Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Challenging Accusations of Censorship

Those who fight against censorship in our field are typically hailed for their commitment to intellectual freedom and their defense of the rights of children and teens to read and have access to a wide range of materials.

Those who challenge racism in our field are often vilified, and sometimes accused of being censors.

Last week in his RWW review of There Is a Tribe of Kids, Sam Bloom concluded that “it is not a book I will be personally sharing with (human) kids.” Sam did not say whether he or someone else would or would not purchase it for the library where he works. Still, author Roseanne Parry took Sam’s statement as an “invitation to censorship.”

If you don’t agree with Sam’s or Debbie Reese’s review of the book and their decision not to recommend it, that’s fine. We hope you read and reflected on what they had to say before making up your mind, but no one is demanding you agree with them. It’s a big leap, however, to go from disagreement to the suggestion or accusation of censorship.

It’s time to talk about the idea that critical analysis of a book resulting in the decision not to use or perhaps even purchase that book is censorship. We need to talk about it in theory, and we need to talk about it in practice, and we need to talk about in the context of challenging racism in children’s and young adult literature.

From Theory to Practice

The principles of intellectual freedom are foundational to the work of librarians, and to our lives as citizens.

The work of challenging racism is also foundational to both, critical to the well-being of all citizens and the future of our democracy.

Can these two foundational things coexist? Absolutely, even as we acknowledge it’s not always easy to hold them both in the same hand.

Let’s be honest, however. The principles of intellectual freedom have an uneasy coexistence with many of our daily decisions as librarians. They provide guiding ideals that our profession and our democracy rely on.  But when we put them into practice, the results are extraordinarily varied both across and within individual libraries because the jump from theory to practice is not necessarily clear-cut.  (There is a reason why our profession has both a brief Library Bill of Rights and a lengthy document offering interpretations of its points.)

The Hard Work of Selection

Among the misperceptions our profession struggles against, especially when facing a complaint or challenge, is that the library is either promoting a specific “agenda” or that anything goes when it comes to materials in the collection. In fact, nothing could (or should) be further from either truth.
Selection, as any librarian knows, is—or should be—a thoughtful process grounded in the library’s mission and stated criteria and guidelines for choosing books and other materials. Ideally these are outlined in a board-approved selection policy that affirms intellectual freedom and the Library Bill of Rights.

Selection can’t (or shouldn’t) be done by rote.  It requires holding the entire community a library is serving in one’s mind. It requires abandoning all assumptions about that community and striving to understand its many facets. It requires confronting fear. It requires moving into uncomfortable spaces.  It requires balancing budget considerations and myriad, sometimes competing interests to determine priorities and choices.  And of course, it requires making decisions without seeing most of the books or materials firsthand.

Selection is also a responsibility that is mired in subjectivity no matter how hard we try to avoid it, because it is a human activity. Even if all other factors are accounted for (and they never can be—even a vendor using some sort of algorithm began with human decision-making), even the most conscientious selector brings bias to the work.

Challenging Racism in the Collection

Let’s say a librarian decides not to purchase There Is a Tribe of Kids. Is it censorship?

The answer to that question is: I don’t know. You don’t either. Not without talking to that librarian and understanding the thinking behind the decision. Because that thinking is key. Is critical. And to make a blanket statement calling it censorship without knowing how that librarian came to the decision: whether they considered the book in light of their selection policy guidelines and criteria and in light of their budget and priorities, would be irresponsible.

It’s likely many libraries will purchase this book. But many individual librarians may choose not to highlight or feature it in displays or programming because of their concerns about racist imagery. Is that censorship?

No. In fact, there are many books in library collections that are likely never to disappear, because of popular appeal (the “Little House in the Big Woods” is one example that comes to mind). In truth, we believe it is the responsibility of librarians and educators to be aware of and understand these concerns, starting with popular works that have been around awhile, and NOT to feature or promote them. Let readers find them on their own if they choose.

Back to There Is a Tribe of Kids. Let’s say the book is not purchased by a librarian for a library collection specifically because of concerns it perpetuates stereotypes. Is that censorship?

Again, to make a blanket statement suggesting it’s censorship when a book is rejected without considering the context in which that decision was made is irresponsible. Some libraries, for example, have statements in their policies saying materials should be free of stereotype and bias. (See the comments of our “Not a Contradiction” post from last fall for a few examples of such language.)

And sure, you can argue that whether or not a book perpetuates racist stereotypes is a matter of perception and open to interpretation. And you can argue that library collections will always have things that offend. I can argue those points, too. I believe them. But I’m guessing no one would be up in arms or crying censorship if someone at a tribal library, or at a public library in a community with a large Native population, said they weren’t purchasing the book because of the imagery that’s been called out and questioned. Why should a librarian serving a predominantly White community, or a diverse, multiracial community, be any less concerned with its impact?

Librarians reject books for purchase all the time based on a variety of factors. (And too often, outside of large cities, those factors and the general mindset are weighted against diversity.)  We should be mindful of how we make selection decisions. We should ask questions. But choosing not to purchase a book because of criticism that it perpetuates stereotypes isn’t necessarily the same as choosing not to purchase a book with gay, lesbian, or transgender content out of fear it will be challenged, or because it goes against one’s personal or religious values.  No policy supports fear-based decision making. No policy supports decisions grounded in personal bias. No policy (I hope) supports excluding particular groups from representation in the collection. But neither does any policy prescribe what MUST be purchased.

Collection development is a responsibility that relies on professional judgment and knowledge. And even as we see efforts beginning to address cultural competency among reviewers in professional journals and on selection committees, the fact is that people of color and from First/Native Nations are underrepresented within the traditional structures and systems in which books are created and evaluated. And too many librarians are oblivious to this. Yet if we are to make truly informed collection decisions--if we are to be truly knowledgeable--we need to understand that fact. We need to listen to and consider the voices of people of color and Native critics in forums where they have a voice. Because I can promise you this: kids will never stop “playing Indian” if they continue to see books and images that normalize and even romanticize it.

It isn’t an abandonment of the principles of intellectual freedom if a decision not to purchase an individual book is one made in service to a thoughtful and informed understanding of the library selection policy.

And it isn’t censorship to choose not to share or promote or feature a book that is in the library collection.

We’ve said it before on this blog: the principles of intellectual freedom are paramount to the work we all do, but context matters, and no text is sacred.

Censorship is serious. Racism is serious. Let’s not diminish the hard work of confronting either by brandishing one against the other. Instead, let’s acknowledge that this work being done is messy and complicated and challenging, but also that it needs to be done.


Jonathan Hunt said...

I agree with much of what you have written here, but since you seem genuinely puzzled about the similarities between censorship and anti-racist selection, I will try to make that connection more explicit without annoying you too much in the process.

"Again, to make a blanket statement suggesting it’s censorship when a book is rejected without considering the context in which that decision was made is irresponsible."

While I wholeheartedly believe this, I would also question whether it is equally irresponsible to make blanket statements about the myriad and varied reading responses to a particular book, in this case THERE IS A TRIBE OF KIDS, without considering the context of those readings.

In the recent RWW discussion of this book, both Sarah Hamburg and Pat Enciso articulately noted that any benign readings of the book must be balanced with the malignant readings for any kind of holistic assessment of the text. If the benign readings are privileged over the malignant readings, or if we pretend they are equally weighted, then we lack the moral authority to demand a change in behavior from the various gatekeepers.

This view of things also seems to exist in tension with reader response theory, the idea that meaning does not reside in the text alone (or the intention of the author), but rather the interaction of the reader with the text. Thus, the context of a reading for THERE IS A TRIBE OF KIDS could include both the connotation of the word "tribe" evoked in each individual reader and the associations that those final two spreads elicit from each individual reader, whether that is Peter Pan, Mowgli, the Green Man, the Greek God Pan, the Swiss Family Robinson, or American Indians, along with general and specific experiences of racism, cumulative experiences of racist images in media and popular culture, and aesthetic preferences about picture books, not to mention additional political and social contexts too numerous to name. While it's easy to group our responses to THERE IS A TRIBE OF KIDS in several different ways, each of us has come to our response through a distinctly different path, albeit one that converges and diverges with the paths that others have taken to arrive at their readings. Since reader response theory places the reader at the center of this whole experience, it can be disconcerting to have somebody say that your reading (and thus your context) is incorrect, incomplete, or incompatible. Disconcerting as a White person, yes, but also as a Reader person.

Jonathan Hunt said...

It takes some negotiation to get from a very reader-centric reader response theory to this community-centric response that RWW posits. I don't know whether this is a good metaphor, but often the latter reminds me of Schrodinger's cat because it requires readers to hold both possibilities in their mind, rather than having the good/bad dichotomy; perhaps it's also apt because these difficult conversations about racism often feel like conversations about quantum mechanics. ;-)

Reader response theory celebrates and encourages a wide range of readings of a text with an implicit understanding that the sharing of those divergent readings enriches the experience for all parties involved in the conversation. Accusations of censorship come into play when readers feel like they do not have the freedom to interpret the text according to their own experiences, when they are made to feel that there are not many valid ways to read the text (A, B, C, or D), but rather one way, and only one way (A, B, or C--and D). This seems very similar to the demands that censors often make, but not identical: "Because I read the text one way (A), I don't really care how anybody else reads the text."

I understand that nobody is claiming that THERE IS A TRIBE OF KIDS in and of itself is problematic, but rather that it's the context of the book (the cumulative representations of Native Americans in tandem with lived experiences) that make it so. But since we all experience different representations of Native Americans and have different lived experiences, it stands to reason that we'll all have arrive at our responses through distinctly different paths, however convergent or divergent they may be. Many Native children will be deeply harmed by THERE IS A TRIBE OF KIDS, some not as much. Many white children will be fed images that will create harmful stereotypes in their minds; some not as much. And, of course, there may be adults and children, Native or otherwise, who have only a positive experience with the book, taking nothing negative from it at all. Compounding this range of experiences is the fact that literature is often wildly unpredictable in the responses it can provoke. Intellectual freedom advocates don't necessarily deny that books cause real harm; just that they don't cause harm unilaterally.

I'll be the first to admit that I'm not always successful at negotiating that uneasy tension between racism and censorship, and as I struggle to find a way to build that bridge more consistently, I see a possibility on the horizon. While we may not be able to agree on just how problematic THERE IS A TRIBE OF KIDS is, I think we can build consensus around the idea that an increase of Native voices in children's literature can only be a good thing: more Native authors, more Native illustrators, more Native teachers, more Native scholars, more Native publishers, more Native librarians, more Native editors, more Native award committee members. In short, more Native gatekeepers. I know there are many facets to RWW, and while these mixed reviews of particular titles are important because they push at our thinking, I also think the positive reviews and guest posts are equally so. Keep up the good work, and thanks for the stimulating conversation! :-)

Ernie Cox said...

Did Rosenblatt discuss race and White privilege in her theory? It seems like the concerns about censorship are prompted by seeing responses that run counter to the typical ones in our profession. Readers can change the way they respond to text as they encounter new information and ideas (if the reader is open to looking at bias and gaps).

Roger Sutton said...

Megan, can you think of a hypothetical case in which a librarian's decision not to purchase A Tribe of Kids WOULD be censorship?

Megan Schliesman said...

Hypothetically…if a librarian were to make a decision not to purchase that book or any book based solely on their personal response and personal values rather than in light of the library selection policy.

Part of the messiness of all of this is that it isn’t always easy to tease out how that decision-making was arrived at. But I believe when someone is making collection decisions based first and foremost on their personal values, they are aware of it, whether they will admit it or not.

People often talk about “slippery slopes” when referencing censorship and self-censorship. I know I do. I think a librarian making collection decisions based on their own opinions rather than the library’s stated mission and role and selection criteria is struggling on that slippery slope—or perhaps is simply at the bottom.

(As an aside, when we talk about self-censorship, we think of someone who is letting their personal feelings influence selection, whether those feelings are rooted in fear or a sense of moral superiority. I think it can work both ways, though. I think emotional attachment TO a book can be just as blinding in a professional context, whether it’s a teacher who is still choosing "The Sign of the Beaver" as a read-aloud, or a librarian who struggles to let go of a favorite book for storytime despite criticism that it’s racist.) (Sorry I don’t have an example off the top of my head. I'm sorry to say that I'm guessing others can offer some up.)

There is room for different decisions within the framework of professionally responsible decision-making. Of course there is—we don’t all have identical communities or collections, or policies, for that matter. We don’t all interpret the tenets of our policies the same way. Individual librarians inevitably influence a collection by the choices they make, even within the framework of the selection policy.

The fact that librarians make choices is a key concept here, one I’ve been thinking about in light of all of this and in light of Lester Asheim’s writing on selection versus censorship. His ideas, like the principles of intellectual freedom themselves, are something I value, but how they operate in the real world is not simple. Just about every librarian doing collection development is working with limited funds, for example--they have to pick and choose. Is it censorship to prioritize one book over another? That’s reality when working within the framework of a selection policy. And I think another question we need to ask as we challenge the status quo when it comes to diversity and representation in library collections is “ok, but what am I NOT going to be able to get if I purchase this?” Because diverse books are not prioritized in too many libraries even though they reflect the world in which all children live.

Allie Jane Bruce said...

Megan, thank you so much for naming the phenomenon of being TOO emotionally attached to a problematic book (perhaps in spite of collection development policies that should encourage one to let it go) as a flip side of censorship--I think we need a name for this. Nostalgism?

Jamalia Higgins said...

One part of the selection process that hasn't really been fully unpacked, though mentioned in passing by Megan ("And of course, it requires making decisions without seeing most of the books or materials firsthand"), is that for many libraries, pre-ordering a new Lane Smith picture book would be done without a second thought. The book arrives and is processed and goes out into the collection. THEN a "controversy" (or discussion, or whatever we might want to call this) erupts. At this point, is it more controversial to remove the book from a collection?

Even titles that have been pulled from bookstores such as plagiarized titles, or a case like "A Birthday Cake for George Washington" are sometimes retained in libraries for purposes of community curiosity or archival reasons.

So although this is an interesting exercise to consider whether or not a library should choose to add a book with potentially controversial aspects to its collection, I think a far more practical discussion would be what to do with it now that it's in.

Megan Schliesman said...

That's a great point Jamalia. I think it can get a lot murkier once it's in the collection. It's one thing if you see it and reject it before that point. And maybe adding it is going to be the decision regardless .But I think/hope discussions like this may lead to different decisions about, say, featuring it in a story time.

Roger Sutton said...

Megan, I like your point about the distinction between what the library has in its collection and what the librarian chooses to share or recommend. I used to know a children's librarian who was a GREAT librarian and was also a devout Evangelical who believed that witches were real and did harm. She would not read witch stories at story time but had plenty of witchy books in the collection. But while I find it easy to assent to the accommodation here, I do wonder how our personal points of view play into things like displays and lists. What are some other people's thoughts (if I'm not too much off-topic)?

Sam Bloom said...

Roger, I DEFINITELY bring my own personal point of view when it comes to displays, lists, story time/book talk choices, etc. (I'm at a public library.) Sure, we have books on the shelf that I find problematic for a variety of reasons. So I won't include those titles in my displays, lists, story times or book talks. The same way I would tell a beginning children's librarian to make sure he/she picks books they are comfortable reading aloud at story times (in other words, don't get so married to a theme that you become penned in with your book choices), I stick with books I'm comfortable recommending in ALL of the above things... so obviously that does NOT include something I find problematic.

Allie Jane Bruce said...

Roger, you're right--our personal views do come into play, 100% of the time. They come into play whether we intend it or not, whether we think they do or not. The idea that we can somehow achieve "neutral" is a falsehood. The thing about being White, though, is that we often can't see our White lenses because we're not marginalized along that identifier (I am hyper-aware of what it's like to view the world through a woman's lens, but find it much harder to name and identify the lenses I have as a White, cisgender, heterosexual, non-disabled person). So we get to think of ourselves as neutral, rather than culturally-influenced, because White is seen as so "default". I've had some real wake-up moments around books, and these moments are less about realizing or determining that a certain book is or isn't problematic, and more about me saying "WOAH. I have a lens that makes me view the world a particular way. That's not just 'the way things are.' I can see my lens now." That's why I think it's important to keep having conversations about books that we disagree on. The education to be gained is invaluable.

Rosanne Parry said...

I'm so glad this conversation is still going and has taken this particular turn. When I first responded to Sam on my blog saying the post was an invitation to censorship, I was thinking of censorship on the part of the writer before their work is even sent out to agents and editors, which is an entirely different kettle of fish than this thread. Nonetheless, I think what has been shared is very helpful. I also appreciated the Hornbook podcast on this subject. Collection development is so tricky and I'm grateful for the librarians who work so hard at it. I have two thoughts to add.

I appreciated what Jamalia had to say about retaining problematic texts in a library. When I am researching a topic for a book, I rely on the depth of a libraries collection more than anything. For example years ago I wrote an adapted tall tale from the Pecos Bill tradition for a school curriculum. I looked at what was contemporarily available, but I gained the most from older books from the 1940s and even one from the 1920s. Both of these had racially offensive illustrations but they had richer language and a form closer to the ballad which is likely to be more closely allied with an original oral tradition. It was also clear that the older versions had a slight nationalistic agenda not found in later versions. It would have been irresponsible of me not to take that prior text into consideration even as I strove to fashion something kinder and more useful out of old cloth. The scholar doing research and the writer working on an adaptation is not well served by expunging the library of insensitive material. I think taking those books and also titles like A Birthday Cake for George Washington out of the children's collection and into a research collection is perhaps the most responsible choice--minimizing current harm without denying its existence.

The other issue of which I'm painfully aware is how much of a school library's collection development is dictated by the budget and the presence of a school librarian trained in librarianship. Though we are immersed in big picture politics at the moment, I would encourage everyone who cares about these issues to invest time in your local school board meetings and to speak up on behalf of library funding and in particular in retaining trained librarians in all of our public schools. For many kids, particularly the most vulnerable among them, the school library is their only access to books. And the voices of individuals in the local community can make a big impact there.

Unknown said...

You know, as a writer, I engage in the kind of self-censorship you allude to, Rosanne, all the time. I decide to write certain topics, certain perspectives, certain events, to use certain words and not others all the time--that is exactly what writers do. It's my job. I do it in order to focus the reader's attention on certain things and not others, and I do it in order to create beauty with language. Doing it well is why I get paid for my stories.

If Sam's review invites writers to be more aware of the possibility of invoking racist stereotypes in their writing, and thus avoid doing so, I think that is all the better. If they decide to go ahead and invoke those stereotypes anyway, that will be a decision not made in ignorance. I just don't see how this kind of awareness for writers/illustrators could be a bad thing.