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1938 ALA Code of Ethics for Librarians


The demonology of library censorship

One of the highest priorities of the American Library Association is combating a number of types of actions that it groups together into a single concept called "censorship."

Censorship, in the glossary of the ALA, includes the act of questioning the appropriateness of an item in the library's collection. Anyone and everyone indulging in such an act of questioning is a censor.

To fight censorship, the ALA champions the use of broad principles, such as the freedom to read and to learn, rather than the defense of individual materials. (See ALA's Instructions to Reconsideration Committee for approach recommended to those handling a complaint in a school system)

There are some drawbacks to this approach. There is also an alternative.

Drawback #1: Dubious ethical posture

When adopted in dealing with a member of the community served by the librarian, this approach promotes the following behaviors that, given the service ethic of the librarian, are of questionable propriety:
Prejudice--The complainant, by the very act of questioning one manifestation of library service, becomes a "censor," a definition carrying with it a train of highly negative psychological and conceptual associations.
Posture of infallibility--Any and all specific applications of library policy on collecting are placed above question by the appeal to "the freedom to read," etc. Librarians, we assume, can't conceive of a second opinion.
Drawback #2: Challenged books left high and dry

The best answer to a challenge to Harry Potter, Judy Blume, or Huck Finn is the answer that explains the value, to a community, of the work being challenged. Clear reasons should be given as to how the work satisfies library policy on collection development. Any other answer--for instance an appeal to "the right to read"--leaves the challenge unchallenged.
The alternative

Part of the way to an alternative approach can be found in an ALA document (!) by Gene Lanier called Conducting a Challenge Hearing: the challenger is referred to as a "complainant," the selection policy takes center stage, and there is only one mention "censorship," and that is to say that references to its perils should be avoided!

An example of the type of approach that librarians could take to assemble defenses of challenged works can be found in the National Council of Teachers of English Rationales for Challenged Books, which explains the presence of certain "difficult" books in lesson plans and curricula.

A strongly contextual, policy-based approach is suggested by the 12-point acquisition policy (in French)of the Association des bibliothecaires francais.

More reflections on these issues are found in My lunch with Zola