Once stocked, library books should not be pulled

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Being a librarian is a tough job. You have to tend to your community’s diverse information needs, often while working with limited resources.

The job gets that much tougher when you find yourself in the crossfire of public opinion generated by a controversial book.

No, this time it’s not about Huckleberry Finn or Slaughterhouse Five. This time it’s a controversial trilogy of books called Fifty Shades of Grey, erotic novels that have moved to the top of the best-selling lists all across America.

When a book becomes this popular — regardless of the subject matter — patrons are going to ask for it at their public libraries. The flip side is that some citizens who read news accounts of these racy books written by E L James are outraged and insist they be removed from the shelves of a public library.

The complicating factor is that most libraries are publicly funded government bodies. That means the First Amendment applies and arguably libraries would be violating the Constitution in targeting books  for censorship.

Good libraries have buying guidelines, which incorporate a community’s needs and interests and provide parameters for what should be purchased with tax dollars. With that in place, a library can take notice of public demand and assess a book on the basis of the guidelines already in place.

It’s much easier to decide not to buy a book in the first place than to try to remove it after you’ve placed it on a shelf.

That fact didn’t deter the public library In Brevard County, Fla., which removed the Fifty Shades of Grey books from its shelves. “We have criteria, and in this case we view this as pornographic material,” said Don Walker, a spokesman for the Brevard County government, according to The New York Times.

Really? Don’t Brevard County librarians review the books before they put them on the shelves?

I’m confident they do, just as I’m confident that this censorship was driven by public pressure, or the anticipation of public pressure. These are books that taxpayers have already paid for and government doesn’t have the right to block public access once they’re on the shelves.

The best practice is for libraries to apply consistent guidelines in deciding what belongs in their collections, and never remove books because of public or political pressure.

No institution in a community serves a more important role in ensuring access to the marketplace of ideas than a public library. Doing that well requires a commitment to the free flow of information, an understanding of the community and trust. Censorship undercuts all of that.

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