sex drugs and intellectual freedom

Some Thoughts on Intellectual Freedom, Plurality and the West Bend Library Book challenge

Wisconsin readers of SDIF may already be aware of the ongoing books challenge in West Bend, WI. Local Fox6 News has a video clip on the matter here (though you may cringe at its rhetorical pandering to this absurd construct collectively known as “the culture wars.” At least I did.)

While the situation has blown up into a call for the removal of certain GLBTQ books by the local religious community, that was not originally the case. Initially, (as I have come to understand it) the challenge centered around the book lists on the West Bend library’s website for Young Adults. A mother was concerned that the GLBTQ book list contained, in her mind, only pro-gay literature (whatever that means). Her request was that some sort of alternative viewpoint (specifically, a Christian-based homophobic one) be represented there as well. Presumably, this would come in the form of Christian “conversion” literature. That is, literature claiming that through Christian faith, one can overcome (or, in some iterations, “cure”) their homosexuality.

Now, this post is not intended to address the ideological battle over whether or not homosexuality is some sort of “sin.” I will state that I am certain it is not a sin, and that to believe otherwise is to engage in bigotry, plain and simple. I further believe that “conversion” literature has no place in a public library’s Young Adult section (or, in most cases, any section). But, again, while I am more than happy to argue why elsewhere, I do not look to do so here.

Rather, I would like to address some of the discussions among library and information science students and professionals that I have been privy to as of late. Specifically, I would like to address what seems to be a common consensus that, in the name of Intellectual Freedom, the GLBTQ books should not be removed and that some sort of “conversion” literature should be necessarily added to the collection.

In short: I find this quick consensus to be alarming and, frankly, dangerous.

I am concerned by the ease with which some LIS students and professionals (i.e. librarians, library scholars, etc…) are willing to concede that the simple addition of some sort of justifiably vetted “conversion” literature is the appropriate redress of the complaining party’s grievances. (For the sake of this discussion, I will leave off my reservations that any sort of “conversion” literature can ever be justifiably vetted. I will presume that, sure, maybe there is some sort of sufficient process.) More than that, I am taken aback by the short-sighted moral certitude the same people seem to have that a simple plurality of viewpoints is not just a sufficient appeasement, but actually the right thing to do. It is not that simple. I will return to why in a moment…

MLIS students (that is, students pursuing a Masters in Library and Information Science), have all encountered – almost without exception – the “you need a Masters to shelve books?” inquiry. Yes. Yes, you do. Advanced study is required of LIS professionals because concepts such as collection development, community involvement, and institutional management require more knowledge than an undergraduate degree can be reasonably expected to instill. Being a librarian involves struggling with some of the most complex issues in business, education, urban planning, public relations, and entertainment, just to name a few.

Presumably, librarians work hard to cultivate the collections in their libraries. A library collection contains (hopefully) a plurality of voices, viewpoints, genres, identities, and concepts. However, once assembled, the collection becomes an object in and of itself. Shaped by its contents, a collection ultimately represents a single voice, a single viewpoint, a single genre, a single identity, and a single concept. (Not unlike the way a writer may have a multitude of influences, experiences, and references, but ultimately combines them into a single work, or multiple works into a single ouerve.) In that respect, adding a book to a collection is not as simple as running it through the library system, slapping on a barcode, and putting it on the shelf.

Adding a book does not just change one thing (i.e. the presence or absence of a given book in the collection), it changes everything. I turn to Neil Postman for illustration: say you have a glass of water and a drop of red dye. If you add the dye to the water you don’t get a glass of water with a single drop of dye—you get a glass of red water. Changing one thing changes everything. Adding one piece of “conversion” literature changes the entire scope of a collection that previously held no examples of such literature. As library professionals, we should ask ourselves, “what will our collections say if we add this book (or these books)?” I make no claim as to what every potential outcome of such an inquiry will be. However, if we wish to maintain any sort of intellectual authority and credibility as professionals in the field of information, we must consider the issue on this level. That is to say, we must consider the issue not just practically, but critically and ideationally as well.

It is also important to note that a defense of Intellectual Freedom should not equal a defense of simple plurality. If a simple plurality of viewpoints, expressions, and ideas were all that were necessary for a free and just civil society, surely we would have obtained one by now. But, as Michael Walzer clearly demonstrates in Spheres of Justice, society is much more complex than that. A simple plurality of viewpoints may be workable for a sort of Rawlsian “hypothetical man” – one with no preconceived notions of who he is or where he comes from – but it will not work on our complex American society. Simply adding books to a local library collection in order to appease a challenge will not automatically result in a more intellectually free local citizenry.

Now, I am not trying to imply that Christian “conversion” literature (or other such materials) should automatically be disqualified from inclusion in a collection (I think there are some pretty airtight and reasonable arguments as to why they should be excluded in the case of West Bend, but as I mentioned earlier that is not at issue in this post). I am simply pointing out the shortsightedness of adding materials as a quick fix to a challenge such as the original one in West Bend. The addition of materials (or, for that matter, subtraction of materials) has implications that reach far beyond shelf space. To overlook this is to act recklessly and irresponsibly and, if we believe libraries to be in any way integral to a democratic society, it is flat out dangerous.

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2 Responses

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  1. Teen Librarian said, on 18 March 09 at 8:56 PM

    I couldn’t agree with you more! I am a teen librarian in Illinois and I dread the day that this happens to me. I am sure this blindsided the teen librarian there, and something like this could happen to anyone who serves children and young adults.

    I feel that adding books for teens that affirm the ex-gay movement are just as harmful as adding books that say that cutting is good, or it’s ok to stay with the boyfriend who beats you. Those are all things that are harmful to the psyche of young adults. Adding books that basically tell teens that they should hate who they are is reckless and irresponsible. I really hope the West Bend board is being educated on this matter and will stand firm against adding this type of material, at least for teens. I would hate for a teen to walk in to my library and have the first book they pick up be a book about how their identity is somehow wrong.

    I will say this is a fascinating case, though. The issue of ‘banning’ of course starts a firestorm, but you’re right, people just don’t know how to respond to the accusation that their collection is somehow unbalanced. It’s a much more subtle way to apply pressure to the library to have a collection tailor-made to a specific person’s wishes. I feel that this type of sly, backdoor challenge is almost more dangerous than an outright attempt to take a book off the shelf.

    Good luck to Kristin, the West Bend librarian! I hope her board supports her and helps her stand her ground.

  2. […] is a very problematic request, a fact made clear by SOIS grad student Tony Hoffmann at his Sex, Drugs, and Intellectual Freedom blog. Time will tell if this demand will continue to be put forward by the “West Bend Citizens for […]

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