Tango with censorship

Ray Bradbury can go ahead and start rolling over in his grave pretty much right away: a committee of parents, teachers, and administrators in the Davis County district in Utah have voted to restrict access to the book In Our Mothers’ House (yes, that apostrophe is correct, it’s about a family with two mothers). This in itself is not unusual; books are challenged all the time, and sometimes moved (from the children’s section to young adult, or from YA to adult, or behind the counter, as in this case).

However, the district has taken the additional step of asking librarians to pull other titles that may cause controversy. (And Tango Makes Three, a picture book based on a true story of two male penguins at the Central Park Zoo who hatched a chick from an egg and raised it together, is likely next.) McCarthyism, anyone?

It’s easy to get outraged against censorship; there are hundreds, if not thousands, of eloquent examples in print and on the web. (Here’s a defense of In Our Mothers’ House in The Salt Lake Tribune.) But let us take a step back and consider the purpose and mission of the library. How do these “controversial” books appear on library shelves in the first place, and why should they stay there despite strenuous objection from community members?

Most libraries have a collection development policy: guidelines for what kinds of materials the library ought to have in order to serve its community. Different libraries may choose to allocate their resources in different ways, but most public libraries aim to provide a broad range of materials – educational, recreational, and cultural – for people of every age, socioeconomic status, race, religion, political affiliation, and sexual orientation.

Our collection development policy states, “The…community includes people from diverse educational, cultural and economic backgrounds displaying a wide variety of interests, needs, values, viewpoints and occupations.” It continues, “The library has the obligation not only to serve its current users but also to search for materials and methods that will meet the needs of new members of the community and those who have not been traditional library users.”

The library is, or should be, an inclusive place. It should be a safe space. If parents want control over what their children are reading, that is perfectly within their rights – but exercising control over what everyone else’s children are reading is most definitely not.

Librarians are advocates for everyone in their communities. We are advocates for equal access to information. It is our responsibility to make sure that there are materials for everyone. (The Utah librarians who added In Our Mothers’ House to the school library collection did so in part because a child in the elementary school has two mothers.) As one librarian said, at a panel at MLA, “If you have to come up with a reason not to buy something, that’s when you should add it to your collection.” We are in the business of selection, not censorship.

If a library had plenty of books for adults but none for children, someone would object. If a library had a hundred books about Christianity but none about Buddhism, someone would object. If a library collected books by and about Republicans but not Democrats, someone would object. A balanced collection includes materials for and from many points of view – an increasingly rare thing in a world where most news sources are slanted, and only offer one viewpoint.

If history is any indication, there will always be people who want to censor books. There will also always be people who defend them.

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