Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Is it Black and White or more “Grey”?

In order to survive one must have a plan and I think it is not only insightful, it is necessary (Asato, 2011).  I’m not sure how often censorship matters come up in the public library setting today.  When I was working in a public library, we didn’t have many controversies, at least ones I can remeber.  However, as I posted previously, the Fifty Shades of Grey caused quite a stir in some Florida counties this past year. 

So it may be easy to say “I would stand for intellectual freedom,” but could we today as we navigate our lives during the worst financial crisis in generations?  It’s a point worth thinking about for our institutions and ourselves.  We have mortgages, car payments.  Some of us have children.  We all have bills to pay.  Would we really be expected to lose our jobs over a Fifty Shades of Grey?  Would we be willing to sacrifice public funding over Fifty Shades of Grey?  Is this book “important” enough or do we pick our battles and wait for “better literature”? 

We can look to the past for guidance.  Two areas of censorship are fascinating and possibly quite disturbing.  The first occurred immediately after World War II in response to the growing “Red Scare” and the rise of McCarthyism.  The second involves the post-9/11 threat and the removal of GPO documents.

During the late 1940’s and early 1950’s, the New York Public Library and its librarians often came under attack because of the content of its holdings or because of some associations it had with scholars (Francoeur, 2011).  The library was able to weather these storms and “survive” by taking a pragmatic approach.  When its personnel was attacked using “red-baiting techniques” it vigorously defended them.  Many times, however, when general attacks were levied in the press, it would use the influence of its powerful board members to obtain relief, usually through retractions.  When interest groups challenged its holdings, the NYPL would hide behind bureaucratic language in giving a vague response.  Lastly, when controversy appeared to be on the horizon, the NYPL would quietly change its conduct to avoid drawing its attention to itself and its “questionable” holdings (Francoeur, 2011). 

So in this drastically repressive age, the NYPL survived by being flexible.  It should be noted that the library never destroyed or banned any of its “questionable” material.  It just hid them.

More recently are our experiences with the USA PATRIOT Act (USAPA).  After the events of 9/11, the federal government sought expanded surveillance powers.  In casting its net, the USAPA targeted libraries as an area of concern because of the availability of computer terminals for public use and the nature of the library as a repository of information, some of it governmental. 

Libraries were uniquely aware of such situations after the problems with the Library Awareness Program  (Matz, 2008).  They challenged such governmental invasions of privacy as required by the ALA Code of Ethics (ALA, 1996, 2004, 2008).  In 2002, the ALA had adopted guidelines for dealing with government requests for information.  When the ALA raised issues with the USAPA, Attorney general John Ashcroft dismissed them as “breathless reports and baseless hysteria” (Matz, 2008, p. 77). 

Unfortunately, in 2005, breathless and hysterical librarians in Connecticut were issued with a request for information that included a gag order, prohibiting them from discussing the case or even the fact that they were litigants in Doe v. Gonzales, the style of the case after the Connecticut library consortium decided to challenge the request.  Eventually the consortium was successful in court. 

The response of the Connecticut library consortium was helped by the fact that the ALA had guidelines in place for government requests and had been constantly educating its membership regarding the USAPA.  It took a lot of personal courage by the librarians because if they violated the gag order, they were subject to criminal penalties (Matz, 2008). 

However, could we do the same if the stakes were not so high?  What if it didn’t involve such weighty constitutional issues?  Would we be willing to lose our jobs for a romance novel?  Perhaps the answer isn’t black and white, but “grey”. 


American Library Association. (1996). Library Bill of Rights, http://www.ala.org/advocacy/ intfreedom/librarybill, accessed on November 7, 2012.

American Library Association. (2004). Core values of librarianship, http://www.ala.org/offices/oif/statementspols/corevaluesstatement/corevalues, accessed on November 17, 2012. 

American Library Association. (2008). Code of ethics of the American Library Association, http://www.ala.org/advocacy/proethics/codeofethics/codeethics, accessed on November 17, 2012. 

Asato, N. (2011). The Origins of the Freedom to Read Foundation: Public Librarians' Campaign to Establish a Legal Defense against Library Censorship. Public Library Quarterly, 30(4), 286-306. doi:10.1080/01616846.2011.625598 

Francoeur, S. (2011). Prudence and Controversy: The New York Public Library Response to Post-War Anti-Communist Pressures. Library & Information History, 27(3), 140-160.

Matz, C. (2008). Libraries and the USA PATRIOT Act: Values in Conflict. Journal Of Library Administration, 47(3/4), 69-87.

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