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.