Libraries and Consequence Culture

“Scholastic sanctuary is just another way of protecting bloated privilege.”
His Dark Materials

Tig Notaro joined the cast of the new zombie film Army of the Dead rather late: after principal photography was completed. Her scenes were shot so that she could digitally replace an actor accused of statutory rape. A similar thing was previously done with Christopher Plummer taking over Kevin Spacey’s role in All the Money.

The movie studios making these business decisions to bear extra production expenses did so as an effort to ultimately reduce costs and generate revenue. This is akin to how publishers may cancel a book deal when it’s predicted to have a negative impact on their balance sheets. How this line of thinking relates to libraries, which shouldn’t be particularly concerned with a return on their investments (beyond the sense of anticipated collection use per acquisition expenditures), is a different matter.

Yet depending on how you define the term, libraries do self-censor their holdings, at least to some degree. If we get a new edition of a book, for starters, we’ll probably throw out the old one. What librarians choose to select for purchase with their limited budgets, or what archival materials they opt to digitize, invariably also excludes other items. And you probably won’t find pornographic materials, or at least the pictures of human nudity which are common in many library collections, shelved in the children’s section, let alone out in the open. They are often rather literally locked up in a book cage.

Library books about controversial topics are regularly challenged, and at times successfully withdrawn or otherwise restricted as a result.

  • Oddly enough, aside from the usual suspects (Harry Potter, To Kill a Mockingbird), one of the most targeted titles in recent history is And Tango Makes Three, a children’s book about two real male penguins that raised a penguin chick.
  • In 1994, protesters in Kansas City went so far as to burn copies of the young adult book Annie on My Mind, which features a lesbian couple.
  • The order was later rescinded, but in 2004, the United States Department of Justice ordered federal depository libraries to remove pamphlets that basically instructed citizens on how to get their property back from the government.
  • In 2018, a library director in Utah banned LGBTQ-themed displays.
  • In 2019, another director was suspended for digitizing yearbooks that included students in blackface.
  • Earlier this month, “Complaints from a police union and parents prompted a South Florida school system to temporarily stop teaching a fictional book about a Black boy who was fatally shot by a white police officer.”

Aside from such debates over discarding questionable content (other examples include Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Gone with the Wind, some Dr. Seuss books, or even Friends, for that matter) should libraries curate items made by authors who have done despicable things? I don’t just mean people who made a few tone-deaf tweets a decade ago. Does the historical backdrop really matter so much that the founding fathers owned slaves?

I sure can’t watch the shows of Bill Cosby or Louie C.K. or Woody Allen anymore. There are many now former fans of J.K. Rowling due to her statements made in opposition of trans-rights. As much as I enjoyed Liu Cixin’s Three Body Problem trilogy, likewise, I found his statements in support of China’s concentration camps appalling, although maybe not to the same degree as a group of Republican senators who challenged Netflix for planning to make a series from the books.

If the person you hated most in the world wrote what you somehow knew you’d find to be an amazing novel, would you read it? How much should we, if we’re able to, separate enjoyment of artistic works from our opinions of the artist? “Never meet your heroes” seems to be the lesson here. There’s always going to be something, after all, that another person has done or believes in which runs contrary to your unique point of view. [No doubt this applies to the things I’ve written over the years. For some reason, my posts intended for librarians describing how librarians are doing things the wrong way haven’t gotten much acclaim.]

I used to cheerfully pepper my presentations with Dilbert comics, but the fact that Scott Adams has become a complete wacko gives me pause in continuing to do so. I’m almost in 100% agreement with what Richard Stallman has said about free software. Given his other statements and actions, however, I similarly feel compelled to think twice about promoting any of his viewpoints, not so much lest I be equated with his scandals, but because others have likely said things just as well. Given the prevalent gender and minority discrepancies in citations, in other words, shouldn’t libraries be willing to help level the playing field, a la hosting more drag queen story hours, or making efforts to decolonize and diversify their collections?

When I hear the phrase “cancel culture,” I can’t help but think of the Dixie Chicks, Colin Kaepernick, the Hollywood blacklist during the Red Scare, and even the torture of heretics. The phrase is hypocritically thrown around by the same people who want to outlaw the teaching of critical race theory, fire journalists who have certain political opinions, and the list goes on—yet continue to cry oppression when they are simply faced with the consequences of asserting bigoted opinions, or making bad faith arguments, for instance about “preserving our history” when defending Confederate monuments built in the 1960s.

There’s a big difference between, “I can’t do that because of my beliefs” and, “You can’t do that because of my beliefs.” Years ago, Wikipedia caught some flack for reproducing depictions of Muhammad. In response, the encyclopedia’s editors set up a guide for how users could program their web browser to hide those images. However, this didn’t placate some of the people making those objections, who were effectively arguing that nobody should be allowed to view them.

A challenged library item is similar, because the patron making the complaint is not saying, “I don’t want to read this, it offends me” but rather, “This item is harmful to everybody, so I don’t want anyone else to have the freedom to read it.” Library collections are built to serve library users. When a member of the community is bothered by something contained therein, they obviously have the choice not to check it out themselves.

We have books written by evil people who are saying evil things. On the other hand, I’m sympathetic to the quote about how, “A truly great library contains something in it to offend everyone.” For me, it’s the 73 WorldCat-reporting institutions which for some reason haven’t weeded their copies of Running Microsoft Excel for Windows 95. That and Ben Shapiro.

Do we need a book display highlighting works by famous racists? Hell no. Hate-inciting speech may have certain legal protections, but that doesn’t mean we need to buy it for our stacks. I’d go one further and argue that materials spewing discriminatory rhetoric or discredited crackpot theories should be deselected, and how in order to survive librarians must vote with their wallets more when it comes to supporting ethical business practices.

If there’s any remaining inequity in library collections towards favoring a leftist point of view, well, maybe that’s because nowadays reality has a liberal bias. Equal opportunities do not guarantee equal conditions. I can’t show up at the Olympic swim team’s time trials and demand a head start on Michael Phelps because he produces less lactic acid than me. Nor should a Flat Earther expect to be granted equal shelf space in a library with a collection development policy dedicated to accumulating quality educational materials and promoting a fair society.

But when it comes to anything else, restricting factually accurate, contextually relevant information based on a shifting and subjective moral scale is not a path I would ever want to go down. As libraries look to continue their charge with preserving knowledge and creative works in a digital age, they would do well to abide by the words of Salman Rushdie: “There is no right in the world not to be offended. That right simply doesn’t exist. In a free society, an open society, people have strong opinions, and these opinions very often clash. In a democracy, we have to learn to deal with this.”

Further Reading

Librarian at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee