The library ethics radical re-assessment plate, please, with slaw on the side... Excerpted from "Shhhhhhh! Happens: Exorcising the Censor Within"
What follows is the transcript of a dialogue between two librarians, Zola Hauk and Hugo Dove, who are spending their lunch hour at a barbecue place in a Tennessee town. The conversation consumed 45 min., 45 sec., and 6 quarts of iced tea.
ZH: So, how're things in the private sector?
HD: I'm working my rear end off. It's the Internet. I can do all the searching in the world in all the right indices and databases and come up with dynamite info, but if I say I haven't looked in the Net, they don't want it. On the other hand, I can go to them, shrug my shoulders, and say, "Hey, I looked on the Web and get a load of all this commercial infocrap I found," well, they get all excited and act like it's manna.
ZH: So all you have to do is cruise the Web and your work's done. Sounds pretty good to me. Maybe we public librarians have something to learn from you special librarians.
HD: Hey, I care about quality. I get paid to provide good information, and I work hard to do that. If I just give them bells and whistles, I'm not doing my job.
ZH: You should be in the public library world, where "bells and whistles" translates "give the public what they want." But speaking of noisemakers, have you talked to Aubois lately?
HD: You mean Jeb? No, I haven't. You know, when he first went to jail, I made a point of going to see him as often as I could, to give him a little moral support and all. I hated to see him get caught up in that mess. I may be a fool, but I figure everybody deserves a chance to turn themselves around, and I started out thinking I could help him out. Besides, the way it happened that we both went to library school together and both ended up in the same kinda small place, well, I felt bound to do something. But lately, I've had all these other commitments and just haven't had time. I did remember to send him a birthday card, though. He sure did change the public's perception of librarians, didn't he?
ZH: Not much for the better, either. I know people who'd like to see him spend the rest of his life in some user-friendly facility like Chateau d'If.
HD: Those must be your literary patrons.
ZH: Yeah, then there are the others who'd like to toss him in the state pen and throw away the key. Did you know we found his client list in the library file?
ZH: That's right. His sworn testimony only concerned his bosses, the ringleaders. When asked about clientele, he always said the information was erased. Technically, this was true. It was erased-- after it was transferred from his original shyster file into our patron database, which now includes the names of all the johns, cokeheads, and kiddie porn buyers that he connected to all those illegal services. I wandered into it by accident the other day when I was setting up the system to add another library to our consortium. I'd never updated this part of the system before. Jeb was the only one who could do that, and this is the first new consortium member since he was fired. Anyway, I found an agency listing for the Old Butler Branch. Well, we don't have an Old Butler Branch.
HD: The only Old Butler around here's the one over in Johnson County that TVA buried beneath the waters of the Watauga Dam reservoir.
ZH: Yeah, that's it. Jeb created a public library for that place. I mean, he came up with letterhead, a budget, an annual report, purchase order forms, everything. It was the Atlantis Memorial Library in Old Butler, Tennessee. The money to the system vendor appeared to be coming from a legitimate organization, and it wasn't all that much dough anyway, so there weren't any red flags. So there they all are, all those investigable names, on my library system. Naturally, the law wants them. It'll hit the news tomorrow.
HD: Are you giving them up?
ZH: Of course! These aren't library patrons we're talking about. They just happen to be on the library system.
HD: Have you contacted ALA?
ZH: You mean Allah? There's really no need.
HD: Well, you might want to be sure you're doing the right thing. ALA would know. I mean, you wouldn't want to be doing anything unethical.
ZH: Oh, I don't think there's anything to worry about, Hugo. But speaking of Allah, what I really wanted to tell you about Jeb is that he's trying to become an intellectual freedom watchdog.
HD: Jeb, active in ALA?
ZH: Yeah, he attended the Allah Conference via modem. He tried to convince them to sue Mel Gibson for not showing on the screen of Braveheart what happened between William Wallace and Isabelle, the Princess of Wales. He claims it's the public's right to know.
HD: Believe it or not, I haven't seen it yet, even though it's been out on video for a while. What didn't happen?
ZH: Well, it was a classic, old-timey cinematic ellipsis, you know--the game begins, it starts to heat up, but there's still no score, oh, but look out, he takes first base, then he goes to second, something's about to happen, then, boom, the next thing you know they're doing the postgame interviews.
HD: Well, no wonder Jeb's teed off. I mean, you pay all that money to see a movie, and they leave out the best stuff.
ZH: It's art. It's supposed to make you mad. Oh, but what really got Aubois's goat was the scene in which Wallace's Scots lift up their kilts to show their equipment to their English opponents.
HD: You mean bats and balls, I assume.
ZH: Of course. The scene was shot from a great distance. Jeb says the public is unable to form an informed opinion as to the exact nature of the Scottish national endowment.
HD: For the arts. You're right. They're supposed to make you mad. So Jeb's trying to get the ALA on his soapbox? Do they know about his criminal record?
ZH: It was an asset. He represented the prison population. But about the soapbox--they did break out the soap to use on him. He wanted to change the name of the Intellectual Freedom Committee to the Intellectual Freedom United Committee, but after much acronymious discussion they told him, essentially, to shut the FCC up.
HD: I haven't heard that expression before.
ZH: Oh, it's a new one. We paraprofessionals find out these things first, you know. Ever since the Communications Decency Act, FCC has become a choice term of opprobrium in intellectual freedom circles. Even with their E-rate discounts, a huge bonanza for public and school libraries.
ZH: They're a Trojan horse for Internet filters, if overwhelming majorities in both houses of Congress ever carry through.
HD: What, have they come up with something worse than "censor"?
ZH: Watch your tongue, boy. That is the dread word of power. She who would utter the "c" word would curse, bewitch, and stick a pin in the voodoo doll of our enemies, but to use it falsely...I shudder to think. Jeb used it. On the Intellectual Freedom Committee. Said they were...Censors.
HD: Oh, no! What happened to him?
ZH: Well, he wanted to add verbiage to the Library Bill of Rights that would have made libraries clothing-optional. He wanted it to say, "The rights of the individual to the use of the library will not be denied or abridged because of age, race, religion, national origin, social or political view, or extent of undress. The committee voted it down. He called them censors. They shut down his modem connection and barred him from future committee meetings forever. Said he was a nut.
HD: Well, they were right about that. Poor guy. In library school it seemed that he was going to be a great librarian. I wonder what happened?
ZH: I think I know. Let me try to explain. You see, I came up through the ranks. Allah...
HD: I wish you'd say ALA.
ZH: Censoring me?
HD: No, just consider my feelings.
ZH: I'm just pronouncing the initials as an acronym.
HD: Well, it sounds like you're trying to make a point, saying it that way.
ZH: God forbid. All right, then, in the eyes of ALA, you and I are not equivalent. I have twenty years of experience as a practicing librarian, and in the last year I was promoted to director of this library after having administered it successfully on an interim basis for two years.
HD: Following, I might add, the disastrous tenure of a full-fledged ALA professional, our colleague Jeb.
ZH: Right. Now, you, on the other hand, have ten years of experience and a degree in library science from a university that, at the time you attended it, had a graduate program certified by the ALA. What, I ask, is the practical difference between us, professionally speaking?
HD: I wouldn't say that there really is any.
ZH: Yes, there is one. Religion.
ZH: You are a priest, initiated into the religion of Intellectual Freedom, the Holy Writ of which you must uphold. The central law is: "Thou shalt not censor." If librarians have a counterpart to the physician's prayer of Maimonides, it is a craven one: "Lead me not into censorship."
HD: Remember, I work in a special library. It's a little different. I work for a company. You work for the general public.
ZH: Hey, remember I'm not a capital-l Librarian. I'm not a shriven and tonsured adept of the faith. But you and Jeb--both of you are professed Librarians. Shouldn't you have a common creed?
HD: There's always the ALA Code of Ethics.
ZH: Which says what, exactly?
HD: Well, I don't know, exactly. I mean, I don't have a cross-stitched sampler of it on my wall at home.
ZH: Some priest you are. Its first commandment is that you should provide service in the usual library kinds of ways: with an appropriate, usefully organized collection; fair circulation policies; and skillful, accurate, unbiased, and courteous responses to all requests for assistance.
HD: Hey, that's cool.
ZH: Then, commandment number two says you must resist all efforts by groups and individuals to censor library materials.
HD: Okay, so I don't do that. So what?
ZH: Hugo! You renegade, you. You're laying yourself open to an excommunicable disease here. Are you saying you don't care about censorship?
HD: Of course not. I'm just saying it's not an issue where I work. We're a bottom-line organization. We have clear standards of service to a technically-oriented clientele. My collection development decisions are pretty cut and dried.
ZH: Yours is a "quality" company, right?
HD: If you mean that the company follows the quality management approach to improving productivity, yes.
ZH: Okay, let's say you ordered a compilation of "Dilbert" comics because you knew it was popular among your engineers, and it included something satirical about quality management gone awry, and then you heard from your department head that you should weed the book. What would you do?
HD: I wouldn't have ordered it in the first place. I know something like that is out of place in our collection.
ZH: Oh, so you'd indulge in a little prior restraint. You know that, according to the divinely inspired casuistry of Library pundits, you'd be a...CENSOR!
HD: For heaven's sake, Zola, don't startle me like that. This barbecue's stringy enough without you trying to make me choke. What are you talking about anyway?
ZH: Surely you read "Not Censorship, but Selection" in seminary, I mean, library school? It's a classic of library literature, written in 1953 by Lester Asheim, dean of the library school at the University of Chicago.
HD: I have the haziest recollection of having read that.
ZH: Allow me to refresh your memory in, of course, a completely unbiased and untendentious way. Asheim wrote that the standards used by censors and selectors are the same--"literary excellence, community custom, effect upon the reader," etc.--but that the selector applies the standards in a positive way, while the censor applies them negatively. The selector looks for reasons to keep a book; the censor looks for reasons to reject it. You may remember the controlling metaphor of the piece: the amputation of a leg due on the one hand to an evil doctor's sadism and on the other to a good doctor's desire to save a patient's life.
HD: I think I know you're getting at. At some point, the good doctor does cut off the leg because it's beyond saving. What you're saying, if I may hazard a guess, is that, if the metaphor is to be truly a controlling one, there are times when the selector must cut off the leg, so to speak, for the health of his patient.
ZH: Exactly. But Asheim seems to forget this. His piece never gets back to the operating room. By dwelling on the selector's positive reasons for keeping materials, he implies that selection is a process that combines "Have a nice day" with "Hear no evil, see no evil."
HD: If doctors took this approach, they'd never amputate at all, which would be as bad as sadism. It does seem somewhat naive.
ZH: Not only that. It's the easiest thing in the world to find a reason to keep a book, any book. But we can't keep everything. It is not so easy to judge why one should select one book over another. Sometimes--and let's be frank about this--we dislike one book less than another. Reviewers dislike books. Why do we have reviews? They tell us as much what we do not want as what we do want. Let's be adult about this: Not only do we act out of negative impulses, but we apply standards in a negative way. If this is censorship, then it is a very short step to the position that we have in fact no way to judge. That we have no standards. That our beloved selection policy is in actuality just window-dressing.
HD: That "Dilbert" book, for example. It's in a class of its own and would have a lot of appeal with my patrons--there's lots of reasons why it would be a good book to have, but when you come down to it, it doesn't meet the selection criteria for my collection.
ZH: And by inserting that little bit of negative orientation, you match the mug shot of the censor.
HD: This is depressing.
ZH: And that, my friend, is what drove Jeb off the deep end. He threw in the towel. He could always find a reason to keep a book, but he couldn't keep everything. How was he going to judge? In many cases, the deciding criteria were negative ones. To him, applying anything negative was censorship. He ended up with blanket orders from the jobbers for everything reviewed in Publishers Weekly, Library Journal, School Library Journal, and Booklist. Three years running, his book budget ran out after six or seven months.
HD: You mean that's the way he was running things when he got arrested?
ZH: Exactly. And he defended his illegal activities as a logical extension of library I&R.
HD: You mean conveying information for pimps, pushers, and kiddie porn producers?
ZH: Yep. He said the public had a right to know.
HD: But the public didn't know. It was all underground stuff, wasn't it?
ZH: It was available through the Internet. There was some pretty elaborate screening, though.
HD: Not exactly public access.
ZH: Hardly. Jeb's take on this was that this kind of information should be in the public domain, but the fact that it was illegal meant that it had to be clandestine. In other words, the government's censorious laws forced him to be censorious, but it was his professional obligation to make it available one way or the other.
HD: That's pretty tortured.
ZH: Jeb's a pretty tortured guy. But he's got convictions.
HD: And no prior arrests.
WAITER: More tea?
ZH and HD: Please.
ZH: Okay, so we've established that you're a censor...
HD: We've done no such thing. We've determined that the definition of censorship prevailing in today's library world is overbroad at best and psychologically harmful and professionally paralyzing at worst.
ZH: I'll go along with that. But what are you going to do about your librarian's credo?
HD: You mean the one that calls us to the barricades against censorship? Ignore it, I guess. But, hey, it's not just my credo. You're a librarian too!
ZH: No, no. Now remember, I think I am, and you think I am, and everybody I serve thinks I am, but I've never been ordained in the official ALA church, so I guess you'd say I'm a Dissenting Librarian. The credo is the official church's, that is, ALA's and yours.
HD: Well, it should be everybody's, anybody who works as a librarian.
ZH: In fact, it used to be that way. Once upon a time, the code of ethics was called simply "Code of Ethics for Librarians." Now the title is "American Library Association Code of Professional Ethics," and one of these days it will probably be the "ALA Code of Professional Ethics brought to you by Microsoft." Once upon a time, the code actually defined what a librarian was. A librarian was "any person who is employed by a library to do work that is recognized as professional in character according to standards established by the American Library Association."
HD: How many cross-stitched ethics samplers do you have, anyway?
ZH: Ha ha.
HD: I don't see any big difference. The standard applied by the ALA now has to do with a graduate degree.
ZH: That's very different. The old code said it was the work, not the educational background, that had to meet certain standards of professionalism. The ALA has no standards for professional library work. If it did, I'm certain that I would satisfy them.
HD: Zola, you're not a Dissenter. You're really an Anglican yearning for an old, discarded prayer book.
ZH: You know, Hugo, I think you're right. Somebody like me used to be able to lay claim, within the profession, to the title "librarian," but now it's like I've been exiled. But it's just occurred to me that the old code has something in it that's even more important. What would you say is the heart and soul of every service profession?
HD: I don't know, chopsticks?
HD: Yeah, you said heart and soul, so I said chopsticks. You know, the ubiquitous piano duets?
ZH: That's pretty obscure, Hugo, but I'll go along with you. What would you say is the ubiquitous piano duet of every service profession?
HD: Heart and soul? Chopsticks? I'm not sure I'm following you here.
ZH: Relationship. The relationship between doctor and patient, lawyer and client, librarian and patron. That's the basic one, but there are others. The former code was a wonderfully detailed explanation of the nature of the librarian's relationships: to the governing authority, to her constituency (the code actually used "his" constituency, which seems silly in light of the demographics of the profession), within her library, to her profession, and to society. By contrast, the present code is stark and unhelpful: the relationships are either implied or absent.
HD: You know, if the old code defined librarian better, then it seems it might apply better to special librarians like me than the current code does. I've always felt that the profession was controlled by academics looking through a screen of ivy onto a peaceful quadrangle.
ZH: Dreaming up solutions for a world in which they don't have to work, right? There might be something to that, but there are a lot of battle-hardened, frontline public and school librarians in there. No, I see the problem differently. It's not that any particular type of librarian dominates. It's not that anyone's isolated from reality. It's more that a doctrine has developed that defines the profession in terms of a casus belli.
HD: Cause-us-belly? You mean pigging out at conferences? I wasn't aware of that as a defining characteristic, although it's an apt one.
ZH: Boy, you're full of 'em today.
HD: Hey, gotta do something to pump some life into this conversation. OK, so what's the cause of our war? Our thrown gauntlet-Ft. Sumter-Pearl Harbor?
ZH: Why, censorship, of course. It gives us a war to fight, and nothing unifies like a war: It's us against them, good guys against bad guys. "La patrie en danger!" our Robespierres cry, and there's not a librarian in the land who can resist this kind of stirring appeal. It's the library version of wrapping ourselves in an American flag with mom and a slice of apple pie.
HD: ALA mode.
ZH: Hey! You complained when I did that!
HD: And you're not joining the parade?
ZH: War warps judgment, and the library world's permanent wartime footing against so-called censors warps our profession. The surest sign of this is the propaganda: The Library Bill of Rights, the so-called banned books, the establishment of the censor as bogeyman...
HD: Hold on a minute! What in the world are you saying? The Library Bill of Rights is propaganda?
ZH: Well, it's more of a misnomer. Does it have anything to do with your library?
HD: Not much, I don't think. I mean, after all, mine's a special library.
ZH: What about a private college that doesn't allow children or adults from the general public?
HD: I wouldn't think so.
ZH: Or a parochial school?
HD: All of those libraries have limits based on the nature of their constituency.
ZH: But presumably they have librarians working in them within limitations pretty much ignored by the Library Bill of Rights. So, in the first place, it should be the PUBLIC Library Bill of Rights. In the second place it waves the bloody shirt of censorship and commands us as librarians to mount the barricades "with all persons and groups concerned with resisting abridgment of full expression and full access to ideas."
HD: What in the world could possibly be wrong with that?
ZH: It's a statement of ideology with no grounding in any particulars whatsoever. It creates an organic link between librarians and a group with whom, as a profession, we need have no such necessary link--people like Jeb for whom full expression probably extends to the right to masturbate in public--and it destroys a relationship that should exist and that should be strong, that is, the one between librarians and those who question what the library is doing. Not to mention that some of its other requirements weaken the professional status of librarians.
HD: Oh? Which ones?
ZH: It claims that we will choose materials for values of interest, information, and enlightenment for ALL the people of the community at the same time as we will provide books and materials presenting ALL points of view concerning the problems and issues of our time. Once again, I say that these clauses should be conditioned not only by realities of funding and staffing but also by the librarian's own balanced, impartial, and open-minded view of what a valuable collection will be to a community, considered both as a whole and as individuals. Worded as it is, librarians have no recourse to any standard of choice whatsoever. Libraries open themselves up to blackmail under this doctrine.
ZH: Sure. Let's say every Tom, Dick, and Harry of a Unabomber, or a Freeman, or an Apocalyptic Endtimer wants to force a library to buy a copy of cheaply-produced claptrap that lays out a ludicrous, lunatic, and dangerous (though interesting) doctrine. Which, as far as anyone can tell, is uniquely the product of a fanatic who claims God as his editor and literary agent. There is no question that the Bill of Rights (the U.S. one, not the library one) gives this person the right to assert his ideas. There is also no question that the Library Bill of Rights says that the library must represent his point of view. Some libraries may want to waste their budget on logorrhea; some may not.
HD: Your fanatic might be Moses or Henry David Thoreau. Don't rule out the value of fanaticism.
ZH: You're not getting the point. The point is that a librarian should be able to make a complex, professional judgment as to the value of a book, positive or negative, for a particular collection. The Library Bill of Rights, taken to its logical conclusion, compels otherwise.
HD: Yeah, but without these clauses in the LBR, wouldn't public library collections just reflect the tastes of the librarian or--worse--the local oligarchy?
ZH: It amazes me that any profession should lack the confidence to say that the right thing to do is to balance trained judgment and ethical behavior. It also amazes me that the result of this lack of confidence is a doctrine that is both vaporous and misleading. It does nothing to define the essence of the profession. In fact, it only establishes that, by right, every expression of every opinion must be in every library. If doctors had something like LBR, it would say, "doctors must cure all their patients, and doctors will cure all their patients."
HD: Aw, c'mon Zola, isn't that going a bit far?
ZH: Not at all. It's one of the problems with propaganda. We've been told, "This is what it means to be a librarian," so we don't think about it. But if we don't think about it, someone else might do the thinking for us--to our detriment, witness the exposure by Focus on the Family of our glib use of "banned books" to mean "books that some poor fool complained about to a library board only to be characterized as Attila the Hun by national library organizations."
HD: But some of them have been banned, and you can't just lie down and let those people walk over you.
ZH: No, but you shouldn't lie either. Or misrepresent. And using "banned books" to describe "challenged books" is positively Orwellian. One of the problems with war propaganda is that, while it serves a certain unifying and mobilizing function, it also perverts character with its all-consuming need for an enemy.
HD: The censor.
ZH: Right. Whom we then proceed to trap and ambush.
HD: Huh? Oh, that's right, we're at war. But I thought we were the ones getting Pearl Harbored.
ZH: Sometimes we are. But in general we lie in wait, with our "request for reconsideration" forms as bait. Then, when a patron bites, the trap is sprung. The patron thought the request for reconsideration meant a genuine willingness to consider the appropriateness of a book. Are you kidding? That'd be censorship!
HD: Are you saying those reconsideration procedures are just a smoke screen?
ZH: Of course they are! They're really just a clever means of trapping censors where we can blast 'em with a lecture on the Library Bill of Rights. The librarian as currently defined by the ALA is constitutionally incapable of withdrawing a book from a collection as a result of a reconsideration.
HD: Well, I confess that it's really not supposed to be an option.
ZH: Not supposed to be?! Under the circumstances, an ALA-programmed librarian is a robot that cannot compute the possibility of a reconsideration leading to the removal of a book from a collection.
HD: And you're saying that the public goes into the reconsideration proceedings thinking otherwise.
ZH: Absolutely! You don't think the librarian's going to say up front, "you know there's really no way that we're going to do anything about this book because that'd be censorship and libraries don't censor." Of course not! The whole purpose is pretense, camouflage! Trap the censor. That's the name of the game.
HD: But what about the board members? They're laypeople.
ZH: And some of them have seen through the charade. I remember at one of Jeb's board meetings, a young adult novel was being "reconsidered." The complainant objected to the treatment of sex in a book for young readers. A board member asked what the options were. Jeb said the option was to keep the book. The board member said that he agreed in this case that we should keep the book, but he wanted to know if the board ever had the option of removing a book. "No," said Jeb. "There are no occasions to justify removal. That would be censorship."
HD: But that was just Jeb.
ZH: No, Hugo. That's the whole profession. We have become incapable of applying standards and in the process have gutted the profession of any intelligible definition that it ever had. Remember that old code, my old prayer book? You want to know something truly amazing? Never once did it use the words "censor" or "censorship."
HD: You're joking.
ZH: Nope. No demonic censors. It based the profession on a positive relationship, not a negative one (what would Asheim think about this?). People look at it, and compared with today's stripped-down code it appears long. But take it by itself and compare it with the entire train of impedimenta--the LBR and ALA's interpretations--that bog down the current code. The old code is much lighter and much more useful as a guide to everyday practice. It also applies to all kinds of librarians, including the Christian school librarians and the tobacco company librarians and all the others that seem to disappear beneath the public library trappings of our current ideology.
HD: Yeah, but don't we need guidance on how to approach different problems and issues of running a library?
ZH: Of course we do, but we won't get straightforward, useful advice until we clear away the false idols. Take the doctrine of access according to age. To ALA this is a no-brainer: "libraries are public institutions. They cannot limit access on the basis of age." Tell me, Hugo, are you a member of the Senior Citizens Center?
HD: Well, no, Zola, but I'm not 55. You have to be 55 to belong.
ZH: It's a public program, isn't it?
ZH: Are you telling me that a public institution limits access on the basis of age?
HD: It looks that way.
ZH: When was the last time you tried to play in a public tee-ball league?
HD: OK, OK, but we're talking about libraries.
ZH: Yeah, and I'm just saying that ALA appears to have no interest in impartial, professional advice because its dogma doesn't allow it to. It would be legal for a public library to allow circulation only to adults, if it so chose, on the basis that the library card represents a contract permitting the use of valuable public property the extramural use of which should be controlled only by those legally capable of entering into a contract. I'm not advocating that, mind you, I'm just saying it's legally feasible. Then there's all the cock and bull about in loco parentis.
HD: Crazy parents?
ZH: Exactly. The ones who are crazy enough to try to get libraries to put limits on what their children can check out. A parent comes to a librarian and says, "I want my kid just to check out books from the children's department." The library says "no way, in loco parentis." The parent says, "but I am the parent, and you have an automatic system that would make this possible and automatic. You wouldn't have to do anything other than make this service available to parents who want it. You'd be acting in auxilio parentis, not in loco." But the library's blind to this opportunity to assist parents in the challenging job of guiding what their kids read. Blinded and stiffened by dogma. Another good example is the Internet and the Communications Decency Act.
HD: You mean the law that would have made it a crime to provide indecent material via the 'Net to anyone under 18?
ZH: Right. You'd have thought it was the crack of doom. ALA hated it so much that they filed a lawsuit to enjoin its enforcement, and at the same time spread the word that any library that had public Internet access was in danger of violating this law.
HD: Well, wasn't it?
ZH: Maybe. But so intent was ALA on defining its side of the issue that it and its supporters neglected to mention that there were some specific defenses under the law that libraries could have invoked, particularly if they had formulated their public access policies according to these defenses. I never saw a single mention of these defenses in any professional library publication. It's as if someone--an "information professional"--wanted us to be ignorant of them.
HD: OK, OK, I gather that you are less than thrilled with the kind of guidance in these matters that librarians receive from their professional organization.
ZH: I think that the dogmatic approach has weakened our understanding of the bases of our profession, which has therefore weakened our profession. In the interest of affording certain absolute rights, we have also shut off a reasonable approach to applying standards with input from our customers.
WAITER: More tea?
ZH and HD: Why not?
HD: OK, then, Zola, you've demolished the existing edifice of library ethics and banished our creed of anti-censorship. I hope you never incorporate these ideas into an article for a library publication. You'd be lynched.
ZH: Oh, I'd never do an article. It'd be misread and misinterpreted. People would say that I'd come out in favor of censorship. I'd become the target of vicious ad hominem attacks.
HD: You mean ad womanem, don't you?
ZH: Whatever. Of course, according to the old Greek proverb, I should go on fearlessly and not "kick against the pricks," but in the first place I'm thin-skinned and in the second...
HD: I'd have too much fun with "pricks."
HD: Is my funnybone getting to you?
ZH: Who said anything about funny? If you were a fish, you'd go after an unbaited hook.
HD: I'm just trying to get you to lighten up some. You take this stuff so seriously, and you're not even a... I mean, you don't even have a library degree.
ZH: [stony silence]
HD: Look, Zola, what you're advocating goes against the grain of the last 50 years of the received wisdom of the entire profession. Who do you think you are?
ZH: [stonier silence]
HD: OK, OK, I take it back. But you can't just tear something down. You have to replace it with something. What've you got?
ZH: Thank you, O Holy One, O Sanctified by your Master's Degree, O Seater of your Derriere upon the Laureled Brow of Received Wisdom, for permitting me to grovel before you. Hear now the supplications of a miserable paraprofessional sinner.
HD: Oh, knock it off, Zola. I took back what I said.
ZH: It's just a job to you, isn't it Hugo? Doing patent research, looking up marketing information, snooping out the competition. Well, let's say someone in your outfit, maybe not you, but let's say someone in your outfit with balls...
HD: Probably a woman.
ZH: Probably. Let's say she decided to order a "Dilbert" book, as we said earlier, and some higher-up didn't like it and asked you to remove it. What would you do?
HD: Well, a lot would depend on how much higher up this higher-up was.
ZH: That's cowardly.
HD: That's reality, Zola. In any case, though, I'd probably need to go through some kind of official review for the sake of appearances. Then again, it might not just be a charade. You never know. We'd probably convene an ad hoc review team, which would look at our collection criteria, make a determination, and recommend some kind of action. You know, keep or toss based on the appropriateness of the book to the collection.
ZH: That sounds reasonable enough, assuming that it were allowed to work without outside pressures or foregone conclusions. If you decided to remove a book, would that be censorship?
HD: We'd probably call it quality control. There's no doubt it could be construed as censorship in some cases. We'd just have to be up-front about it: the item would clearly have to fail to satisfy the terms of a comprehensive selection policy. In a well-run library, that's not going to happen very often.
ZH: But it can happen.
HD: Even librarians with Master's degrees aren't perfect.
ZH: I wonder why your model couldn't apply to public libraries.
HD: Don't you all do something similar?
ZH: Yes, but there are some fundamental differences that go back to some of the things we were talking about earlier. The most important thing is that you, in your special library, don't define the activity as "combating the censor." It is simply the consideration of a book against a policy. Then, if for some reason you find the book wanting, you don't succumb to self-abusive angst over censorship.
HD: But isn't it easier just to say you won't censor?
ZH: Well, as I said earlier, it's hypocritical to set up a review process at the same time as you proclaim that you don't censor. It makes a mockery of the review process. It demonizes those who voice concerns about a book, concerns that should be understood and addressed. The result is a doctrine of library infallibility: Selection is a positive process done in accordance with a policy; therefore anything selected is in accordance with that policy. We're never wrong, and anybody that says differently is a censor.
HD: Right--the best way to have zero defects is to declare that your defects are not defects. But you said earlier that this weakens the profession. It seems to me to exalt it.
ZH: It's the exaltation that weakens it by corrupting that relationship with our patrons that I talked about earlier. This is especially true in public libraries. We have to decide: do we say we apply selection policies, or do we say we don't censor? I think the purpose of the profession is clearly better served by the former.
HD: In some ways it seems to me that you're nit-picking. How is that going to change anything? I mean, libraries already have their requests for reconsideration and their policies in place.
ZH: That's a good point. Libraries already act this way, in large part. They do what's reasonable. But they could do it more effectively without the juggernaut of anti-censorship breathing down their necks. They could be assisted in becoming professional book-defenders, not professional defeaters of censors. There's a big difference in that orientation.
HD: Sounds like you're back to Lester Asheim: Be positive.
ZH: Well, aside from his "don't worry, be happy" approach to the process of selection, he never really got into what happens when your positive actions are put to the test. This left a void that was filled by the very negative, anti-censorship approach that reigns now. Instead--you're right--we should act positively. Write policies that are based on the principle of free inquiry and that try to define an approach to building a collection. Subject these to public debate and revision. If someone objects that a particular book does not meet standards set by the policy, have a procedure in place that will permit, after full and informed discussion, the governing board to adjudicate a result. If the decision goes against you, go on with the understanding that that's the way the profession is meant to be. Your principles and your relationship with your patrons remain intact.
HD: Again, however, much of this is already being done.
ZH: Only up to a point. Sure, the reconsideration process is there. But we think of it as a form of torture perpetrated on our innocent profession by an evil censor. And if our board removes a book, or puts it behind the circulation desk, why, it's an occasion for hara-kiri. It's the worst thing that can happen to a librarian.
HD: Well, what do you want, Zola, a tea party with bookburners? There are zealots out there who've made life pretty darn unpleasant for lots of librarians.
ZH: I'll grant you that. But are we encouraging zealotry by ourselves being zealots? Is Family Friendly Libraries the direct result of misguided professionalism? What do we expect to happen when a fundamentalist waves the Ten Commandments in our face, and we respond by waving the Library Bill of Rights in his face? It doesn't promote understanding, that's for sure.
HD: So how are you going to defuse the situation?
ZH: First of all, we should be trained, prepared, educated, drilled, etc., to treat the request for reconsideration as routine, as being part and parcel of our job, the way a lawyer does a trial or a surgeon does an operation. It shouldn't be the rack. Furthermore, we should be trained, prepared, educated...
ZH: Etc., to view the outcome with professional detachment. That doesn't mean we don't care about the outcome. Lawyers and surgeons care about the outcome, but a negative outcome is not automatically a slap in the face of their code of ethics, the way it is with us. To help reform the situation, ALA could re-direct the activities of its Intellectual Freedom arm from dogmatics to pragmatics.
HD: Switch from hardball to softball?
ZH: Not so much that as get the ball over the plate. Right now, we either walk 'em or bean 'em. I tend to think that we haven't really done much in the way of systematizing policy-writing. There are the classic compilations that Liz Futas left with us, but we need to take that sort of thing and digest them into a body of pragmatic principles and precedents--library common law, if you will.
HD: Forgive me for being so dense, but isn't that what the Library Bill of Rights and its interpretations accomplish?
ZH: No. The LBR is irreparably compromised by its flawed rhetoric, and all the interpretations collapse along with their underpinnings. It would be better to come to the same positions using a different approach.
HD: Come to the same positions? Excuse me if I feel like I'm lost in a labyrinth here. Are you now telling me, after unloading your litter box on LBR, that you agree with it?
ZH: Wendell Berry and the Unabomber would probably agree on lots of things about the dangers of blindly surrendering to technology. They pursue different paths to a solution, however.
HD: The Shining Path and the garden path, right? Just kidding. Tell me more about your path.
ZH: Imagine an annotated, indexed, and classified codification of library selection policies.
HD: No! No! Not in my fondest nightmares! Zola, do you need to get a life?
ZH: Imagine an elaborate commentary on these policies, compilations of Midrash-like cogitations, the purpose of which would be to explore the workings and application of these policies.
HD: Imagine that you're John Lennon.
ZH: You may say I'm a dreamer.
HD: And you are the only one.
ZH: But this is really a practical solution, not to mention something that would give library education a real shot in the arm. Imagine--sorry, I'll try to stop--a lecture course in library school on the application of aesthetics to public library book selection. You know, a full amphitheater classroom, the Socratic method, the case study approach.
HD: Like law school, huh?
ZH: Look at what lawyers are paid. Or, if it's research you want, what about research to verify the hypothesis of unintended consequences?
HD: What's that?
ZH: It's the idea that no book (or any cultural artifact) may be presumed to produce a predictable result. The consequences, in other words, of reading a book or hearing a piece of music or seeing a picture cannot be intended and will always vary from person to person.
HD: Isn't that obvious?
ZH: It should be, but in fact it's not. Remember the Meese Commission? It tried to demonstrate that pornography necessarily has a harmful effect. Well, actually I think it said that reading pornography was no problem, but looking at it was. Well, even though the Meese Commission was unable to prove a link between picture porn and bad behavior, it nonetheless concluded that such a link was self-evident.
HD: My kind of social science.
ZH: It seems to me that, if libraries want to strengthen their collections against unwarranted do-goodism, the hypothesis of unintended consequences should be part of the foundation. Furthermore, library schools should bolster it with research.
HD: Well, then, aren't people just going to say we're a bunch of morally relativistic nihilists? Isn't it better to steer clear of that altogether?
ZH: We can't steer clear of it. We're up to our necks in it; we might as well take a stand. I'm not saying that reading or looking at pictures has no result. I'm just saying that you can't predict the result. Another, very different duty of a librarian who wishes to defend her collection against puritanical reformers would be to demonstrate the positive value of any contested book or video or whatever. That is very different from falling back on a "no censorship" defense, but to me anyway, it is clearly expected of us as professionals. That would also be part of library education.
HD: Are you saying we should be literary critics?
ZH: And art critics, and music critics, and science critics, and journalism critics. You name it, we should be able to attest to the positive value of anything in our collection, and our training and professional resources should enable us to do so. We need to be able to do what those art critics in Cincinnati did when they defended the Mapplethorpe photos: they convinced a jury of laypeople from the most conservative big city in America that photos of a man with a bullwhip stuck in his butt had artistic value. In other words, they applied well-defined artistic criteria to discern something unnoticed by but understandable--after explication--to those with untrained eyes. We need to be able to do the same thing with our collections. If we as professionals can't use selection criteria to justify possession of something, we should discard it without the whiff of a suggestion that doing so would be an act of censorship. It would be an act of principled librarianship, regardless of the type of library involved.
HD: Do you really think you'll have better luck this way with the puritans?
ZH: There will always be problems. There will always be challenges. It's one of the things that comes with the turf. Perhaps if we looked upon it as a test of our ability to participate as a profession in the hurly-burly of an open marketplace of ideas, rather than as an assault on our very existence, we'd at least feel more confident going in to these situations. Win or lose, we must allow the public due process on the collection at the same time as we should act as librarians. Maybe we can design a process that will serve to educate the "challenging" public in the same way the Mapplethorpe apologists educated the Cincinnati jury.
HD: What kind of process? A snowjob? A brainwashing?
ZH: Actually, I was thinking of a good, old-fashioned book discussion group. For softening the jarring complaint, there's nothing like a resort to reading an entire book, getting the context, experiencing the plot, and hearing how others react to it.
HD: Do you really expect the puritans to do this in good faith?
ZH: They might if their opinions were weighed on an equal basis with others.
HD: But doesn't that contradict what you just said about the art experts?
ZH: Not at all. The art experts simply brought to the table notions that had been unknown to the lay jury. Their opinions were not superior, but their ability to judge was more complete, informed as it was by their background and training. That would be the function of the library professionals--to bring our training and background to bear on the consideration of materials to be included in library collections.
HD: What about when people want you to add a book?
ZH: If there's a disagreement, we could use a similar process to the one I just described.
HD: Wouldn't all that be time-consuming?
ZH: Interesting objection. Visits to doctors are time-consuming. Visits to lawyers are time-consuming. Would we not be doing something of value? It seems to me that it would be a process that goes to the heart of how and why we do what we do. It should be thorough--time-consuming, if you prefer--and the librarian's role should be essential and catalyzing.
HD: I don't know, Zola. It seems in some ways that you're changing everything--taking out the anti-censorship aspect. And in others it seems you're not really changing anything--your process for reviewing challenges is similar to the one already practiced by many, I feel sure.
ZH: Librarians are doing what their guts tell them is the right thing with those procedures for reviewing challenges, but the librarian--the professional capable of applying standards, judging materials, acting on considerations of intellectual criticism, etc.--is not running the show. Anti-censorship is running the show, and anti-censorship is the librarian's equivalent of Big Brother. It militates the conclusion of every challenge, and in doing so it saps the intellectual and moral fiber of the library profession.
HD: Don't you see censorship as a problem at all?
ZH: There are issues of censorship that have little to do with operating libraries, and there are those that have lots to do with it. Censorship may be more of a problem for a citizen than for a library. We should be able to differentiate these kinds of things, as library professionals with a service ethic in mind, and not be herded like sheep under a totalitarian banner. I can't stress enough that, insofar as they follow blindly the parade of anti-censorship, librarians neglect the demands of their own profession to develop and define those principles and qualities that unify them and that most distinguish them to those they serve.
HD: Are you running for something?
ZH: Well, I can't qualify for Librarian of the Year.
HD: We ought to encourage our felonious colleague Jeb to go for it. He deserves some kind of recognition for being such a stereotypiclast.
ZH: Knowing him, he'll write a book about it all that'll be made into a hit movie. Next thing you know he'll be on a "Read" poster.
HD: What you need to do is try for the Herbert White "Being Nice to a Paraprofessional" Award.
ZH: Don't get me started. That's a whole 'nother lunch topic.
HD: Well, then, I guess it's time we girded up our loins and went back to work.
ZH: After I ungird mine in the bathroom. That was a lot of tea.
HD: Ah, living the ol' Eskimo Sioux way!
HD: Yeah, the iced tepee.
ZH: (groans) Goodbye, Hugo. You go on back to your library, and I'll get back to my scaffold.
ZH: I haven't told you? We've brought back public hanging on behalf of some poor fool who complained about a Roald Dahl book.