I am discovering that writing about censorship is really hard. How to talk about…what we don’t talk about? The whole point of this blog is to make more noise about what librarians do, to make the argument for an undervalued profession. Not just making the case to others, but for fellow professionals. Where is our collective voice? Teachers or nurses don’t seem to have a problem kicking up a fuss when some new policy or curriculum etc is detrimental to their work. And I still think overall, we need to be doing this.
However, I have been thinking about censorship in school libraries, after reading about authors of YA novels being asked to ‘straighten’ gay characters by literary agents, and joining in the subsequent #YesGayYA debate on twitter. A year ago, I blogged about searching for and providing LGBT themed teen fiction. No wonder it is hard to find this material, if it never even makes it to a publisher!
In my experience, school libraries can cater for the 11-16 age group better than any public library service. The impression I have is that a good school library has more YA fiction in stock than a branch public library. The teen fiction section in a public library is a bit of a niche, whereas it is the bread and butter of school libraries. Plus, public libraries and also bookshops seem to underestimate the age range materials will appeal to which is why I dislike age-banding on books so much. Maybe they work fine for kids who frequent book shops and read a lot, for the school population as a whole, absolutely way off. Way, way off!
Anyway, I digress! The point is, a lot of people have something to say about what is or isn’t suitable for an 11 year-old. People are a lot more reluctant to tell a 16, 17 or 18 year old what they can or can’t read. School libraries straddle that age gap. I’ve been fortunate to not face many challenges to materials but absolutely it happens all the time, and not just in Bible Belt America. We just don’t talk about it very much and tend to deal with issues one book or one incident at a time. I think the (unspoken) rationale might be that to draw attention to library services too much might invite more intrusion.
There have been times when I have dithered over whether or not to withdraw or stock a book and part of that is being aware of being against censorship. Sometimes it is even an self-censorship to avoid controversy. Whoever sanctioned the title and cover (someone sticking up two fingers) for Bali Rai’s ‘Politics – Cutting Through the Crap’ should have spared a thought for school librarians! Yes they want that book to appeal to teenagers, and I’m pretty sure it would, and what with libraries being a cornerstone of democracy nothing would make me happier than getting teenagers getting informed. But could it be just a little bit less sweary on the cover? I want to get the information to the kids…I don’t want to be stopped by teachers or parents.
I suppose this is how not really talking about censorship is itself a part of our professional stance against it. I know some school librarians were quietly ignoring ‘section 28’ while it was in place, for example (Section 28 was a UK law which forbid local authorities from “promoting” homosexuality. It was repealed in 2000). To have ignored it loudly could have lead to censorship so being ‘noisy’ would have actually lead to library materials being withdrawn. The whole issue is very tricky. Maybe we should never speak of it again, forget I said anything…
…or perhaps we need to act collectively, so that we know that when an individual librarian in a school somewhere is being pressured to take a totally age-appropriate book about sex or relationships or whatever it may be, we back each other up as a profession as a whole. Which would mean CILIP or other equivalents putting some work into our professional ethics and standards. Which is a topic for another time…