Weeding vs. Censorship: A Personal Experience

On Wednesday April 27th, 2016, I went to a brown bag event sponsored by my program’s American Library Association group. The brown bag was with the Director of the ALA Office of Intellectual Freedom, James LaRue. As a self-proclaimed radical librarian, intellectual freedom is something that is incredibly important to me, but also something that I struggle with. Often, as I have noticed, intellectual freedom goes hand in hand with professional neutrality. Neutrality, as a radical librarian, is something I believe is inherently impossible, and often harmful. So how do I promote and support a wide range of ideas and support intellectual freedom, while also being radical and anti-neutral?

Of course, at this point in my education, at lot of this turmoil is purely hypothetical. While I do work, I work at a reference desk in my academic library and do not participate in collection development. If a patron asks for sources on a topic, we provide them. Period. However, I recently started an internship at my university’s LGBT Resource Center with some other library students to help revitalize their small library collection. While I mainly work with cataloging/access types of duties, I had an experience last month with collection development that really made me do a lot of introspection.

The Incident

While I was working on a LibGuide to help students do research on LGBT topics using Library of Congress Subject Headings, my fellow interns were reorganizing the collection. Every once in a while, they would pull old, out of date books (such as old psychology texts about “the homosexual”). While the information in these books is most certainly incorrect and out of date, I would also double-check the main library system catalog to make sure a copy existed in the system before we pulled it, because we realized that this information might be important for historical research. Each book pulled came with no fuss.

Then we noticed that we had The Transsexual Empire: The Making of the She-Male by Janice Raymond. Janice Raymond is a radical feminist, which means she seeks to remove and dismantle male supremacy and patriarchy. Sounds great, right? It’s a label I wish I could reclaim. However, a lot of radical feminism is devoutly anti-trans. The text in question is especially against trans women. All three of us working saw it, and immediately had visceral reactions. “Throw it in the trash! Rip it up! Banish it!” We knew it had no place in a collection which aims to support everyone in the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and trans community. Even the director of the resource center was flabbergasted that we had the text in our collection. (The majority of the books and DVDs come from donations.)

Because of my aforementioned moral dilemmas with intellectual freedom and neutrality, I was more hesitant to have an all-out book burning party over this text. Was I censoring a belief, just because I found it systematically oppressive? Wasn’t this text important from a research standpoint? But then I had to remind myself that I did not have this dilemma while weeding the other out of date, maybe harmful psychology texts. So I just followed the same procedure and checked to make sure the main library system had at least one copy. Once that was verified, out it went.

The Dilemma

So why did I have this huge moment of doubt and professional angst over this text, and not the others? I’m not quite sure I have that answer. One reason might be that one of my professors, Dr. Emily Knox, who wrote a book about book banning and challenges, noted in a class I took this semester that book challenges do not just come from the religious and conservative right, but also from the liberal and progressive left. Hearing that type of language used for challenges from both the right and left really had me questioning; then my own personal incident happened.

While I think it was right to weed the book from this specific collection, this whole experience makes me wonder what I would have done for another collection, particularly a public library. Would I weed it because I thought it supported an inherently oppressive system and set of ideas? I don’t really know. Is it right to challenge books because they support an oppressive system? Does it actually change behaviors, does it change how those ideas are ingrained in society? Still don’t have those answers. Do I not trust my patrons to engage critically with texts and ideas?

I think, maybe, one of the most important things to remember is that maybe nothing is black and white, that context is important. And that historically, librarians have tried to police what people read. We have wanted to protect people from “bad books.” So maybe there are other ways I can fight the system than worrying about what people read. For instance, as a future cataloger, I can help advocate for better language in subject headings.

And apparently I’m not the only person having dilemmas about book challenges, so at least I’m in good company.

Have you ever had a similar dilemma?

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