Review: Which Side Are You On


Which Side Are You On?Elaine Harger. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2016.

Summary: An account of seven debates in the American Library Association Council over matters of social responsibility and how this body exerts its influence in broader social debates.

Most of us have the impressions of libraries as sedate places with librarians who are helpful, interested in serving the reading and information needs of patrons, and knowledgeable about the resources they have at hand. The most political act of most librarians seems to be supporting “Banned Books Months,” featuring attempts to remove books from circulation that patrons or others may deem objectionable.

This last is actually the tip of the iceberg according to Elaine Harger, who has served as a Councilor-at-Large within the American Library Association (ALA) and on the Social Responsibilities Round Table. In this book, she recounts what appear to have been lively and contested debates around seven issues that suggest a far from sedate, sometimes contentious, and sometimes very politically motivated association. In the course of these debates she explores some challenging issues such as the conflicts between intellectual freedom, censorship, and social justice; the tension between patron privacy and protection from surveillance and national security; relating to corporate partners whose products or views conflict with the social consciousness of librarians; and even the difference between stated views around climate change and climate unfriendly practices.

The first debate concerns the re-issuance of a 1975 film called The Speaker concerning the controversial race and gene theory ideas of William Shockley. Originally an ALA expose’, over the years it was deemed moral offensive to minority communities and its reissuance and presence on YouTube raised the ire of many, while receiving calls of intellectual freedom from others.

The second concerns the banning of anti-apartheid books in South Africa and how the ALA along with other library groups would advocate against this practice and boycott South African vendors. The third confronts a somewhat similar issue in Israeli and Occupied Territories and the censorship of materials deemed a threat to the State of Israel. Here interests favoring Israel and those opposing censorship clashed seriously.

The fourth and fifth debates concerned corporate partners. In the fourth, the concern was the sponsorship of McDonald’s of children’s reading programs, with its corporate logos prominent on all the materials. Can an organization concerned with the deleterious effects of the fast food sold on the McDonald’s menu work with such a corporate partner. This is even more tendentious with the Boy Scouts, an organization who had long worked in promoting reading with Scouts but whose positions around excluding homosexual boys and adult leaders from participation made it unsupportable.

The sixth discussion turns on privacy concerns, particularly in the face of Edward Snowden’s release through Wikileaks of massive amounts of documentation showing the extent of government electronic surveillance intrusion into all of our lives. For librarians concerned with patron privacy (that their searches, borrowed materials records, and other electronic activity with the library remain private), this was an issue that struck close to home. Yet a resolution to not only decry this intrusion upon Fourth Amendment rights but also to support whistleblowers like Snowden, although passed, was pulled for a tamer substitute because of pressures from the ALA’s Washington office.

The final debate, more a personal cry of the heart of the author concerns the gap between statements of concern around climate change and activities from cross-country travel to uses of resources and energy that conflict with the avowed seriousness of concern for climate change. One of the most interesting parts of this chapter was the author’s personal testimony and example that including resigning her Councilor position and restricting her airline travel because of her concerns.

The chapters give detailed accounts of these debates including transcripts of some discussions and various parliamentary maneuvers. I suspect that this may be of greatest interest to “library insiders” but I found several things fascinating:

  1. I’m glad librarians are concerned and speaking out about Fourth Amendment intrusions upon privacy. I wonder if librarians might also exercise a greater role in educating patrons on how to protect personal information from identity theft and from parties that might use personal information in other ways to their disadvantage.
  2. It is intriguing that librarians, as curators of information, may privilege certain forms of information to the exclusion of others. Even if there is intellectual freedom, if socially unacceptable views are not accessible, this can amount to a subtle form of censorship. In particular, many of our current social debates are framed in a very binary fashion, in which a person who does not fully embrace the socially privileged view is pigeonholed with the benighted “others”. Thoughtful dissenters from social orthodoxy are easily lumped in with outright bigots. My question is, will librarians allow a civil and pluralistic public square of ideas, even conflicting ideas, to flourish?
  3. It was striking to me that this association is hardly immune to political pressures from right or left. Its effectiveness would seem to rest in its skill to adequately represent its constituents, be transparent in its processes, and courageous when it takes positions and encounters opposition.
  4. The author’s final chapter underscores a great challenge any of us working in the knowledge world face. We can talk a better game than we live. Praxis is just as important as the positions we take.

I do think the title of this work is interesting. “Which side are you on?” conjures up a vision of those who are right, those who are wrong. Yet one wonders if it is really that simple in the library or the real world. It also suggests a form of conflict resolution with winners and losers. As I mention above, we love to create binaries, excluding the possibilities of third options, which may be possible at least in some cases. There certainly are some evils simply to be resisted, but not all things are like that in society. Often, better resolutions come as we understand situations better and also have a better sense of the range of options available. Librarians, it seems to me have a unique access to such information, that suggests the potential that they may contribute uniquely and significantly to conflict resolution where there are people of good will.

“Which side are you on?” may accurately reflect the social responsibility debates of the last twenty-five years in library circles. Who will be the people in the library world and elsewhere who frame a different “come together” conversation? I hope I will see that book someday.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher via LibraryThing. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

What Do These Have in Common?

Bible and Fifty

You might say both have very frank portrayals of human sexuality and some steamy reading (you have read Song of Solomon have you not?) and you would not be wrong. What may surprise you is that both made the top ten most challenged books of 2015 with Fifty Shades coming in number two and the Bible number six. Here is the list, including reasons challenged, which is compiled by the American Library Association’s Office of Intellectual Freedom each year and published during National Library Week:

  1. Looking for Alaska, by John Green
    Reasons: Offensive language, sexually explicit, and unsuited for age group.
  2. Fifty Shades of Grey, by E. L. James
    Reasons: Sexually explicit, unsuited to age group, and other (“poorly written,” “concerns that a group of teenagers will want to try it”).
  3. I Am Jazz, by Jessica Herthel and Jazz Jennings
    Reasons: Inaccurate, homosexuality, sex education, religious viewpoint, and unsuited for age group.
  4. Beyond Magenta: Transgender Teens Speak Out, by Susan Kuklin
    Reasons: Anti-family, offensive language, homosexuality, sex education, political viewpoint, religious viewpoint, unsuited for age group, and other (“wants to remove from collection to ward off complaints”).
  5. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, by Mark Haddon
    Reasons: Offensive language, religious viewpoint, unsuited for age group, and other (“profanity and atheism”).
  6. The Holy Bible
    Reasons: Religious viewpoint.
  7. Fun Home, by Alison Bechdel
    Reasons: Violence and other (“graphic images”).
  8. Habibi, by Craig Thompson
    Reasons: Nudity, sexually explicit, and unsuited for age group.
  9. Nasreen’s Secret School: A True Story from Afghanistan, by Jeanette Winter
    Reasons: Religious viewpoint, unsuited to age group, and violence.
  10. Two Boys Kissing, by David Levithan
    Reasons: Homosexuality and other (“condones public displays of affection”).

I was actually disappointed that no one complained about the sexually explicit or violent material in the Bible, which is honest about both. Basically, sexuality-related concerns, language, violence, and religious viewpoints dominate the list.

There are several things about the challenged book list that bother me both about the phenomenon of challenging books and compiling lists.

  1. It strikes me that this is another instance of manufactured outrage. This past year there was a grand total of 275 challenges, down from 311 the previous year. This is 5.5 challenges per state, and less than one challenge for every million people in this country. There are nearly 120,000 libraries of various kinds in this country. This is one challenge for every 436 libraries. While challenging books is just plain stupid, which I will say more about, this does not seem to be such a big crisis, and is decreasing in frequency. Compared to opioid addiction, gun violence, labor and sex trafficking, or our broken political discourse, this rates pretty far down the list.
  2. What one doesn’t hear is that a challenge is simply a request that materials be removed from a library or school because of content or appropriateness. I’m curious about whether any books have actually been “banned”. My suspicion is that a number of these complaints come when the books are assigned and there are no alternates provided, or when parents, students, and/or teachers handle such situations ineptly.
  3. I wonder if those who challenge books realize that they are probably vastly expanding the circulation of a book. This years list will certainly be featured in late September during “Banned Books Week” which I contend is a misnomer because books are rarely if never banned in this country, and in fact the books’ circulation and sales are enhanced during these weeks as the books are featured at bookstores and by online vendors. (For a person of faith like myself, I wonder if this will increase sales of the Bible as well, which I think would be cool.)
  4. I do think the attempt to challenge or ban a book is stupid and subject to the “what’s good for the goose is good for the gander” rule, illustrated by the inclusion of the Bible in this list. It is also stupid because books are so easily accessible through a variety of means including a few taps on the screen of a smartphone.
  5. Finally, this obscures the hidden ways books are “banned” by those who curate libraries and bookstores. New authors, or writers voicing an unpopular opinion may be “banned” even if their book is technically for sale on Amazon. All librarians and booksellers decide not to acquire some books, but there is no outrage about this. The only outrage is when a relatively popular book, or trending book among the literati, is challenged, even when it is realized that the challenge is futile.

What is fascinating is that we rarely hear of books banned as part of the systematic suppression of human rights in others countries. Nor are those the books featured in the Banned Books Week promotions, in most cases. So while I will admit to being a fan of libraries and think banning books to be stupid as well as unconstitutional, I wonder if the ALA and all who care about literacy might spend more time during National Library Week and throughout the year talking, not of “banned” books but better books. We can read only so many books in our lives and associations like the ALA can serve us by pointing us to things worthy of our attention (and in fact many libraries are doing just that). Those are the lists I want to see!

Why “Banning” Books is Self-Defeating

We recently “celebrated” another Banned Books Week (September 21-27). Personally, I’ve always thought the strategy of banning books to be self-defeating. Rarely does it work, and even if it does, it just calls attention to the book that was banned or challenged and moves it up in ranking on the banned books lists. And it is just un-American to suppress free speech.

Actually, I think this plays right into the hands of libraries and booksellers who have a field day publicizing the books that have been challenged (the vast majority) or banned (a relative few). During Banned Books Week, any library or bookstore worth its stripes features “the list” of banned books making them readily available for borrowing or buying. Often this is accompanied with attractive posters celebrating our “freedom to read”. Part of the attraction is the age old attraction of what seems to be “forbidden fruit.”

What is surprising to me are the relatively small numbers of challenges a year–roughly 300 to 500 in a given year according to the American Library Association website. There are 120,096 libraries of all kinds in the US. There are 13,588 public school systems in the country. And we are a nation of over 300 million people. It seems like a pretty big brouhaha over a relatively small number of challenges, most of which are unsuccessful.

One wonders at some of the books that are challenged or banned–To Kill a Mockingbird, Of Mice and Men, Fahrenheit 451, A Wrinkle in Time, and Brave New World among them. Sure, some of these books have adult themes, but it seems to me that it might be better to discuss these in a classroom (and at home with mom and dad) rather than to furtively read these on the sly. Some of the others seem to be more the trendy “coming of age” fiction that often gets featured for teen readers. I suspect no one will read any of this in fifty years–they won’t need to be banned. In case you are interested, here is the list of those banned or challenged most in the last decade. The one surprise for me was that The Joy of Gay Sex came in at number 78!

I have to say I am curious why some of these are used in classrooms but I wouldn’t try to ban them. I suspect that part of the answer is that teachers think they can get students to read these books and are doubtful about some of greater worth. Our own philosophy when we were doing the parenting thing was one not of banning books but trying to foster a taste for what we thought were better books. Rather than say, “don’t eat those hot dogs” we wanted to say “why don’t you try a bit of this really good steak.” Could it be that the mark of a good reading teacher is not just the percent of his or her students who pass proficiency exams but how many of their students develop a love for reading and what kinds of books their students read?

The one thing that I think teachers and librarians might think about is the question of what books are they saying “no” to in order to say “yes” to the ones they use in classes or purchase for libraries. Are there certain kinds of books, or certain perspectives that are not represented? Inevitably choices are made. It is often harder to figure out what is not there, but this too is a kind of banning of books, not in the overt sense of asking for a book not to be used in a class or removed from the shelves. Rather, it is the book that is never seen or not used. Those who “curate” these choices have a special responsibility to make sure that their own ideological commitments don’t bias their choices.

What seems far more constructive though less sensational than trying to ban books is to share in your home and other settings the books you think of worth and buy them from local booksellers, give them as gifts, and request them from your library. In an age of limited shelf space, circulation certainly drives selection, just as sales drive what is in stock. Rather than banning books, hopefully we can cultivate a society that wants and recognizes better books that nurture in us the good, the true, and the beautiful.