Freedom to Read… a simple phrase, but a complex topic.
I recently began my job at a local public library as the Branches and Collections Librarian. That latter part of my title infers that I am the go-to source for questions about the collection and, in turn, complaints.
Complaints are the inevitable part of any collection. Librarianship implies collecting information from any and all perspectives; what makes one person happy will make another discontent. The other day I experienced my first run in with this discontent about an item in our collection. We had a very upset patron complaining about indecency in our collection. Allure magazine published a celebrity photo shoot in their magazine in the May 2013 edition. In the photo shoot, four female celebrities posed nude, with carefully placed limbs to cover their private areas. Our patron was livid that we would allow this magazine to stay on our shelves. Children have the potential to see it if they decided to flip through the pages. The patron sought censorship of the magazine because of this photo shoot.
Censorship is a very real threat that libraries face on a daily basis. Challenges arise for a number of reasons such as moral, political or intellectual. Despite continuing challenges, our society is a strong proponent of the principle of intellectual freedom. Libraries are the gatekeepers for intellectual freedom, and it is our duty support and advocate for this freedom. People have a freedom to read, to express and view varying ideas. It is not up to any individual to hinder this freedom.
For my library’s collection we follow our Information_Resources_Development_and_Maintenance_Policy. This policy gives an in-depth look at where our collection focuses and how items are purchased. What is particularly important is that the policy outlines the key concepts of the library profession through the tenants of Freedom to Read and Freedom to View, as well as the Library Bill of Rights. Ultimately it is the library’s place to foster viewpoints for any number of places. Our policy simply states: “Widely diverse points of view, including controversial and unorthodox subjects, will be available in the collection.” Anyone can reject any particular item for themselves or for their own children, but may not hinder others rights.
However, on the other side of this, the patron has a right to question items in our collection as well. Our policy outlines the process for the review of materials. Formal conversation with the Assistant Director is the first step, followed by a written complaint, and then a review committee is formed of a Board member, the Assistant Director, and myself. The final step is an appeal of the committee’s decision to the Board. Fortunately, we have not had any complaints reach this level. For the most part complaints are informal and people object on a personal level but do not take it to the formal procedure. But complaints all over the country do make it this far on a regular basis and this is why we see Banned Book week in late September.
For the case of the Allure magazine our patron did not wish to take it further than a conversation with staff. The item remained on the shelf despite the request for its sequestration. Our policy is clear on this as well: “Responsibility for the reading, viewing and listening of children and young adults rests with their parents or legal guardians. Access is not restricted by the fact that children may obtain materials their parents consider objectionable.” While it is a great thing to have a clearly written policy on this topic, librarians should also be prepared for the complaints they will likely face in their career. Librarians are the guardians for Freedom to Read and need to hold this a sacred role.