Sex, Violence, and "Hail Mary": Censorship in the Public Library


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This paper will focus on two major issues concerning censorship. First and foremost, it will examine the definition or definitions of censorship in different contexts, as well as examples of the different types of censorship that take place regularly. Secondly, it will examine the role of the library, particularly, in the use of and fight against censorship, and will speak to the library’s responsibility to its community, to itself, and to intellectual freedom.

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Sex, Violence, and "Hail Mary": Censorship in the Public Library

  1. 1. Ahniwa Ferrari December 17, 2006 Sex, Violence, and ―Hail Mary‖: Censorship in the Public Library Introduction The issue of censorship is a complicated one, and one which many people respond to with strong emotion. It is an issue that ―brings forth strong ideas, voicing of beliefs, and sharing of convictions‖ (Warnock 23). Though in today‘s age the idea of censorship brings to mind banned, or burned, books, the blocking of explicit lyrics in music, and perhaps even the rating of movies to keep inappropriate audiences away from certain content, it is likely an idea that pre- dates the recording of information. At least, the word itself, ―censorship‖, stems from the root Latin verb censere, meaning to assess, estimate, or judge (Wilkinson 185). It‘s difficult to tell what the role of the censor may have been in its ancient context, though the verb, at least, implies assessing the quality of, estimating the worth of, and judging the pertinence of information. In modern times, the idea of censorship is no clearer. Determinations of what does and does not constitute censorship depend largely on context, particularly the information venue, as well as the players, involved. Even then, where one person might simply say ―selection‖, another may cry ―censor!‖ The fact is, excepting certain demonstrative examples, the idea of censorship lies firmly in a grey area, hovering between the ideas of moral and educational protection, the abuse of power in asserting personal bias, and, of course, the sanctity of intellectual freedom. This paper will focus on two major issues concerning censorship. First and foremost, it will examine the definition or definitions of censorship in different contexts, as well as examples of the different
  2. 2. Ferrari 2 types of censorship that take place regularly. Secondly, it will examine the role of the library, particularly, in the use of and fight against censorship, and will speak to the library‘s responsibility to its community, to itself, and to intellectual freedom. Defining Censorship The definitions of censorship themselves serve with their wording to either vilify or praise the practice, or take a carefully neutral ground. In its simplest form, censorship implies that in any selection of information, there is a nonselection, or censorship, of other information. That is to say, after information is assessed, estimated, and judged, the information that doesn‘t make the cut is censored, or deselected (Wilkinson 185). Since, from a library standpoint, it is impossible to create a truly universal collection, and since, furthermore, for every item that is selected, in most libraries there are thousands of items in various formats that are not, this definition seems too broad to serve the purpose of any useful debate on the subject. Guy Marco creates a strict definition of the term adapted from the language in the American Heritage Dictionary: ―Censorship: The prohibition, by a legally authorized examiner, of written, spoken, or graphic material on the grounds that the material is potentially harmful to society‖ (15). Contrary to the previous, broad term, which started with the selection of certain materials and called everything else censored, Marco‘s definition starts with the deselection of certain materials based on a value judgment of potential harm, thereby indicating that censorship itself is a positive action, preventing harm. This harm can come in many forms, though the forms most often cited are moral, political, and religious, generally concerning items of violence, sex, race, or religion. The problem, of course, is that all of these issues are highly personal and subjective, and determining what might cause harm to one person, and what might serve another,
  3. 3. Ferrari 3 is incredibly difficult and probably should not, in any case, be the decision of any one person, such as a librarian or other information intermediary. But that issue will be discussed more a little bit later. Oppenheim provides another definition, that ―the general sentiment behind most definitions [of censorship] is that something is withheld from access by another. … To draw a line between material that requires control and of which that does not, could be another way to define censorship‖ (160). The standpoint of libraries on censorship is, at least theoretically, incredibly clear, and they‘ve had plenty of experience with it, indeed, ―censorship in public libraries is as old as the public library movement itself‖ (Oppenheim 161). Censorship is the direct opposite of intellectual freedom. Where one exists in strength, the other is diminished, and vice versa. The American Library Association, in its Library Bill of Rights, emphasizes that libraries should provide resources for all people in the community it serves, presenting all points of view, and should challenge censorship and cooperate against restricted speech in all instances (1). In essence, all materials should be made available to all people, all of the time; no work should be censored and no expression stifled. This viewpoint can present ethical dilemmas to librarians, who are only human and therefore have a set of natural biases against certain types of material or information. Library workers can, in fact, be the most subtle and effective of all censors, quietly slipping odious books behind other works, or simple making them difficult to find and retrieve through poor classification or shelving. Far more often than not, however, censorship is instigated from outside the library, by an individual or group that feels threatened by ideas presented in a work or works and want the library to do something about it. Along with moral or political fears, these responses often come from parents who feel threatened for the sake of their
  4. 4. Ferrari 4 children. In speaking on public libraries and intellectual freedom, Conable says, ―Such a response is quite natural and human; parents are expected to protect their offspring. The concern may be real, but the requested response – the censorship of library materials – is an inappropriate means of dealing with perceived danger to children‖ (2). As an historical example, ―In the nineteenth century, it was three-decker novels in Mudie‘s Library. In the 1950s and 1960s it was horror comics. The last few decades are full of similar concerns about film and video content, and its alleged effects‖ (Hannabuss 84). Censorship, then, is the repression of intellectual freedom through the propagation of one idea over another, through allowing personal bias to determine the selection of materials, rather than attempting to create an unbiased, balanced viewpoint through an availability of various materials. It is, as Ben Franklin may have said, the trade of freedom for security, to which he may have replied, ―Those who desire to give up freedom in order to gain security, will not have, nor do they deserve, either one‖ (Jenson 13). Censorship is represented by the deselection of certain materials, through a conscious choice and for a certain purpose, no matter from which agency it may be initiated. In fighting censorship, Oppenheim suggests that ―a library should be committed to presenting as many sides of an issue as possible, even if that material challenges or criticizes an accepted truth such as the Holocaust‖ (162). A library’s responsibility? Each library has its own policy, or mission statement, regarding the purpose behind its acquisitions, and specifically its role in serving its community. Byrne states that ―The library is considered to exemplify democratic values in being ‗open to all‘ and designed to accommodate a plurality of ideas and views‖ (137). The ALA created its Library Bill of Rights in the hope of
  5. 5. Ferrari 5 guiding each library to look upon its role in the community as a ―forum for information and ideas‖ (1). Whether or not it should be the library‘s duty to act as censors in this forum, the fact remains that they are often remanded to this position through complaints made from within the community that the library is meant to serve. The library selects the materials that they make available, after all, so should they not be responsible for the content of those items when the community takes offence, and therefore responsible for also removing objectionable materials? Should the library in its capacity as the selector also be forced to be the censor, though it‘s wasteful of both time and funds? ―Censorship has always thrown up the question of whether good materials in a library simply ―select themselves‖, and that selection is only a more socially acceptable word for censorship. Librarians are looking for value for money and quality, rejecting the trivial, trying to be as accountable with funds as possible‖ (Hannabuss 86). In a legal sense, there are only three types of items that are explicitly censored. These materials are either labeled as obscene, deal pornographically with children, or are ―calls to violence intended or likely to produce imminent lawless action‖ (Jensen 14). Since these materials are prohibitively censored at a national level in both the United States and Canada, they should never cross the acquisitive hands of a library in the first place. For all other works, however, who is best to judge their suitability for a library collection? ―[A]re allegedly immoral works best ―judged‖ in law courts? Is a parents‘ group the most reliable advocate of internet filtering? Is the (Christian?) church a realistic point of reference for issues on gay censorship, Harry Potter wizardry, and adult videos‖ (Hannabuss 82)? Should these works be judged at all? The ALA Code of Ethics explicitly recommends that librarians ―uphold the principles of intellectual freedom and resist all efforts to censor library resources‖ (1). The key word is ―all‖, suggesting that under no circumstances should a librarian allow censorship to happen. Conable
  6. 6. Ferrari 6 adds to this in stating that ―[libraries] serve as neutral ground for opposing positions. Human beings, after all, are very different from each other‖ (2). He goes on to say that ―The librarian must be willing and able to defend them all, for to sacrifice the trivial, the controversial, or the distasteful means sacrificing the ability to defend anything‖ (3). One particularly tricky subject area in library collections is religious treatment. Kertesz recommends that ―A library must avoid the appearance of encouraging belief in any one religion, at the same time maintaining a collection that is representative of the public it serves. That can become difficult in communities where faith and citizenship are viewed as one‖ (34). Marco argues that ―most challenges to library selection practice are localized, pertaining to towns, cities, and school districts. If successful, such challenges results in restriction (limited censorship), with hardly any suppressive impact‖ (18). Libraries, however, appear to be strongly affected by any successful campaigns of censorship, particularly in that ―once the librarian has surrendered on a single occasion, he or she is the first target in future assaults‖ (Conable 3). Also, many institutions don‘t have the time, money, or inclination to deal with censorship controversy on a regular basis. This means that if a community exhibits a strong reaction to a type of material that subsequently leads to a lengthy and emotionally-costly review process, in the future the library will likely self-censor, or avoid acquiring those types of materials, solely in order to avoid further confrontations. Similar situations take place in other information venues as well. Warnock highlights a situation wherein a teacher‘s choice of Siddhartha as a teaching instrument in his course is attacked by a student‘s parents. Despite the fact that a unanimous decision was made to keep the item in the curriculum, the teacher himself caved to the pressure and never assigned the book in his course again (24). The effects of censorship are not always apparent, but they are certainly forceful, and often have long-lasting repercussions. Some
  7. 7. Ferrari 7 libraries, in response to controversy, while willing to buy an item will offer only restricted access, which amounts to partial censorship. ―This timid response is in the long-established library tradition of the closed cabinet of restricted materials, accessible through cryptic catalogue entries such as ‗Sex—see librarian‘‖ (Byrne 139). ―It is important to note that people who complain about materials are not themselves censors … Censorship only occurs when libraries and librarians respond to complaints about and challenges to collection materials by removing or restricting books or other items‖ (Conable 4). Whether or not libraries censor items, the responsibility of dealing with issues of censorship falls to them as information resource centers serving communities. Invariably, pressures will come from different sources to challenge various resources, but in every case the final decision belongs with the library. As communities and their respective libraries are different, so must each library develop a clear policy for dealing with censorship and challenges to items. Conable advises that ―the library should utilize the experience as a means of making its point about the importance of the underlying issues of free expression. This can provide a wellspring of community support and good will that can last long after the shouting has died‖ (3). Warnock quotes Bastian in recommending that ―The key to resolving the dilemma … lies in the ability of librarians to reassert their responsibility for the information that is in their libraries…‖ (25). Libraries, censorship, and the internet Another area in which libraries face issues of censorship on a day to day basis is in offering public internet access within their facilities. After the Communications Decency Act (CDA) and the Children‘s Online Protection Act (COPA) were deemed unconstitutional, the Children‘s Internet Protection Act (CIPA) passed in 2001, requiring that libraries that receive federal
  8. 8. Ferrari 8 funding either install and use internet filtering software, or look elsewhere for their funding. The Supreme Court upheld CIPA in 2003, stating that it did not impinge on the First Amendment in that adults could still request to access the library‘s internet on an unfiltered account (Jensen 15). Despite the inconvenience this can cause many librarians who don‘t always have the time to play ―techno-babysitters‖ (Jensen 14), filtering software has a penchant for over-restriction, often causing children to not be able to view certain sites based in faulty filter assumptions about language or content. Additionally, websites are created and grow much faster than any filtering company can keep up with, meaning that any attempt to block sites one at a time is completely fruitless, as two new sites will simply spring up in its place. The other issue with censoring the internet is the marginalization of those groups that have found the internet of primary use to form a basis of community identity. ―[These communities,] based on gender, ethnicity, religious affiliation and sexual orientation … coordinate their political lobbying, construct their collective identity and share information and resources through the Internet. It is the medium most closely associated with the struggle for these freedoms of intimacy‖ (Chalaby 20). These sites, forming communities around these groups, are exactly the sort that suffer from filtering software applied with a liberal hand. Since internet content is too diverse to be ―classified according to a handful of categories‖, filtering software ―invariably blocks a large quantity of information which is suitable for all users.‖ Furthermore, studies found that filtering software typically blocked over 95% of internet material of interest to youth, and idiosyncratically blocked keyword searches for terms such as ―American Red Cross‖ (Chalaby 24). These sorts of filtering software, along with the explicit threat of vanishing funds if libraries don‘t comply with filtering standards, mean that many librarians are now forced to play,
  9. 9. Ferrari 9 at least partially, the part of in loco parentis, a role from which they are otherwise legally and administratively protected, and one which they absolutely don‘t want Finally, there is a contradiction in filtering the internet, in that ―The stronger we advocate the right to free access to Web resources, the more sophisticated filters and more restricted ―gateways‖ to information are developed. This resembles a situation of continuous and enthusiastic debate on human freedom with more prisons built‖ (Trushina 418). Our advocacy of the internet as a superb free resource of information, combined with our provision of ineffectively over-restrictive filters, seems an odd conundrum indeed. Conclusion Censorship can take many forms, and it is never an easy issue to identify or diffuse. It can appear as a challenge against library materials such as books, against perceived shortages, or prejudice, on the part of the library‘s collection development, or in the form of internet filtering. Whatever form it takes, libraries have to learn to deal with it, developing clear policies which indicate the library‘s role concerning the democratic right of intellectual freedom and freedom of speech, and balancing that right with service to the community the library serves. ―Librarians face personal dilemmas which contend with professional responsibilities to meet the needs of users and to promote the widest possible access to information. Any librarians who might wish to uphold principles of unrestricted access to information must either accept the boundaries or struggle against them‖ (Byrne 133). The library must take careful steps in areas of collection development, ensuring that enough materials are made available to provide a balanced perspective on controversial issues, and must be willing to defend those decisions when the need arises. Aside from attempting to maintain
  10. 10. Ferrari 10 balance, a librarian should attempt to avoid allowing personal bias to affect his decisions in the library setting. That libraries do not buy certain materials does not, in itself, constitute censorship. In a time of ever-shrinking collection budgets, libraries are forced more and more to make difficult choices about which materials to collect. Censorship occurs when the library refuses to represent both sides of an issue, or refuses to collect material on a certain subject. ―[T]he major task of public library (sic) is unimpeded universal access to information‖ (Trushina 419). Certain subject, obviously, suffer from a stronger societal bias in general. Whether or not pornography should be allowed in libraries is a raging debate and one that will not resolve itself anytime soon. In the interim, the librarian must keep in mind that his role is to ―facilitate access to information, be that controversial or not, and not to obstruct or hinder that access‖ (Oppenheim 168-169).
  11. 11. Ferrari 11 Works Cited American Library Association (ALA). "Code of Ethics of the American Library Association". Chicago, IL, 1995. American Library Association. 9 Dec. 2006. < oif/statementspols/codeofethics/codeethics.htm>. ---. "Library Bill of Rights". Chicago, IL, 1996. (2006): American Library Association. 9 Dec. 2006. <>. Byrne, Alex. "The End of History: Censorship and Libraries." The Australian Library Journal 53.2 (2004): 133-52. Expanded Academic ASAP. Thomson Gale. McGill University Library. 9 Dec. 2006 < Documents&type=retrieve&tabID=T002&prodId=EAIM&docId=A118343023&source= gale&srcprod=EAIM&userGroupName= crepuq_mcgill&version=1.0>. Chalaby, Jean K. "New Media, New Freedoms, New Threats." Gazette 62.1 (2000): 19-29. Communication Studies: A Sage Full-Text Collection. CSA Illumina. McGill University Library. 15 Dec. 2006 <>. Conable, Gordon M. "Public Libraries and Intellectual Freedom". Chicago, IL, 2006. American Library Association. 9 Dec. 2006. < fifthedition/publiclibraries.htm>. Hannabuss, Stuart, and Mary Allard. "Issues of Censorship." Library Review 50.2 (2001): 81-89. Emerald. Emerald Group Publishing Limited. McGill University Library. 9 Dec. 2006 <>. Jensen, Maggie. "Internet Filtering and Its Effects on Intellectual Freedom." PNLA Quarterly 68.4 (2004): 13-15. OmniFile FT Mega Edition. HW Wilson. McGill University Library. 9 Dec. 2006 < jumpstart.jhtml?recid=
  12. 12. Ferrari 12 0bc05f7a67b1790ed7a0ad5f329b9ad0b0383c648fc858320e056c51b5884042e44f262a5df 829ac&fmt=H>. Kertesz, Chris. "The Unwanted Gift: When Saying "No Thanks" Isn't Enough." American Libraries 32.3 (2001): 34-36. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO Industries, Inc. McGill University Library. 9 Dec. 2006 < true&db=aph&AN=4158285&site=ehost-live>. Marco, Guy A. "Two False Dogmas of Censorship." New Library World 96.7 (1995): 15-19. Emerald. Emerald Group Publishing Limited. McGill University Library. 9 Dec. 2006 <>. Oppenheim, Charles, and Victoria Smith. "Censorship in Libraries." Information Services & Use 24.4 (2004): 159-70. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO Industries, Inc. McGill University Library. 9 Dec. 2006 < true&db=aph&AN=16872297&site=ehost-live>. Trushina, Irina. "Freedom of Access: Ethical Dilemmas for Internet Librarians." The Electronic Library 22.5 (2004): 416-21. Emerald. Emerald Group Publishing Limited. McGill University Library. 9 Dec. 2006 < 10.1108/02640470410561938>. Warnock, Jonelle R. "The Effects of Censorship." PNLA Quarterly 68.4 (2004): 23-26. OmniFile FT Mega Edition. HW Wilson. McGill University Library. 9 Dec. 2006 < 5f329b9ad0b0383c648fc858320e056c51b588404206a25973527bb621&fmt=H>. Wilkinson, Margaret Ann. "Perceptual Differences in Approaches to Censorship: Information Intermediaries and the Implementation of the Law." The Information Society 13.2
  13. 13. Ferrari 13 (1997): 185-93. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO Industries, Inc. McGill University Library. 9 Dec. 2006 < aph&AN=9708243511&site=ehost-live>.