Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Book Removal v. Book Embargo

[Cross-posted on The Agitator.]

Julian reminds us that it’s Banned Book Week, and then he observes that the American Library Association’s definition of a “challenged” book is rather broad, spanning everything “from someone demanding that a book be pulled from the shelves of a town's public or school library, to parents complaining to a teacher that their child's a bit young yet to be assigned Book X.” The latter is presumably a good deal more justifiable than the former.

Julian hopes that attempts to pull books from the shelves are “pretty much always unsuccessful,” and I’m with him. But I wonder if opposing such removals is effective in the long run. Removing books from the shelf and never putting them there in the first place are functionally equivalent policies, at least for sufficiently attentive school boards. And scarcity of funds and space means the acquisition process is unavoidably discriminatory; including some books means excluding others. If free-speech advocates successfully stymied all attempts to remove books from library shelves, I suspect it would have an almost negligible impact on the diversity of reading material in public libraries (except for older volumes that were “grandfathered in”). All the banning action would shift to the acquisition front.

All of which emphasizes, I think, the importance of Julian’s brief asides about school choice (“Insert requisite if-only-we-had-vouchers line here,” he says parenthetically, and later, “it'd sure be nice if parents had more options for putting their kids in another school when they had such serious problems with the curriculum”). Freedom-of-expression isn’t really about having a comprehensive pornography collection in every public library; it’s about being able to choose the kind of library (or book store) you want. In the educational context, it means being able to choose the sort of school that maintains the kind of library collection you think appropriate for your own children, without forcing that same choice on other children. The one-size-fits-all public school system makes that kind of choice impossible.


Amy Phillips said...

Actually, because of the scarcity of resources you noted, removing a book and never putting it on the shelf in the first place are not functionally equivalent. If the library buys a copy of Are You There God? It's Me Margaret for, say, $10 and then removes it from the shelf a month later, that means that kids browsing in that library have $10 worth of books less than they would have if the book had never been purchased in the first place.

Librarians now have an incentive to refrain from acquiring controversial books because they might later be banned, throwing the money spent on them down the drain. If I'm in charge of buying $100 worth of new books for the children's section of the library, I might choose not to buy Heather Has Two Mommies if I'm worried it might be pulled because I'd rather spend that money on a book the kids will actually get to read. That means that if we succeed in getting rid of or stigmatizing book banning, librarians might be more likely than they are now to buy controversial books, because they'd know there was a smaller chance that they'd later have to pull the book, putting that money to waste.

Glen Whitman said...

Amy -- That's why I put in the qualifier "at least for sufficiently attentive school boards." If no one's paying attention, librarians can acquire controversial titles and then protect them with a no-removal rule. But if people are paying attention -- and the Christian right seems to have plenty of manpower for this kind of thing -- then librarians' discretion can be curtailed. In terms of the availability of controversial titles, the result is functionally equivalent.

And it's functionally equivalent in terms of resource use, too, if librarians anticipate book removals as you say. If they don't buy the controversial titles in the first place, then the money's not wasted.

Mike at Knowledgeproblem said...

I agree with amy phillips, removing a book and not acquiring a book are not functionally equivalent. She sees that librarians may begin to avoid controversial books in order to get the most out of a limited budget. Another effect of shifting the action to the "acquisition front" is to impose a significantly higher burden on the book challengers.

The battle on the "removing front" is for a very small set of books: those on the library shelf or assigned by a teacher. By comparison, the set of books to review on the acquisition front is huge, including potentially all books in print. Librarians have tools - magazines, newsletters, websites - to help them choose which books to acquire. If challenges must be made at the acquisition stage, the challengers must sort through these same materials. However, the challengers’ assessment will be more resource intensive than the librarian’s assessment. Because challenges are often based on the appearance of certain words deemed offensive (for example, racial or ethnic stereotypes), or how certain kinds of events are depicted (sex, drugs, and violence), challengers have to comb through the entire text. Librarians, on the other hand, can rely upon the reputation of an author and a few trusted reviews. So, purely as a strategic move, shifting the battle to the acquisition front will disadvantage challengers.

There is one more possible consequence of shifting the battlefront. Because the universe of possible books is so large, fighting on the acquisition front should have the effect of pushing parties involved to consider the issues at a more abstract level. No one has the resources to assess all possible books, so as shorthand one enunciates principles for challenging or defending books. A beneficial effect, in my view.