The Problem With Censorship is XXXXXXX by Cory Doctorow Shred under a CC-BY-SA2.0 License

my “censorship & kidslit” talk @ VIU

I was asked to talk to an English Class at Vancouver Island University this week. They’re doing Topics in Children’s Literature and their topic is censorship. I had a really good time, even if I didn’t hit the basic information as much as I could have. I probably should have talked more about policies and how book challenges actually get processed at a public library. Instead I focused on what I see as the interesting tension between Access and Inclusion. Here’s my script, which I didn’t follow exactly. It is not as rigorous as it could be, and follows my idiosyncratic views rather than trying to speak for all librarians. Selah. (I’ve excised the “who I am” bit since you’re on my blog here.)

First off, apologies for cussing. I am very good at holding my tongue with knee-high audiences, but figure we’re all adults here.

When you become a librarian and think about censorship there’s this idealized notion that what will happen is some mob will arrive at your door to burn all your Calvin & Hobbes books and you get to heroically defend the innocent singlehandedly, the lone purveyor of truth and wisdom in a world of bookburning KKK wannabes who hate the idea of children being human.

That is not how it usually plays out. Mostly it’s more complicated and boring than that. Part of the reason it gets complicated is because a public library is supposed to be welcoming to everyone, and because of that we don’t just deal with books as idealized objects but also with people.

  • your reading addresses how that can be co-opted
  • dang I hate safelibraries [which was a big part of the assigned reading -jju]

Just to situate ourselves here, in my view librarianly ethics – and that’s what censorship issues come down to – come down to Intellectual Freedom, Privacy, and Access to Knowledge. Those apply to academic libraries & public libraries, collections (stuff we have in the library) & programs (the stuff we do in the library).

Let me tell a story. A dad comes in. He asks to talk to a librarian about a book he was reading with his son that he felt was inappropriate. It was a Batwoman comic that depicted a (very PG-13) lesbian love scene in a montagey kind of flashback. “How did this get into the children’s area?” was his main question. And in my experience (in 21st-century Canadian public libraries) that’s how censorship issues come up.

We can come back to that later if you want. [We didn’t. Sorry. -jju]

When it comes to collections I tend towards celebrating the old saying “there’s something in the library to offend everyone” and “the best answer to bad speech is more speech.” This isn’t the approach that every member of the public wants out of their library, especially when it comes to their kids.

Now here’s the problem with library collections. We only have limited budgets. We can’t buy everything. But there’s so much product out there – not necessarily literature but product, especially in kidslit. So much of it is so shitty. We buy bullshit Barbie paperbacks and they circ like nobody’s business. Anything made by a gigantic corporation is not going to be offensive to the SafeLibraries folk. It supports the overcultural domination and well yeah. And we buy that shit all the time.

And here’s another secret: in a lot of library systems including ours librarians don’t select the books. It’s all outsourced, which is bullshit. We basically just get whatever our salespeople think we need, which means whatever they get cheaply.

The interesting stuff happens, like with anything when it’s a bit less about the corporately produced bullshit. There’s tonnes of boring bullshit out there. And yes we have it in the library. Claims (like the SafeLibraries blog mentioned in your reading) that there is somehow more genderqueer stuff in the teen section than monoculture hegemony enforcement is totally untrue.

But. There’s room to think otherwise, and that’s down to how people interact with the collection and what we librarians prefer to talk up.

Librarians don’t get jazzed about things unless they’re awesome or terrible but we’re filled with mediocrity. We love to talk about the picturebook about the penguin with two daddies and how important a YA story about nerds who are overweight and Asian-American and in love is for readers. The mediocrity surrounds those stories, engulfs them, but when a reader finds something to connect to, that speaks to their circumstances, that says “You are a real person” that is so important. We need to have all sorts of stories in the public library because this is where readers with no money and no voting power can find the information they need.

We’re never going to not have any goddamned James Patterson (whose machine also writes for kids). Our culture is designed to manufacture lowest common denominator product instead of art. You can see that in all the knockoffs of amazing books that become a trend. Yeah the Hunger Games are violent but they’re also deeply about agency in a world that hates you. Knockoffs take the surface elements and try to make more cash off them.

There is room in public library collections for books that treats sex among young people like a thing that happens and explores different points of view than the white cis-het hegemony. Basically to the SafeLibraries dude who is all outraged that there is material that offends them in the library I respond in the “You have an entire culture and the discriminating force of the state behind you. Chill the fuck out.”

For me what makes these discussions interesting and kind of unique in the public library context is the intersection between the book and the community of users. One of the most obvious ways that happens is less about what is in the collection as what a librarian chooses to highlight, especially in our programming like storytime. So, let’s do some storytime.

cover of the picture book I Want My Hat Back by Jon Klassen featuring a bear who is not wearing a hat.Here we read I Want My Hat Back by Jon Klassen

You can see why that story is awesome, but there’s also – every time you read it in a storytime – the option to sanitize it. You leave out that last page and it’s just cute. Keep it in and it’s amazing. I love this book because it’s introducing the preschool set to noir fiction and ends justifying means and the grim realities of justice. Finding out about reality and different perceptions of that reality through the safety of words (and pictures) on a page is the whole goddamned point of reading. No one challenges I Want My Hat Back saying it shouldn’t be in the library, but every time I do it in storytime there’s a murmur among the adults about how that isn’t quite as cute as it started out.

There are tonnes of stories that are awesome but when you put them into a context they get inappropriate. A couple of months ago I read a story called The Three Robbers by Tomi Ungerer to an aboriginal class because I love the art and the flipping of the villains of the story. But it has these robbers ending up by kidnapping a bunch of kids and building a shining city for them which in the context of residential schools and truth and reconciliation and all of this stuff well ack! what am I doing? This is blundering into dangerous territory!

And then there are things like Tintin in the Congo where the depictions of Africans are racist as hell (although not as bad as they were in the original edition), or Tintin in America with its “redskins” and “savages” and headdresses. What do we do with that? Do we remove these stories from the collection so we don’t run into the danger of offense?

For me at least – and everyone’s boundaries are different – the craft of Hergé means you can’t throw that out. You need that in the collection. Now, I grant that you don’t need some white comics nerd forcing Hergé down the throat of your residential school survivor grandmother, but it has to be available and accessible for the people who do want to read it. Context is hugely important, and discussing why that was acceptable language at one time but not now is important.

Now, our library system has taken the view that parents can’t be trusted to do that contextual thing themselves, so Tintin in America (and the Congo) was removed from the kids’ collection where all the other Tintin books live and put into the adult nonfiction collection. That reclassification turns it from a story into an artifact of racism.

I don’t agree with this because (again, in my opinion, and let’s take it as granted that I tend towards the intellectual freedom maximalist end of the spectrum) it violates the librarianly ethic of access.

I’m on the side of the reader and moving things so readers can’t access them and having to ask the scary bearded dude at the desk is a form of preventing access for loads of people, not just kids. My view is that words are words and we can’t prevent people from having access to dangerous ideas just because they’re young. The library has to be a safe place to explore unsafe ideas.

But that’s my opinion. Librarians also argue that having racist material in the library makes it an unwelcoming place, an unsafe place like the rest of our settler society, and that inclusion has to be more of a concern that privileged white intellectual freedom nerds make it. I’m not having that language hurled at me with intent to dehumanize, so my claims it should be in the library could be taken to mean I value free speech more than actual people.

In my view that’s where the collection and the programming have different roles. I try to lean more on the side of inclusion and sensitivity when it comes to doing things in the library, and intellectual freedom when it comes to materials in the library.

I’m talking about this because this is where the tension is, not because I’m right or providing some cautionary example or whatever. It is just not as simple as people banning books because they say “fuck” in them or whatever, and that’s what I hope you get out of this.

Lastly, I’ve just got to put in my plug for my third ethic. To explore dangerous ideas safely you need to be able to do it privately, which is why when kids ask for information I damned well find them for them. You don’t ask for a parent’s permission even if it is an 11-year-old looking for Mein Kampf. That’s what our ethics of supporting Access to Knowledge, Intellectual Freedom, and Privacy come down to.


The post-talk discussion went into some interesting places including how the class had already talked about the continuum of where students are at, and triggers, and the guerrilla tactics groups can use to manipulate the public library to keep books they don’t like out of circulation without issuing formal challenges. It was a good time.

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