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.

book review: still a man’s world – men who do “women’s work”

I heard about Christine Williams’ book Still a Man’s World on Twitter in the context of discussing how silencing within the profession of librarianship works. It was a fascinating read, and even though it was written almost 20 years ago, everything but the contemporary stats still seem relevant (at least in regards to librarianship).

The book talks about how gender works in four predominantly female jobs: librarian, elementary school teacher, social worker and nurse. There’s a chapter on how these professions became associated with women (previous to the late nineteenth century these were populated by men) but the bulk of it is a sociological analysis of what it’s like to be a male in these predominantly female professions, and how different it is from being a female in a male dominated profession.

One of the biggest differences comes in the form of the glass escalator for males. This is the phenomenon where you find far more male administrators and other higher-ups than you’d expect from the pure demographics. Part of this has to do with promoting men out of front-line jobs to get them into a zone where tradition says it “makes more sense” to have men (like as the principal of an elementary school rather than a kindergarten teacher). Some of this has to do with how the corporate structure of even these female dominated workplaces rewards a lifestyle that puts the job first ahead of any other life-considerations.

There’s a chapter on masculinity in these professions and how that’s seen as a rare and special thing that needs to be protected and rewarded, as compared with women in male jobs who have to assimilate themselves. There’s a need to show that despite doing women’s work we’re still masculine. Obviously, this is why so many male librarians are bearded. Another thing is how males tend to self-segregate into parts of the profession deemed a bit more acceptable. So a lot of male librarians tend towards the techie side of things, or academic libraries rather than being children’s librarians.

I think some things (in librarianship at least) have changed since the book was written. There were a lot more men getting library degrees in my classes than back in the early 1990s when the people were interviewed for this book. Also, it’s kind of cute how people talk about these professions as being easy to get a job in.

It probably isn’t the most rigorous academic book, though Williams does include an appendix on her methodology that gives the whole thing a bit more oomph than mere anecdote. A cursory look at Google Scholar sees the book cited a few hundred times and not in any obviously disparaging way.

In any case, I found it very interesting as one of these men working in a “female” profession. I know I get a lot more credit (from parents and employers, actual and potential) for working with kids than a female version of me would, and I think it’s good to be conscious of that kind of thing.

book review: disciplined minds

I read Jeff Schmidt’s book Disciplined Minds: A Critical Look at Salaried Professionals and the Soul-Battering System That Shapes Their Lives because of a conversation between a bunch of newly-/almost-graduated librarchivists I know talking about the terrible job prospects in our chosen field. Now, a week from being done with my library schooling, the book was an interesting perspective what this training had prepared me for and how.

The big thesis of Disciplined Minds is that the main difference between a professional and a nonprofessional is that non-professionals are only allowed to do non-creative things, while professionals do the creative work. This is often why people engage in the paper chase for degrees; they want to be able to do the fulfilling interesting parts of the job, not just the rote mundane things. But creative people don’t necessarily do things that their superiors want them to do, which is why they need to be professionally trained; they need to be trusted that they won’t act against the system’s interests. The book talks about how professional training is designed to make professionals into reliable servants of the hierarchical system of society’s status quo.

These students scramble to figure out the rules of the game in their university graduate department or professional school, and then they literally compete to adjust themselves appropriately. Being not merely adjustable, but self-adjusting, they are good students in the eyes of the faculty. For the same reason they will be good professionals in the eyes of their employers. These students do not simply refrain from acts of insubordination, such as challenging the training institution’s agenda or criticizing the ways that agenda reflects the needs of the larger system. Rather, they enthusiastically embrace the system of professional qualification and defend the qualifying examination. The personal strategy of these skilled submissives is to play the game: to use the qualifying examination to demonstrate on the system’s terms that they are “good” (that is, well-adapted), to be certified with a credential and to get a job with a new set of rules to submit to. In short this means integrating themselves into the system, being dwarfed by it but surviving, if not as independent forces for change in society, then at least as well-fed biological entities serving the status quo.

Jeff Schmidt draws a lot of his examples from the world of physics academia, which is his background, and I have to say that the worlds he describes are much harsher than whatever I experienced in either of my professional degrees (neither of which had certification/qualifying exams like passing the bar or whatever). But it’s still there. The first term core is really crappy at our school, filled with busy-work that serves little purpose but to ensure that you’re capable of following orders and engaging in alienated labour (work that you feel no connection to).

And then there’s the job hunt. Trying to convince people that you will be a good employee is a recipe for soul-crushing. From the book:

It is vital to the system that the losers serve the hierarchy respectfully, and not sabotage it, when they find themselves with jobs that have lower social status than the society of “unlimited opportunity” had led them to expect… Those who say “That’s life” should understand that there is nothing natural about a system that kills the spirit of large numbers of people by first putting them in a position where they need opportunity, then promising them virtually unlimited opportunity and finally making them losers.

That about sums up what it’s like looking for a library job in the current system.

I’d like to think that in general librarians are different than the professionals Schmidt describes, but I can see how we are inculcated with certain values that will help us be good workers in systems, not necessarily good individual thinkers. Librarchivism does seem to have a better focus on its social benefit to society than Physics though. And the hum of free-speech and preserving institutional memory ideals in the background does influence how we’re taught. I have friends who are beginning their training to become teachers this fall, and I’m really interested to see how their professional training experiences match up to mine (and each others’ since they’re going to different universities).

The final section of Schmidt’s book is about how to be a radical professional, and the emphasis there is on identifying as a challenger of the status quo first, not as a professional. This means having solidarity with non-professionals and challenging for what is better for society and the people we serve than our bosses. I like to think that’s part of librarianship anyway, but am not completely naïve. I’m glad I have colleagues who are more radical than me to challenge me to not just get swept up in politics as usual as I try to be an employed librarian.

All in all, a fascinating book. I’d love to see a more contemporary book like this (which is from 2000) written in the smaller-scale Canadian system.

stranger in a strange land children’s literature conference recap

I hadn’t been on an organizing committee before last year, when I joined up to be the Website Coordinator for the Stranger in a Strange Land Children’s Literature Conference. It was kind of a funny situation, since I was in Australia when I signed up, but being the web person meant I could do all my work remotely anyway. I set up the website, found us a Creative Commons licensed graphic to use, got the web registration forms set up to work with the Vancouver Children’s Literature Roundtable PayPal account, and generally made things accessible to the internet. It worked pretty well. I also did some techy stuff at the conference, helping to make sure people’s presentations worked okay.

On a more personal note, at the conference I presented my first paper. It’s called Unreliable Instructions and I made the slides for my presentation public. We only had fifteen minutes to present our work, so I had to bail out before I reached the “librarians have to change the world!” bits, but it went okay. I tend to have more passion than clarity when I’m presenting something to people, especially if there’s a time limit and I’m not being asked questions. I need to know what the audience gets and what they’re confused by so I don’t waste words explaining what everyone knows. Nobody asked any questions in the session, since my critical literacy stuff ended up being much less practical or theoretical than the other presenters. I was primarily talking about stories by China Mieville and Terry Pratchett and how they encourage critical literacy.

My favourite part of the conference was actually afterwards talking about YA books with one of the Creative Writing presenters. We talked about The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao and Ship Breaker and man, reader advisory is my favourite thing in the world.

Happily, I get to use that love next week at the BCLA conference, where I’ll be on the “Ain’t on the Globe and Mail Bestseller List” panel. We’ll be talking about books that don’t get much attention from libraries. That’s restricted to 90 seconds per book, which suits my presentation style quite well. I’ll be presenting indie comics and games, because that’s the kind of thing I do. It should be fun and it’s cool that Shirley thought of me for it.

mukurtu – content management with cultural protocols

My absolute favourite presentation of the IFLA Indigenous Knowledges Conference came on Saturday afternoon, when Kim Christen talked about Mukurtu an indigenous community-focused open-source content management system they’ve been developing. It’s based on Drupal and has cultural protocols (those issues of who can see what kind of information in a culture that I talked about earlier) baked right into the system. The Plateau People’s Web Portal is a site built with the system, and the

Whereas in many museum and archive settings knowledge is “given,” here we have sought to create a space to open dialogue and allow many perspectives to sit side by side. Instead of “finding” information, the portal seeks to be a space where knowledge is created in constant conversation.

I love this kind of thing, all using the technology to build something to satisfy the community’s requirements instead of fitting the community into the tech. So fucking good. Oh and wait, there’s more.

The Mukurtu project is also developing Traditional Knowledge licenses (and labels for now). These are being designed to apply to knowledge that is out of copyright and in the public domain (which has traditionally been a way for white folks to use traditional knowledge artifacts out of context and in kind of terrible ways) and to give more information about how that knowledge should be used respectfully. Our little corner of library school students in the back was giddy and cheering at this point.

Myron and I talked to Kim Christen after her talk and she talked about how Creative Commons is great for artists and writers working today, but it falls apart with traditional culture (and copyright has never worked). The fact that people are working on this kind of issue, and not just making vague blanket statements is exciting and is the kind of thing that library schools (like UBC’s SLAIS) should be getting involved in.

ifla indigenous knowledges conference response/reflection

I got to attend the IFLA Indigenous Knowledges Conference because of the research project I’m working on about IFLA (the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions), and there was a lot of good stuff.

One of the big issues I find myself thinking hard about when thinking about aboriginal information issues and especially Traditional Knowledge is the notion that there’s some information that people just shouldn’t see (because it’s sacred stuff, and if you aren’t a priest you don’t have the proper context, to simplify it down a lot). Not being religious and being a Creative Commons/Open Access loving kind of guy, my hackles go up at the idea that communities would obstruct the free flow of information I see librarians as being instrumental in (I commented on this a little bit last year after attending a colloquium on Digital Repatriation). But I’m also a big fan of Community-Led Library issues, learning from the communities you’re serving instead of coming in with solutions in search of problems (the whole “improve society by facilitating knowledge creation in their communities” new librarianship deal works really well in this context). So I came into this conference ready to learn stuff that we don’t talk a lot about in our more traditionally focused courses.

And learn stuff I did.

Val Napoleon talked about the way oral cultures and knowledge representation is gaining legitimacy in the Canadian legal system as law, not just a cultural artifact. She also talked about how lofty principles are kind of meaningless without application and consultation. Community Consultation and Informed Prior Consent were recurrent themes throughout the two days.

Another recurrent theme was the situation of knowledge in place. This is one of those ideas that’s completely foreign to me. I don’t have any deep connection with any place, and for me the digital future is interesting because of its disconnection from a location, that I can go anywhere and bring all my stories with me. But that’s not the only way to think of things. Recordings are a crutch and they separate the stories from the people and without stories you become the walking dead, said Cry Rock, a video that was presented.

On Friday afternoon people were talking about indigenous training methods and indigenous subject heading and knowledge organization which was very interesting, but a bit annoying that the guy on the panel spoke about his (admittedly neat) online dictionary for as long as the three women did combined. On Twitter I referred to him as a white guy, but that was an assumption on my part, since I didn’t hear how he self-identified. The self-identification of where everyone was from and who they were was fascinating throughout the conference. And the thanking of the Musqueam nation for hosting the conference on their unceded land. I can’t remember ever hearing that kind of acknowledgment of land issues back in Winnipeg, but it happens a lot at UBC and did in Sydney too.

Oh, thinking of Sydney, on Saturday Alana Garwood-Houng was talking about Traditional Knowledge and copyright issues in regards to WIPO, but while there were some good things happening in that realm, there are also terrible human rights abuses going on in the Northern Territory. It was an emotional issue (check Stand for Freedom for the video she showed us) and she stressed that protecting cultural knowledge is important but protecting people and their human rights needs to come first.

I’m going to give my favourite part of the conference its own post, but in general, that was my experience with it. There were some boring parts, and I think IFLA missed the point of conversation about intellectual property issues in its Guiding Principles document they presented. Grand Chief Ed John called them out on their “respect for human rights so long as… access to information is unimpeded.” I’m all for access to information (remember, I’m a CC-loving info-sharing librarian) but I think serving the community has to come first. Harald von Hielmcrone did say there’s no human right to look through someone’s private papers, but the Guiding Principles bury that sentiment (if it’s there) in bureaucratically hellish clauses and doublespeak. I am not a fan of policy documents, I guess.

I am a fan of this conference and the information I came away with. I didn’t network as much as I should, but I was tweeting and taking notes. Hopefully this response was useful. It was only the first conference of a bunch this summer, so expect more of these writeups. I hope the rest will spark such cool shifts in perspective.

penultimate semester complete

I am perilously close to being done my library-student career and getting back to full-on librarianhood (I’m of the opinion that being a librarian isn’t contingent on having a specific degree, but YMMV).

Today I handed in my last paper of the term. It was a really fun one to write because I incorporated analysis of children’s literature and its repressive/educative nature and the kind of books that fight that sort of thing. It’s probably a little more polemical than it strictly needed to be, but I prefer writing with something to defend. I’ll be presenting this paper (after I get it back and incorporate Judi’s edits) at the Stranger in a Strange Land Children’s Literature Conference in a couple of weeks.

I had a very good semester. My courses were fun and informative (even the management course). I have heaps of classic Children’s Literature bibliographies to be working from when I’m in Children’s Departments. My class on Youth Services was supremely interesting and I feel I got a lot of background to dealing with Young Adults, and maybe more importantly learned who to be reading in the professional literature to do a good job working in that kind of role in the future. Also, I got to make my book trailer, which A.S. King linked to on her blog, so that’s a few kinds of cool.

The other thing I did today was go to a talk on Youth Community Informatics by Bertram Chip Bruce. It was an interesting talk about education being difficult to study as part of a community, even though it’s integral to community. Community informatics got some cautionary notes about how putting the technology first can ignore the critical dialogues that need to be taking place in a democracy. They did some interesting projects like helping with Community Asset Mapping for a Chicago neighbourhood that cab-drivers won’t take you to. But my favourite takeaway from the talk was this idea of Community as Curriculum, which states that people need to:

  1. learn about the world in a connected way
  2. learn how to act responsibly in the world
  3. learn how to transform the world – to give back to the community

I don’t think of myself as an educator or anything, but that’s the kind of thing I can see myself being a part of in the library world. I’ve decided that YA services are probably where I want to be working, which is a good thing to have figured out as I start looking for jobs. I’m planning on using skills I learned in my cataloguing, instructional role and social media courses, and I’m definitely not sorry I went to Australia and got some Systems Librarian experience, but YA services feel like they’re where I’d do my best work, and actually be helping to transform the world. Maybe not as much as a teacher, but in a role much more suited to me.

And there we go, my reflections on my semester. I have two-and-a-third more courses to finish by the end of August. Hopefully I’ll be able to find work for when I’m done.