The ALA believes that all censorship and all challenges (attempts of censorship) are evil and inappropriate. It invokes the first amendment for all occasions of censorship, although the first amendment specifically refers to the government prohibiting the publication of materials. Courts have broadened the interpretation of the first amendment somewhat, but the basic premise of total censoring (for all people at all time) is still intact.
One consequence of the ALA’s broad “censorship” definition is that certain of its own [“good censorship”] practices are virtually identical with what it considers bad censorship practices.
First, Libraries themselves practice this “good censorship” when they acquire books according to their “collection development policy.” Libraries have limited funds and limited space, and are unable to purchase every book that is published. They are even unable to represent every point of view on every topic, as much as they might desire to do so. It is physically impossible. No worries, though. “The right of every individual to both seek and receive information from all points of view without restriction” [i.e., intellectual freedom] is untouched regardless of what information is contained in the library. Still, the library cannot even fulfill a promise to provide information from all points of view. It makes little sense, therefore to cast a would be censor as an opponent of intellectual freedom, since the library itself falls short of even providing all viewpoints.
Let’s use a specific example. A patron arrives at a library to deliver a written concern about a book in the library. He offers specific reasons that the book is of insufficient literary and moral quality to justify its inclusion in a liberal library. The librarian informs the gentleman that he is an opponent of intellectual freedom (an incorrect accusation since he has not suggested that those who wish to purchase these books on their own be forbidden to do so) and acting contrary to the first amendment (also an incorrect accusation since he is in no way suggesting that the government take action against the publisher or the purchasers or the book). The librarian informs him that the library is morally obligated to include all points of view, and therefore the book must stay. This last statement is incorrect as well, since it is physically impossible to include all points of view as the library might like to do. Furthermore, the moral obligation is obviously an idealogical fantasy.
Moreover, the gentleman offering an objection has delivered the same sort of criteria that the library must use when choosing and excluding a book. In rejecting the validity of a patron offering an objection, the library has become a gatekeeper of knowledge and ideas, refusing to consider the same sort of critique that they themselves use to include and exclude books.
But, the ALA responds, the library is not a censor, because they follow an inclusive process (choosing diverse materials), not an exclusive process (not choosing certain materials) that the would-be censor uses.
No library can make everything available, and selection decisions must be made. Selection is an inclusive process, where the library affirmatively seeks out materials which will serve its mission of providing a broad diversity of points of view and subject matter. By contrast, censorship is an exclusive process, by which individuals or institutions seek to deny access to or otherwise suppress ideas and information because they find those ideas offensive and do not want others to have access to them. There are many objective reasons unrelated to the ideas expressed in materials that a library might decide not to add those materials to its collection: redundancy, lack of community interest, expense, space, etc. Unless the decision is based on a disapproval of the ideas expressed and desire to keep those ideas away from public access, a decision not to select materials for a library collection is not censorship. (“Intellectual Freedom and Censorship Q and A” http://www.ala.org/ala/aboutala/offices/oif/basics/ifcensorshipqanda.pdf, accessed 10/02/08)
(For a more expansive treatment, see Lester Asheim, “Not Censorship But Selection,” http://www.ala.org/ala/aboutala/offices/oif/basics/notcensorship.cfm accessed 10/02/08 )
The problem of this position is threefold. First, by making the distinction one of motives, the ALA forces librarians to choose based on the lowest common denominator (i.e., “If I want to exclude this, or if I find it morally repugnant, I must include it; otherwise I’m censoring”). It is thus easier philosophically to exclude books of average reputation and content than books with less than average reputation and content. Such an approach faithfully followed guarantees a library disproportionately representing moral values that are at odds with most of our society. (In fairness, I suspect many librarians in practice do not follow the philosophy that the ALA espouses, and do in fact make exclusionary decisions based on moral content. I am not so confident that the average librarian recognizes the inconsistency between ideology and practice.)
Second, it denies the reality that librarians clearly make choices of inclusion by many subjective criteria.
Not the least of importance, where the library makes a choice of inclusion, he necessarily excludes. His motives matter not. Some point of view is excluded.
Now, it is desirable to offer a variety of viewpoints on important topics. A library can greatly enhance the intellectual development of its patrons with a well-stocked library (few would argue that a library of comic books would fulfill this goal). In particular in the arena of ideas, an understanding of both sides of an issue can be useful. But not all viewpoints are of equal quality and value, and the library is not morally bound to include them.
Truly more than Pulitzer and Newbery winners adorn the library shelves, but certainly a library that is concerned about well-informed citizens (Censorship Q & A) will employ some literary and ideological standards. These are subjective, as academic scholars humbly, if not reluctantly, admit from time to time.
It is reasonable to acknowledge, therefore, that at some point, librarians will make decisions that may be disagreeable to others. One person may complain that novels by Nathaniel Hawthorne are nowhere to be found in the library, with the library responding that these novels do not fit the criteria used for inclusion. It is not a bad effect; it is natural and expected when an institution has limited funds and is in good faith attempting to provide materials that will appeal to a broad spectrum of people. It should not be a problem that some materials are excluded for a variety of reasons, including that the materials are judged to be inappropriate for some reason. And if books with high literary value are to be preferred, why is it somehow inappropriate to prefer books with high moral value? Both criteria are subjective and open for disagreement.
I am not thus arguing that a variety of viewpoints be excluded from a library, but that a library is not morally obligated to provide them, that the library must make a subjective decision to include (and thus exclude) texts, that these decisions are fallible, and finally, that a process of appeal must be allowed and encouraged to retain the academic integrity of ideas. The only way to prevent libraries from being de facto gatekeepers of knowledge is to allow and encourage democratic challenges. This is another example of good censorship.
For example, if Library A chooses not to purchase Why War Is Never a Good Idea, on the basis that it believes the book inappropriate for the targeted audience (an opinion also expressed by the respected Publishers Weekly in their review), it in no way prevents the book from being published. It has not violated the first amendment in any way. Any parent is capable of purchasing the book for himself or herself; so intellectual freedom is intact. True, library acquisitions do provide a market for books such as this one, and without library support, such books might die sooner rather than later. Yet the choice to purchase a book better suited to a young audience (admittedly a subjective decision) has been made, and time will tell if the decision is good or bad.
If Library B chooses to purchase Why War Is Never a Good Idea, on the basis that the book is appropriate (even though some may find it objectionable) and of literary merit, fitting with its collection development policy, http://www.ala.org/ala/mgrps/divs/acrl/publications/rbm/backissuesrbmlvo/smyth.PDF http://www.ala.org/ala/aboutala/hqops/publishing/booklist_publications/booklist/insidebooklist/booklistpolicy/booklistselection.cfm it has done so in good faith. I may disagree with Library B’s evaluation, but Library B has acted entirely appropriately. They have done no evil in making a subjective decision about including a book; however, time will tell if Library B’s decision is good or bad.
In both cases, Libraries A and B make subjective calls that should be open for democratic review. Disallowing accountability within the community in essence allows the library to be a sole decision maker for the death or life of a book, something Milton argued against in his treatise on the freedom of the press.
Till then Books were ever as freely admitted into the World as any other birth; the issue of the brain was no more stifl’d then the issue of the womb: no envious Juno sate cros-leg’d over the nativity of any mans intellectuall off spring; but if it prov’d a Monster, who denies, but that it was justly burnt, or sunk into the Sea.
In other words, Milton is not arguing that all books should be equally praised and nurtured. He is presenting an ideal situation where a single person (or group) does not prevent a book from being published. Significantly, he recognizes that after publication, books can be proven monsters, and in these cases he recognizes the morality of such books rejected by society (i.e., “justly burnt”).
Blackstone is also clear in his preference for societal correction, rather than a single person becoming the arbitrary and infallible judge of all controversy.
The liberty of the[p.1021]press is indeed essential to the nature of a free state; but this consists in laying no previous restraints upon publications, and not in freedom from censure for criminal matter when published. Every freeman has an undoubted right to lay what sentiments he pleases before the public; to forbid this, is to destroy the freedom of the press: but if he publishes what is improper, mischievous, or illegal, he must take the consequences of his own temerity. To subject the press to the restrictive power of a licenser, as was formerly done, both before and since the Revolution, is to subject all freedom of sentiment to the prejudices of one man, and make him the arbitrary and infallible judge of all controverted points in learning, religion and government. But to punish as the law does at present any dangerous or offensive writings, which, when published, shall on a fair and impartial trial be adjudged of a pernicious tendency, is necessary for the preservation of peace and good order, of government and religion, the only solid foundations of civil liberty. Thus, the will of individuals is still left free: the abuse only of that free will is the object of legal punishment. Neither is any restraint hereby laid upon freedom of thought or inquiry; liberty of private sentiment is still left; the disseminating, or making public, of bad sentiments, destructive to the ends of society, is the crime which society corrects.
The idea that all opinions deserve equal recognition and attention is foreign to these men, and they obviously recognize that some opinions will be excluded by this process of societal correction. The reason for preventing a single person from making the decision of what should be praised and rejected is that people are fallible; and so allowing society to correct bad material increases the likelihood of correct assessments.
Since a library must include and exclude materials, it is a part of societal evaluation. They are not like governments that prohibit and approve books. Rather than deny this fact, the library must acknowledge their role and simply encourage accountability from society as a whole.
I’m taking a long weekend off, and will conclude this section on good censorship Monday. Then we’ll talk about a specifically Christian approach for the rest of next week.