation of the Library Bill of Rights. Librarians and governing bodies should maintain that parents -- and only parents -- have the right and the responsibility to restrict the access of their children -- to library resources.

Not that parents are perfect people. But the choice that we have is between institutional restrictions or personal choices, and barring absolute freedom as an option, the latter seems to be best. The policy also comes out against rating systems for materials, calling these "prejudicial... a censor's tool."

And if you still think that librarians are meek in their defense of the First Amendment, try this section entitled "Government Intimidation:"

The American Library Association opposes any use of government prerogatives which leads to the intimidation of the individual or the citizenry from the exercise of free expression. ALA encourages resistance to such abuse of government power, and supports those against whom such governmental power has been employed.

There are political groups that call themselves "radical" that don't come on as strong as that.

Censorship and Sex

Most of us think of censorship as mainly affecting sexual materials - dirty books and magazines. While a great deal of censorship is aimed at works relating to sex, censorship is actually used more often against unpopular ideas, precisely the kinds of ideas that the First Amendment was designed to protect. The most banned book of this year - the one that was most often attacked in libraries - was one called "Daddy's Roommate." Aimed at the elementary school reading level, it is the story of a young boy whose father is gay and whose partner lives with him. No sex takes place in the book, obviously. It's the story of a family, a functional family, though one that does not look like the American ideal of family.

When Lady Chatterly's Lover was banned, the shock was not just that the book mentioned sex, but that it portrayed sex between an upper class woman and a lower class man. Some communities have called for the removal of Edgar Rice Burroughs' Tarzan series because Tarzan and Jane were never married; they were "living in sin."

Libraries have to decide whether to carry socially and politically unpopular works: white supremacist writings, "Holocaust Hoax" works, Madonna's Sex. How does a library decide?

Here it's important to talk about the role of the library in our society. It's not just the world's cheapest book store. The library, as an institution, supports a concept that we call the "commons of knowledge." This is a concept with a large philosophy behind it, and it begins with the idea that humans, as a species, are distinguished from other animals because of what we know, and because we know that we know.

The library's role is to provide access to as much as possible of that knowledge, both past and present. But libraries do not have infinite book budgets nor unending shelf space, and so they must select materials to be included in their collections. A library walks a fine line between the creation of a coherent collection of our world's knowledge and censorship.

Books in a library are not chosen for their popularity. If they were, the library would be indistinguishable from Walden Books. Libraries almost always carry Shakespeare's works, Will and Ariel Durant's The Story of Civilization, the Bible, as well as the latest best-sellers. The biographies of Roosevelt and at least six of the seven volumes of the Remembrance of Things Past generally collect dust on the shelf, yet libraries will continue to carry them. Books are chosen for how well they fill in the gaps in our map of the human condition. Within each library you should be able to find a basic explanation of who we are and what we believe in.

Why is some information to be found in libraries and other information isn't? Some of this is due to the fact that libraries are consumers of the products of the publishing business. They don't choose what information will be printed or distributed, so if there are biases in the library's collection, often these are the same biases that determine if particular ideas will appear in the mainstream of publishing. If a library does not carry skin head literature, for example, part of the reason is that it isn't available through the standard acquisition sources that libraries use. Libraries may go out of their way to purchase non- mainstream materials in response to community interest, but the extra effort costs both money and precious staff time.

Some information is unavailable in the library due to "community standards." Libraries rarely carry hard core pornography, but they will circulate Harlequin romance novels. "Reading for pleasure" is encouraged, but "books you read with one hand," as Henry Miller called them, go too far along the pleasure spectrum. Perhaps some librarians can convince themselves that it isn't really all that far from Barbara Cartland to Charles Dickens and that some reader will make the transition. But the truth is that the library is a social institution, and no depth of belief in intellectual freedom can remove it entirely from the constraints of our current world view.


Censorship ignores history. When libraries choose to carry materials that may be offensive to some people in the community, they do it with a view to the future. What matters isn't that an idea is popular or unpopular today, but that it may have an influence that will eventually be significant. Not all determinations of the relative value of ideas and works are correct, and eventually, libraries will discard items that haven't lived up to their promise. But to select or reject works because some people today find their ideas to be offensive would be to eliminate vast amounts of valuable human thought, and the very lack of access would preclude further study and use of that knowledge. If we can't share ideas freely, how will we ever go forward as a civilization?
Copyright Karen Coyle, 1995
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