Tag: library ethics

Enfield (CT) Public Library will be showing “Sicko” after all–but what exactly is “balance”?

A photograph of the Enfield (CT) Public Library in the wintertime

The Enfield (CT) Public Library

You may have heard that the Enfield (CT) Public Library was ordered on the 19th by the mayor to cancel their screening of Michael Moore’s documentary “Sicko” planned for the 21st after residents complained about the subject matter. Other residents and representatives cried censorship, and the Connecticut Library Association responded that it “deplore[d] the cancellation of the showing of the film.”

As libraries and librarians around Connecticut suggested “solidarity screenings” of the film, gaining some supporters within a few days (which also brought up an interesting point on securing movie licensing rights), word also broke that the entire film series program had been halted and the director at Enfield commanded not to speak to the media.

But then yesterday, Enfield town officials backed down and will allow “Sicko” to be screened (although they want the library to wait for a while to let the controversy die down). The gag order on the director has also been lifted. Library Journal has more, and the CLA has been collecting links to news stories throughout.

The library had previously shown “Bowling for Columbine” and “Fahrenheit 9/11” without any trouble; it was apparently because the House of Representatives had recently voted to repeal President Obama’s health care plan that “Sicko” was considered somehow inappropriate or unbalanced. But I think that while requiring balance sounds good on the surface, that can be hard at times:

Finding balance is not always easy, [Enfield Library Director Henry Dutcher] said. Sometimes, there are no obvious counterpoints to offer. For example, he said the library once hosted a presentation about deep-sea fishing, and he said he didn’t know what would constitute balance in that case.

He said he has considered several films to provide balance to “Sicko.” One of the titles is called “Sick and Sicker” and is a documentary critical of the health care reform law promoted last year by Obama. Although both films focus on health care, Dutcher said it isn’t clear whether they represent a balanced look at the same issue. (source)

I know that lots of libraries have collection development policies stating that the library seeks to collect materials representing all viewpoints, but with what might as well be an infinite number of issues, topics, viewpoints, and sides to a discussion and only a limited number of dollars to spend on materials, how close to that vision for a balanced collection can we really get? And how do you balance topics like deep-sea fishing?

While I don’t have firsthand knowledge of what happened in Enfield, I don’t think that actually wanting to see balance was at the heart of the original complaint. From the resident who originally objected to the screening of “Sicko”:

“If we do want to see differing points of view, I would suggest films like ‘The Passion of the Christ’ and other controversial movies would also be filmed or shown and advertised for viewing in a public venue like that on the tax dollar,” Fealy said.

It’s not that this resident has a problem with the library somehow trampling on his views on healthcare; he wants an ultraviolent Christian propaganda film to somehow “balance” a Michael Moore documentary on health care. Moore definitely has an agenda with his movies, but “balancing” it with “The Passion of the Christ” doesn’t seem like any kind of real balance to me.

No one ever sees these explosions of community discord and media coverage coming, and I wonder what the library administration and staff at Enfield will be doing differently from here on out to achieve “balance.” I’m just really glad that freedom of information and expression won out over censorship this time.

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3 Comments January 26, 2011

Speaking out for banned books

The cover of Laurie Halse Anderson's SPEAK

Banned Books Week begins today, and this year it comes at a particularly appropriate time: on Sunday Laurie Halse Anderson wrote on her blog that Wesley Scroggins, an associate professor of management at Missouri State University, had decried Speak as pornographic. While the book contains sexual content, it’s in the form of a rape scene that the protagonist chooses to remain silent about. For once I’m actually angrier about the reason someone wants a book banned rather than the actual move to get a book removed from school. What kind of sicko thinks a rape scene is soft pornography? Scroggins’s original opinion piece is available via the Springfield News-Leader.

At Anderson’s request, readers and bloggers across the Internet have been speaking up and speaking out for not just Speak but against banning books using the #speakloudly hashtag. And Sarah of GreenBeanTeenQueen, who lives and works in Missouri, wrote against book banning and reflected on her own Christian identity in light of Scroggins’s “Christian” opposition to the book. But even more powerful was CJ’s post at The Last Word in which she came out as a rape survivor, talking about the effect it had on her life throughout her adolescence and college. She even stood up as a Christian in defense of the book:

Maybe SPEAK isn’t Dr. Scroggins’ cup of tea. Maybe the idea of having his children read about a highly dysfunctional family is upsetting. Maybe the thought of having rape be a terrible reality in the life of the book’s main character offends him. That’s his right. But for every child who is blessed with a non-dysfunctional home and who hasn’t been broken by something as awful as rape, there’s another girl like me. A girl who can’t find the words to describe how shattered she feels. Who doesn’t even know if she has the right to feel shattered. Who’s learned that bringing her secrets to the light results in more pain. That girl needs books like SPEAK to be on the shelves. She needs to know there are others out there like her. She needs to see someone else’s path so she can have the language to start thinking about her own outcome.

As a Christian and a rape survivor, I want SPEAK to stay on the shelves. And I want others to write books about rape. Incest. Child abuse. Eating disorders. Multiple personality disorder. Post traumatic stress disorder. Because those are just as real, just as present, for some kids as worrying about grades and peer pressure are for others. Books can give children the language they need to be able to describe themselves and the things they’re facing. To silence the book could be to silence the child.

ALA's promotional buttons for Banned Books Week 2009

I'm not a huge fan of this year's BBW promotional materials, but I really liked last year's

In preparing for Banned Books Week, what struck me about the list of most-frequently challenged books was that most of them are titles for teens, and that most of the challenges are due to the sexual nature of the book, and that what is and isn’t on the list is sometimes surprising. Even this year, To Kill a Mockingbird and Catcher in the Rye made the top ten. And while Lauren Myracle’s TTYL, TTFN, and L8R G8R have sexual content, it seems pretty tame and a lot of the conflict comes from the girls dealing with the consequences of making ill-advised decisions (like dancing topless at a party and then having cell phone pictures of her doing so circulated through the school). But is what happens in these books any worse than the sexual content in a John Green novel? In Jellicoe Road? Or even more intense books like Living Dead Girl? None of these titles have made it to the top ten list despite having equally “edgy” or even more disturbing content. I suspect this is because most would-be challengers don’t actually read the book to which they’re objecting, but rather rely on the opinion of friends or newspaper articles about challenges elsewhere to find books to challenge.

And as interesting as the data collected by the Office of Intellectual Freedom is, they estimate that for every challenge that’s reported to them, four or five others aren’t. I saw first hand a book be challenged and silently removed from the library without any media attention or the OIF being notified. So in addition to speaking out against censorship and book banning, I want to speak up for reporting challenges to the OIF. It’s part of raising awareness and helping to fight the good fight.

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1 Comment September 25, 2010

Censorship in Texas: Ellen Hopkins and the Humble, TX Teen Lit Fest

A photograph of Ellen Hopkins, author of free-verse novels for young adults.

I’m just now hearing about this, but last Tuesday, Ellen Hopkins wrote a blog post about being uninvited from the Teen Lit Fest in Humble, Texas. (I’m having trouble finding official information about the event; there seems to be a Facebook page and a Blogspot account, but neither have been updated recently.)

Hopkins had done high school visits in the area before and they’d gone well, but when a middle school librarian saw Hopkins would be at Teen Lit Fest, she went to some parents and then all of them went to the superintendent to ask that Hopkins be uninvited. The superintendent, Guy Sconzo, hadn’t read any of her books but agreed to remove her from the program. When other area librarians wrote to him in protest, he responded that he’d relied on the librarian’s judgement and that there were plenty of other authors they could invite–too many to ever have them all! Hopkins responded to this on her blog:

I am not just another author. I’m an author who is a voice for a generation that faces real problems every day. An author who tries to dissect those problems, look for reasons, suggest solutions, show outcomes to choices through characters who walk off the page. I’m an author who cares about her readership in a very real way. I am thoughtful, respectful of my readers, and not afraid to tell the truth.

That is what censors fear. The truth. Mr. Sconzo doesn’t “want to jeopardize any possible negative reaction [sic] with what has been to date completely positive for literally all concerned.” (I always wonder about school administrators who can’t write a sentence correctly.) The truth may not always be pretty, but it is positive. What’s negative is hiding truth in a dark closet, pretending it doesn’t exist. And worse, manipulating people with lies.

She then asks that people in the Houston area not attend the festival and that people everywhere who oppose this censorship email the superintendent.

But the other authors involved with Teen Lit Fest are going a step further. Melissa de la Cruz wrote a blog post yesterday about growing up in a dictator-controlled country that banned, among other media, Japanese anime. She writes that “[w]hen I moved to America, I was happy to discover that you could watch ANYTHING here. Censorship was NOT a way of life. The freedom was dizzying.” And then she gets to the heart of censorship of material for young people:

But I want every kid to be able to decide whether they want to read Ellen’s books or my books, or anyone’s books. Kids should be able to choose. (Parents can choose not to let their kids read something, and that’s fine. They can also choose not to let their kids go hear someone speak, but you can’t ruin it for other people’s kids whose parents decided THEY can hear a speaker or read a book.)

I didn’t get to choose when I was nine years old, and I remember being INCREDIBLY UPSET. In fact, the absence of those Japanese cartoons is something I have been MOURNING for twenty-years now. I really missed it when they took it away, and I was HORRIFIED to find out that SOMEONE ELSE decided WHAT I could watch. (Someone who was not my parents.) It really disturbed me. It CONTINUES to disturb me.

So de la Cruz has withdrawn from Teen Lit Fest, and Pete Hautman has, too. In his blog post, he recounts how he’s twice been asked to speak at a library and then had that invitation rescinded after his writing was deemed “inappropriate.” At the time he didn’t make a big deal about it, but now he sees that as a mistake, so he’s withdrawing from Teen Lit Fest to stand against censorship. He also says that Tara Lynn Childs and Matt de la Peña have withdrawn as well.

I think what makes me angriest about this whole situation is that this censorship was begun by a librarian. I know that school librarians walk a narrower line, but all librarians everywhere are supposed to be the defenders of intellectual freedom and the champions of a young person’s right to read. Parents may decide what their own children read, but they shouldn’t be able to decide what everyone’s children read–and libraries should be providing more opportunities, not fewer.

I’m glad that other authors involved in this event are standing in solidarity with Ellen Hopkins and taking a stand against censorship. Even if one librarian in Texas is determined to “protect” teens from “inappropriate” material (material that’s won awards and propelled Hopkins’s books to the New York Times Bestseller list!), there are plenty of other people in Texas and online who value choice and–as Julie Halpern wrote when one of her books was challenged–respect young readers.

You can email the Superintendent Sconzo if you’d like to share your thoughts with him.

Update: I should be clear that while I’m thrilled to see other authors standing in solidarity with Ellen Hopkins, I’m also sad that if the superintendent doesn’t change his mind, Houston-area teens are going to be denied a chance to meet the creators of the books they love. It bites that they’re the ones who are caught in the middle.

Update 2: Ellen Hopkins has written a follow-up blog post in which she acknowledges that authors withdrawing from the Teen Lit Fest is unfair to teens and librarians in Humble, but emphasizes that this is about censorship and the freedom of ideas.

Update 3: Matt de la Pena has confirmed via Facebook that he won’t be going either. Tera Lynn Childs has written a blog post about withdrawing from the event (as well as her letter to Superintendent Sconzo), including this particularly spot-on thought:

I really feel bad for the students in this situation. All they wanted was the chance to meet some great writers (trust me, Ellen Hopkins, Melissa de la Cruz, Pete Hautman, and Matt de la Pena are great writers) and maybe get some signed books. Instead, they’re missing out because a few adults think they know better.

That’s the problem with censorship, especially the kind that goes along with books. It’s usually couched in a fog of protection. As if keeping you from certain content is for your own good, and it’s really better this way. I’m especially appalled when this is applied to teen readers. Not only are teens generally way smarter and more mature and more experienced than we think, teen readers in particular are among the smartest people I know. It’s just insulting for adults in power (or those seeking power) to try to carry out their agenda waving the Because-They’re-Children and Because-We-Know-Better banners.

I couldn’t just sit by and be a part of this, and neither should you.

She also wrote a follow-up post with a poem by Ella Wheeler Wilcox.

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8 Comments August 17, 2010

On KP Bath and separating the author from the work

KP Bath (Multnomah County Sheriff's Office)

Last week children’s book author KP Bath was sentenced to six years in jail for possessing child pornography. This brings up questions of what librarians should do with his books if they’re held by the library. Should they be removed from the collection? Should they be booktalked and suggested? Should they be featured in displays? In South Carolina where the book won the 2007-2008 Junior Book Award, should the book be stricken from the award list?

Bath was originally arrested in April 2009. At the time I was taking both a seminar on intellectual freedom and Materials for Youth, and I brought up his arrest in both classes to gauge my fellow students’ reactions. While my seminar classmates were all vociferous in their defense of the book (but not the author), I was surprised by how many of my classmates in Materials for Youth would have removed the book from their libraries’ collections, even if they hadn’t read the books themselves. I think that were KP Bath an author for adults, even more cautious librarians would be less likely to pull his works; it’s providing his books to children, the very group he was exploiting, that concerns us.

At the time I hadn’t read any of KP Bath’s books, but by the end of the semester had read both THE SECRET OF CASTLE CANT and ESCAPE FROM CASTLE CANT, the first two books in a trilogy that will now probably never see completion. I thought they were mediocre fantasy novels that started with an interesting world but fell short in their narration style and details. But aside from a few notes about how insufferable adults are (which you’ll find in many books for older children and young adults), there was nothing in the books that seemed unusual or uncomfortable, much less exploitative. So, wearing my librarian hat and separating the author from his work, I concluded that it would violate the Freedom to Read Statement were we to remove the book from our library shelves.

But this also illustrated to me the occasional separation that occurs between my professional ethics and my personal ethics. While I’m not always great at it, it’s important to me to spend my consumer dollars wisely since it’s the only vote I get in the behavior of corporations and the business world in general. And I definitely don’t want to financially support someone who exploits children–especially someone so downright skeezy as Bath. He wrote in one of his chats, “I’m glad there are molesters out there,” and “I wish a 9 yr old was doing that to me. This from a man who’s writing books for 9-year-olds.” While he was enjoying (and trading) videos and images “depicting sadistic conduct, rape, sodomy and bestiality,” he was also volunteering at the Beverly Cleary Children’s Library in Portland. He was volunteering at the local children’s library. It chills my blood to read that sentence. Knowing what I know about Bath, there’s no way I could spend my money on his books, recommend (rather than suggest) his books to any children I know, or in any way not oppose him.

But those are my personal values. My professional values demand that I treat his books as I would have before his arrest and conviction. Normally I feel like my own values and my profession’s values are a good match, but I really struggle with this case. I know that as much as we want it to be or might claim it is, our collection development isn’t objective. I want social justice to be a part of librarianship. But intellectual freedom is at the core of librarianship and is the defense for some controversial things that happen in youth librarianship. If we start making compromises, how can we continue to defend controversial books being on our shelves? If we make exceptions and remove KP Bath’s books from our collections, then how do we retain the works of other felons or of anyone–atheists, gay people–whom someone in our library’s community might think immoral?

But can I really set aside my personal values in favor of my professional ones and be okay with myself? I certainly expect it of any librarians who personally think that (for example) people in the queer community are on the path to hell–I’d still expect them to collect books by LGBTQIA authors. Is the reason I think this is different because the law and a majority of people in our society agree that pedophilia is wrong whereas (in most states at least) homosexuality isn’t a crime?

I struggled with this conflict of values last spring and now that Bath has been sentenced, I’m thinking about it again. Professionally the right thing to do is to treat his books no differently, but personally, I’m torn. Intellectual freedom is important to me, but so is supporting good in the world and opposing evil. I feel okay keeping Bath’s books in a collection and with giving them to patrons who ask for them directly. But can I, with a clean conscience, add Bath’s books to a booklist? Can I booktalk them? I think I’ll probably do so–and feel good about it at work but feel guilty about it at home.

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5 Comments July 12, 2010

Women in American librarianship and valuing women’s work

I recently finished reading the updated edition of THE STORY OF LIBRARIES: FROM THE INVENTION OF WRITING TO THE COMPUTER AGE (Continuum, 2009) by Fred Lerner. It exists in this weird intersection between scholarly and recreational reading (the text is more dense than I was expecting and that I think a casual reader would want, but Lerner isn’t as rigorous in citing his sources as I’d expect for an academic work), but as I read, I was enjoying little historical tidbits. For example:

  • Ashurbanipal (668-627 BCE) had a library of 1500 tablets organized by subject and edited and revised them himself. Libraries go way back!
  • Libraries in Asia that existed before the Middle Ages or so were light years ahead of Western civilization at the time.
  • Prior to World War II, scientists worked hard to share widely their research and publications, but the war created a division in which both sides were trying to share widely within their own boundaries to encourage innovation that might win the war but were increasingly cautious about letting that scientific progress be known to the other side. So in 1944 these two German agents get off a submarine on the coast of Maine. They have a microfilm camera with them and they’re planning to head to the New York Public Library and photograph scientific journals–but they’re apprehended by the FBI before they can do so. Libraries in the middle of a Nazi plot to steal American science!

But as Lerner’s narrative moved into more modern times and he started reflecting on the mission of libraries and their place in society, I started feeling angrier and angrier. Little things seemed to indicate that he was valuing academic libraries over public libraries, that he thought women had warped the purpose of libraries, and that certain kinds of library use were more important or worthy than others. And then near the end there was one particular chapter–one particular page, even–that just drove me nuts. I’d like to share that page and why I felt so angry and why I think he’s wrong.

Lerner writes:

Libraries and librarians have always existed at the margins of the society they served. (p. 181)

The ‘feminization of librarianship’ is often adduced as the essential reason for the marginalization of the field in America. In 1852, the Boston Public Library hired its first female clerk; by 1878 two-thirds of American library workers were women; and by the 1920s that figure had reached nearly 90 percent. During those years the leaders of the most important libraries–like the top people in every field–were men; but most of the staff that a library user would encounter were female.


In one sense, the lack of respect that libraries and librarians have endured can rightly be traced to the feminization of librarianship. The first women to become librarians in England and America were imbued with the middle-class notion that women were a civilizing force in society with special feminine abilities to work with the young, the sick, and the poor. Under their leadership, libraries became identified with underprivileged and marginal elements of society. (p. 182)

First of all, it’s contradictory that librarians have always been marginalized, but it’s somehow still women’s faults, even though they apparently weren’t part of the profession until the 1800s.

Now, the leaders of libraries were men (of course!) but somehow “under [women’s] leadership, libraries became identified with underprivileged and marginal elements of society.” But if women were always subservient to men, how could they have been at the helm changing the library’s mission and image?

The answer is that there were women leaders and that their values (not some sort of womanly deficiency they all had) shaped American librarianship. I also just finished WOMEN AND THE VALUES OF AMERICAN LIBRARIANSHIP (Ide House, 1994) by Sydney Chambers and Carolynne Myall and they provide tons of examples. Here are just a very few:

  • Public libraries were formed out of community libraries that were originally started by women in most cases. In 1933 the ALA “credited women’s clubs with the repsonsibility for initiating 75 percent of the public libraries in existence at that time” (p. 17).
  • Isadore Gilbert Mudge built Columbia University’s reference collection and taught library school students her methods of conducting a reference interview. (p. 29)
  • Adelaide Hasse was a founder of special librarianship, developed a classification scheme, and helped form the US Government Documents service. (p. 31)
  • “[O]f the four insitutions established before 1900 which later became charter members of the Association of American Library Schools, the founding directors of three were women,” Katherine Sharp, Mary Wright Plummer, and Alice Kroeger. (p. 36)
  • Mary Wright Plummer was the head of the library school at the Pratt Institute Free Library from 1895 to 1911, the Principal of the library school at NYPL from 1911 to 1916, and was President of ALA from 1915 to 1916–years before women were even allowed to vote! (p. 35)
  • The director of the LA Public Library from 1889 to 1895 was Tessa Kelso–and this was decades before women got the vote. (p. 43)

While women who held leadership positions often did so at local or state or regional levels, women were also library founders, innovators in their fields, library directors, library school founders, and even served as the president of ALA before their country trusted them to vote.

Lerner goes on to describe how libraries being shaped by women’s values ruined the reputation of librarianship:

To many of those who controlled the country’s purse strings and set its priorities, that made the library into a societal luxury–inexpensive enough to maintain at a limited level, but irrelevant to the real needs of those who mattered. The low repute that has been the constant companion of the pedagogue has also had its impact. Despite librarians’ attempts to be viewed as educators, it is the prestige of the schoolteacher rather than that of the professor that has become attached to them. (p. 182)

I hope he’s being hyperbolic here and that he doesn’t actually mean this because it privileges helping academics meet their information needs over helping working-class people meet their information needs. I reject that ranking of human beings as more important or less important just because of their socioeconomic class. Taking care of the neediest in a community shouldn’t be a “societal luxury.” It should be our top priority.

The “problem” with librarianship isn’t that women were allowed in the field and that somehow ruined it. It’s that women themselves aren’t valued, that women’s work isn’t valued, and that women’s values aren’t respected as valid.

Chambers and Myall write about how early research in ethics was done by men on male subjects. Rather than interview both men and women and develop a view of human ethics that way, their theories of ethical development were entirely based on what boys and men valued and how their values changed as they grew; women who held different values were seen as ethically immature or deviant. That’s subsequently changed: research has broadened to include women, and we now have more research and a better understanding of women’s ethics and values. (As a note, it’s not that all women hold these values or that no men do; rather, the majority of women studied have ethical systems that are more like this model than the traditional model, and the majority of men have another set of values. There’s blending, of course, and women who hold “male” values and men who hold “female” values, but in general we can model women’s vales differently than men’s.)

Chambers and Myall paraphrase the list of women’s values that Sally Helgesen outlines in THE FEMALE ADVANTAGE thusly:

  • responsibility to community and sense of responsibility for maintaining community;
  • cooperation rather than competition;
  • concern for children and weaker members of the community;
  • objectivity, a nonjudgmental appreciation for multiple points of view, which we regard as an important aspect of what some would call ‘selflessness’;
  • concern for consequences of actions;
  • holistic view of human beings;
  • local scope of action (sometimes expressed as ‘think globally, act locally’);
  • connectedness as both fact of life and value to encourage.

(p. 6)

They then link library services (like reference, collection development, bibliographic instruction, and interlibrary loan) to these values.

Anyway, Lerner goes on:

Especially in the United States, the social-work impulse has continued to be pervasive among librarians. Most are imbued with a missionary confidence in the importance of reading, but have little interest in assessing or dealing with the economic importance of information. (p. 182)

It’s not “missionary confidence.” That makes it sound like librarians have some sort of blind faith in why reading is important, but there is a lot of research that backs up the good reading to kids does for their futures, and illiteracy among adults is an incredible barrier to their being able to participate in life at a very basic level. And again here Lerner prioritizes male values (economics, competition, ability to exploit something to make money) over feminine values (community, helping others, improving the world). Healso talks a lot in the chapter after this one about “information science” and being able to come up with new ways to access and shape information and how this new research should be used to make money and deliver information differently to people with money than to people without. He gets all excited about technology and I think Thomas Mann would have a bone to pick with him about Lerner’s dismissal of traditional library ideas and practices. Lerner also seems to have no concept of the digital divide within our own country (although he does talk a little about the problems libraries in developing countries face).

Anyway, in this passage about women and American librarianship, Lerner continues:

Much of the leadership in developing new ways of access to information has come from chemists, computer scientists, economists, linguists, philosophers–from people whose professional interest in information science has not been shaped by the library schools and library literature.

But this is nothing new. The librarians at Alexandria never went to library school, and nobody at Urbino ever read a library journal. The craft of librarianship is not so narrowly defined. For many centuries a love of literature and a respect for learning have been the essential qualifications of the effective librarian. (p. 182-183)

So basically it seems like Lerner’s understanding of American librarianship goes something like this:

1. Librarianship was great until women showed up.

2. Men managed to maintain leadership positions after the ladies arrived, but since women had the majority of positions under them, they somehow took control of the library and changed its values and ruined everything.

3. The change women brought about was caring about stupid poor people and children instead of taking care of Very Serious Research Business for important rich people.

4. Now that no one respects librarians anymore and librarianship is full of stupid ladies, no one in the field is doing Important Information Science Research and all of the innovations are coming from people outside of the field.

5. All of those outsiders are making truckloads of money on their information science innovations and lady librarians are so dumb that they’re content to continue helping those stupid poor people and children instead of exploiting technology to exclude some people and make money off of everyone else.

6. It doesn’t matter anyway, though, you stupid lady librarians, because library science isn’t a real thing and hasn’t been a real thing since the beginning, so you can keep your stupid books and your stupid poor people and your stupid children and your stupid lady-filled profession.

Librarianship is a fantastic example of one of the very first fields in which women could exercise their intellects and their leadership skills outside of the home. Because women participated in the field in such huge numbers–and did hold leadership roles both as practitioners and as educators–it was shaped according to women’s values. Librarianship’s emphasis of those values persists today and despite the good public libraries and public librarians do in the world, the profession is still undervalued because of its association with women and their values. Librarians are told that if they’d only be more like men, more competitive, more interested in making money and less interested in helping people, that they’d be more respected.

And that’s bogus.

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9 Comments June 26, 2010

Two challenges to Julie Halpern’s GET WELL SOON–with very different results

One of the characteristics of my MLS program that I enjoyed the most was the diversity in age and experience among my classmates. There were people like me who were (mostly) fresh out of college and whose library experience was fairly limited, but because of the recent changes in Indiana library certification (summary here), some of my classmates were department heads or branch managers or even library directors who had been in their positions for decades without an MLS and who were now in school to get their degrees so they could keep their jobs. This led to a wide range in opinions and experiences in the classroom, which made for great class discussions. It also meant that I got to hear a lot of stories about how things were done in different libraries, many of which had very different policies and procedures.

One of the most disturbing stories I heard during my degree was about a challenge to a book in the teen collection at a particular library. Just for storytelling purposes, I’ll call it the Anonymous Public Library (APL). Because of the worldview of a few board members, APL takes a very active role in deciding what’s appropriate for the library collection. They do not purchase or accept donations of R-rated movies, even if the movie has won awards or broken box office records. The board members who designed and uphold this policy think that APL shouldn’t carry “inappropriate” material like this because children might check it out. Staff members have tried to suggest having adult library cards and children’s cards and not allowing children to check out videos, freeing adults to watch movies for grownups, but the board members remain resolute.

Because of the generally conservative culture at APL, the teen section also comes under a lot of scrutiny. It does serve 6th-12th graders which is admittedly a very wide range, but I’m firmly of the opinion that if a parent is concerned about what his or her child is reading, that parent should be involved in the child’s selection of reading materials–in other words, it’s not the library’s job to be the parent. But APL’s policies differ from my personal philosophy, so no books in the teen collection may contain the F-word, and the board expects the teen librarian to read every book before she purchases it to make sure the forbidden word doesn’t appear and to screen for other “inappropriate” material and themes. If APL were a tiny public library with a tiny budget and few purchases, this might be feasible, but because of APL’s size and budget, there’s no way the teen librarian can possibly read everything before she orders it.

The cover of Julie Halpern's book GET WELL SOON. The cover is yellow and has the text "get well soon" in all lower case at the top. Beneath that is a yellow frowny face, and beneath that, the author's name (again in lower case).

So one of the stories about APL that was told in class was this: a seventh grader checked out Julie Halpern’s GET WELL SOON, thinking from the cover that it would be like a Jerry Spinelli book. In fact, the story is about a girl named Anna Bloom whose parents send her to a residential mental health facility (a “loony bin,” as Anna puts it) to treat her depression. The young APL patron was surprised to find a number of swear words on the first page and showed the book to her mom. Her mom was very angry and brought the book back to the library to request its removal.

In most public libraries, a librarian would listen to the parent, try to assess and reflect back why the parent was upset, and to show the parent that her concerns were important to the library. Librarians usually also try to explain the value of diversity in the collection and the importance of helping kids select their reading material if subject matter is a concern. Then if the parent still wants to challenge the book, the librarian would have the parent fill out a request for reconsideration form. Depending on library policy, a group of librarians, managers, and maybe board members or members of the public would meet, review the book, and make a decision.

At APL, the book was immediately taken to the director, who looked at the first page, decided the book was inappropriate, and had it removed it from the collection. The book itself didn’t even go to the pile of general library discards that’s sold by the Friends of the Library as a fundraiser: it went into the dumpster. This all happened within an hour of the mom’s initial challenge to the book.

And the craziest part of this story is that while this was happening, the teen librarian was on vacation, and when she returned, no one from management told her it’d happened. In her absence, the book just disappeared. She only found out later when the checkout clerk who was the mom’s first point of contact told the teen librarian, which she wasn’t supposed to have done.

Obviously this is a really extreme version of how a challenge process can work in a public library, and it is, of course, up to the community to decide how their library is run. It just makes me sad that the board members who support these policies have such a limited view of intellectual freedom in general and, more specifically, of kids’ ability to choose their own reading material and to stop when they find something they don’t think is right for them, and it makes me sad that the librarians at APL can’t do more to call this out for the censorship that it is.

So it was with great joy that I read the news that the Fon Du Lac School District in Wisconsin had chosen to keep GET WELL SOON on the shelf at Theisen Middle School. Challenges in a school library are particularly tricky because unlike public libraries, the school is acting in loco parentis, so challenges are more likely to be successful. Another school district in the area had opted to put a sticker on another book (not GET WELL SOON) deemed inappropriate for middle schoolers and to require parental permission for students to check it out, so FDLSD’s decision is especially heartening. During the hearings, the media specialist defended the library’s diverse collection and said that if a student checked out GET WELL SOON and was uncomfortable reading it that she would help that student find something more appropriate. This is exactly the right way to handle challenges like this and I’m so pleased with how things turned out.

If a challenge doesn’t get much media attention, the author often never hears about the challenge or the outcome. But in this case, Julie Halpern saw an article about the decision (and noted that no one’d called her) and wrote a blog post about how the challenge affected her writing of the sequel and the role respect plays in reading, writing, and allowing kids to pick their own reading material.

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9 Comments June 18, 2010

The Librarian’s Oath

Last spring during my Seminar on Intellectual Freedom, Shellie and I were discussing how librarianship doesn’t have a professional organization that controls licenses to practice and that while we have the ALA Code of Ethics (and the Library Bill of Rights and the Freedom to Read Statement and lots of other statements from the Office of Intellectual Freedom), there isn’t an oath we have to take to become librarians like (for example) doctors do.

So once we started nearing graduation, I took the general structure of the Hippocratic Oath and filled in that framework with content from the ALA Code of Ethics and did a little tweaking and came up with a Librarian’s Oath:

The Librarian’s Oath
I swear by Seshat the scribe, Athena, Sophia, and Nidaba, and all the gods and goddesses, making them my witness, that I will fulfill according to my ability and judgment this oath and covenant:

I will not advance private interests at the expense of library users, colleagues, or my employing institution.

But I will provide the highest level of service to all library users and ensure equitable, unbiased access to materials and services, recognizing that a person’s right to use the library should not be denied or abridged because of origin, age, background, or views.

I will respect intellectual property rights and support balance between the interests of information users and rights holders.

I will uphold the principles of intellectual freedom and resist all efforts to censor library resources.

All that may come to my knowledge in the exercise of my profession which ought not to be spread abroad, I will keep secret and will never reveal.

In all aspects of my work I will strive for excellence and will maintain and enhance my knowledge and skills. I will support the professional development of my colleagues. I will encourage the aspirations of potential members of the profession.

Both at work and in the community, I will be an advocate for the library and I will champion libraries and my fellow librarians.

If I keep this oath faithfully, may I enjoy my life and practice my art, respected by all people and in all times; but if I swerve from it or violate it, may the reverse be my lot.

Professor Japzon (Andrea, that is) administered the Oath to a group of us after graduation today; we raised our right hands and recited it in unison (Shellie and I also held a copy of the Intellectual Freedom Manual). It turned out to be a little long for a public recitation, but I really enjoyed being sworn in and made an official librarian by someone in the field. Along with all of the academic regalia and ceremony and tradition of the day, it made for a very official-feeling way to officially join the ranks of the profession.

So now I’m a real, MLS-holding, Oath-swearing librarian!

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11 Comments May 9, 2010

“You need a master’s degree for that?” In defense of the MLS.

We had our final meeting for my Youth Services class tonight; it’s definitely bittersweet (more bitter than sweet, if I’m going to be honest) to be finishing the program. So since it was our last class, the material we covered was a grab bag of library fun: we started with the recent challenge of Toni Morrison’s SONG OF SOLOMON in one of my classmate’s school districts (the unusual twist here is that rather than the objection coming from a parent, it’s coming instead from a school board member–and the kids were halfway through the book when the challenge arose! The book had been taught for years before anyone challenged it! This has even caught the attention of Anna North at Jezebel.) and then talked about knowing your community and what kinds of programs will and won’t fly (like tarot cart readings, anti-Valentine’s Day programs, or even Banned Book Week events), interviewing and salary negotiation, being advocates for young people, and professional tools and resources.

We also had a discussion about the value of the MLS. Since I started the program almost two years ago I’ve repeatedly found myself called to defend the need for the degree, usually to people incredulously asking, “You need a master’s degree for that?” Initially I didn’t really know what to say because I’d just started the program myself and was a newcomer to the field and didn’t really know what I’d be learning in classes or on the job. But after working in three different kinds of libraries, taking classes, doing projects and internships, discussing this with other librarians and library students, and getting within six days of graduation (!), I feel better equipped to answer that incredulity.

Theoretical foundation
In my earlier post on the need for more rigor in the profession, I mentioned the exclusive body of knowledge that we lay claim to as part of being professionals. While I think we need to work harder to expand and deepen and refine what appears in the library science literature, it’s through a professional degree that we confer that knowledge to the next generation of librarians. You can be taught how to catalog a book on the job, but you’re very unlikely to receive along with that training a lecture on controlled vocabularies or bibliographic access. You may be really good at finding things online or at doing research with print materials, but it’s through a professional degree that you will learn about information-seeking behavior. Librarianship requires specialized skills and knowledge and while some of that can be learned on the job, the theoretical background comes from the studies you do for a degree.

Instilling professional ethics
While you may have considered the ethical implications of library work on your own or be put through ethics training on the job, it is through a master’s degree that you examine library ethics in detail and develop a comprehensive view of what libraries are all about. A day-long ethics seminar at work doesn’t give you the depth of understanding that you get in a semester-long course on intellectual freedom. You not only need to balance access and privacy, intellectual freedom and community responsiveness–you also need to be able to understand and defend why you do what you do.

Connection to our history
Sure, you know who Melvil Dewey was and have probably heard of Nancy Pearl. But do you know Justin Winsor, Charles Cutter, Samuel Swett Green, Jesse Shera, S. R. Ranganathan, Margaret A. Edwards, Augusta Baker, Anne Carroll Moore, Pura Belpré, Helen Thornton Geer, Kathleen de la Peña McCook, Michael Gorman, or Judith Krug? Do you know their contributions to librarianship and how they changed the profession? Do you know how librarianship and libraries have evolved? Do you know how young adult literature emerged from children’s literature and how children’s literature developed in the first place? Do you know how technology has changed the profession? Do you know what the philosophy of libraries used to be and what it is now? Do you know how the field became a “woman’s profession”? You could read books about the history of librarianship, but you’re not going to learn about these things in the day-to-day work you do in a library. And this isn’t just trivia you want to know to impress your friends and neighbors: it is by knowing where we’ve come from and what it is that makes a library a library that we can chart where we are going to go.

Signaling your valuing of your work
Librarians are undervalued. Public librarians are especially undervalued. Youth Services librarians are criminally undervalued. Having a professional degree and defending it to skeptics signals that you value your work, your knowledge, and your profession–and that the profession is a profession and not just a job that anyone off the street can do. An MLS is an investment of your time and your money and you’d better be able to explain why you had to get that piece of paper to be a librarian and how what you learned during the course of your degree makes you a better librarian than someone who just has work experience.

There are undoubtably genius autodidacts who rock the library world without an MLS and who are curious and driven enough to acquire some of this specialized knowledge on their own–after all, a library is a place where you can research and learn and improve yourself and your skills. I’m not trying to claim that one must have an MLS to be a good librarian or that what you learn during the course of your MLS studies will be useful to you every minute of every day you spend at work. But I do think that MLS programs that give us a theoretical foundation, an understanding of ethical issues in the field, and a sense of the profession’s history and future make us much, much better equipped to be excellent librarians than those who rely on work experience alone. And being able to understand the value of that degree and defend it to those who think librarianship is just sitting around reading all day is essential.

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6 Comments May 3, 2010

Patsy Allen on corporate librarianship

On Friday we had our third and final ALISS Luncheon Lecture of the semester. Patsy Allen, an IU SLIS grad and the research librarian at Roche Diagnostics, talked to us about her career as a corporate librarian.

She actually began as a part-time contractor before her position was developed into a full-time one four years later. When Roche was creating the position, there was a lot of debate about what to call the position before they finally settled on “Research Librarian.” Many people in the company handle information of some sort, so they wanted what she is available for to be very clear. She said that some of the older employees didn’t like the name because they still regard librarians as the shushing guardians of the stacks, but that the younger employees who were being hired straight out of school were excited to know that Roche had a librarian for them to come to with their information needs.

Patsy described her position as being “a solo librarian in a global environment” since she’s the only librarian in a company that employs thousands of people. Employees of Roche ask her to find articles and papers, patent data, and lots of other highly specialized information to assist them with their research in biology, chemistry, and engineering, mostly via email (which can be tricky when she’s trying to tease out exactly what a client needs!).

Her manager isn’t a librarian (he works with patent information), so she has a lot of autonomy in her work, which she said she really enjoys. Like Ellen Summers of the NCAA Library, Patsy emphasized the importance of the Special Libraries Association in feeling connected to the profession and having other librarians to help her, although she did point out that corporate librarian positions can be radically different from one company to another. She also talked about how important continuing education is for her, whether it’s through courses at a university or seminars through SLA.

She talked a little bit about how she can’t talk about a lot of her work. Since she works for a corporation that does scientific research, she’s privy to a lot of information that she can’t disclose. The work Roche does is also highly regulated, which introduces further restrictions on what she can talk about. Patsy also talked about the importance of professional integrity: while she may know that two people are working on the same sort of project based on the questions they’re asking her, she can’t tell them about each other.

Patsy spends a lot of energy monitoring copyright issues and explaining them to her clients. Many of them come from an academic environment and are used to being able to pass information to other colleagues fairly freely under the Fair Use guidelines, but copyright rules in a corporate environment are much more restrictive. The general guideline she gives clients is “assume the answer is ‘no’ unless I tell you otherwise.” She also showed us some of the different levels of permission different publishers grant for copying and distributing articles–some allow only paper copies to be made while others allow for electronic copies to be distributed. Roche can be sued by a publisher if an article is posted to the company intranet without permission, so complying with copyright restrictions is really important, and she’s the primary person to educate employees on what they may and may not do. The library also won’t order reports for employees since it requires the recipient to sign off on how they’ll be using the document. She’ll get a client a complete citation, but their department must be the one to order it. She also has to be careful about exactly what she advises people to do, since in Indiana offering legal advice counts as practicing law, which you can’t do unless you’re a lawyer.

Patsy also talked about some of the tools she uses in her work including Medline, Embase, Biosis, SciSearch, Current Contents, ScienceDirect, Wiley InterScience, Google and Google Scholar, PubMed, OCLC FirstSearch, FDA, EBSCOhost Databases, and other STM, business, and legal resources. She said that she works to be really proactive in constantly scanning the media and news alerts and blogs for items of interest and then forwarding them on to clients who might find the information useful before they even ask for it or need it. She said that this not only reminds them of the library’s usefulness but also gives her a chance to show potential new clients what the library can do for them.

Despite Roche being on the cutting edge in their industry, they are by necessity technologically cautious in some ways. Since Roche is a gigantic company, they need to be reserved in how quickly they adopt new technology and new versions of software, so she’s trying to make do with Internet Explorer 6 and old versions of other software packages. She’s also lost her physical library: she used to work in a room full of books but was moved to a cubicle with a computer and a book cart. While lots of information–especially the most recent of research–is available online and she does conduct most of her correspondence via email, she said that she missed being in a proper library.

Although the slow adoption of new technology and constant assessment of copyright compliance seemed at times exasperating, Patsy said that she loves her job. Since she’s helping clients with their scientific research, she learns new things every day just by seeing that information go by. She did emphasize knowing one’s limits in a special library and being able to tell clients that what they wanted was too advanced for her to do, but that she could put them in touch with another person or resource that could help them. Her job is fast-paced and she never knows on a given day what she’ll see thrown at her and she loves being kept on her toes. She also mentioned the social aspect of her job, pointing out that her life isn’t just research and information all day long, but that there’s a human element, an opportunity to help people and to teach them. The analogy she provided was that of being an information bartender–I think that’d be a great thing to put on a business card!

Patsy closed with a quotation from Neil de Grasse Tyson that’s appropriately scientific but also blends with the librarian’s life:

In life and in the universe,
may your signal be high
and your noise be low.

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4 Comments April 26, 2010

PLA Blog: queering the library

This post was originally written for the PLA Blog. ALA holds the copyright to this text; it is reproduced here with permission.

[Please note: throughout this post, I’ll be using “queer” to refer very broadly to the LGBTQIA (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, questioning/queer, intersex, and asexual/ally) community.]

The first session I attended today was Spanning the Generations: Serving the GLBTIQ Community of ALL Ages. Unfortunately two of the speakers, Nancy Silverrod and KR Roberto, were unable to make the event, but we were left in the capable hands of Allan Kleiman and Angie Manfredi. They talked about how libraries can–and should–serve members of the queer community and how queer patrons’ needs differ by their ages.

Allan told a story about reading what few materials on homosexuality were available to him growing up in secret at the library, always in the reading room and never by checking out the books. While he acknowledged that materials have improved drastically since then and that society as a whole has become more accepting of queer folk, he did tell us that people are still reluctant to ask for information on queer materials or queer resources, so our focus with adults should be making the library an openly welcoming place and making materials available without asking. We can do this by including books about queer characters in displays on other topics, by including queer authors in our book displays, by partnering with community organizations and participating as a library in pride parades, and by linking to queer resources on our library websites.

Angie addressed service to queer teens, tweens, young people, and their families. There’s been a sharp increase in the number of YA titles published recently about queer teens and the content has become much more accepting as well, but we still have a long way to go. One of the ways we can work to see more titles like these are to make sure our library buys these books (or nonfiction titles like GAY AMERICA: STRUGGLE FOR EQUALITY) or at the very least thanking publishers who make these materials and things like GAY, LESBIAN, BISEXUAL, TRANSGENDER AND QUESTIONING TEEN LITERATURE: A GUIDE TO READING INTERESTS (part of the Genreflecting series that will be published at the end of the month). She also mentioned the Rainbow List as a good resource.

Angie also talked about how one of the most important things we can do for queer patrons is to make our library a safe place. Refuse to tolerate hate speech. Partner with your local gay-straight alliance–or create one. Be supportive of openly queer teen and tween patrons. And make use of GLSEN’s toolkits.

When serving children, Angie recommended doing both overt things and working to normalize queerness. One overt way we can support the queer community through our youth service is having a Rainbow Storytime that includes stories not only about queer families but also stories about differences, diversity, acceptance, bullying, and originality. We can also include books about queer people in history and in our culture in displays and storytime because just treating queer people like everyone else sends the message that queerness is a part of our society and has been and will be and that that’s totally fine. Supporting queer families should also be a focus in our service to young people.

Allan encouraged us all to support our queering efforts by tying it to our mission (queer patrons definitely fall into the “underserved populations” category) and making it integral to our library service. He finished up by talking more about partnering with local organizations in the queer community and by pointing to successful work in specific public libraries (especially the San Francisco Public Library’s blog, Queerest. Library. Ever.) to support and engage the queer community.

Angie has compiled a list of resources for serving queer youth at delicious.com/youth.lgbtqia to get you started, and Allan emphasized the importance of taking what we learn back to our libraries, so I tell you: go forth! Queer your library!

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Leave a Comment March 25, 2010

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