Librarians Beware: Self-Censorship

Censorship, Intellectual Freedom Issues

By Andrea Jamison

“Conformity is perhaps natural to a time of accelerated change. And yet suppression is never more dangerous than in such a time of social tension.” – American Library Association

The words "Censored" in red block lettersThe idea of censoring books is something that should make any librarian cringe. Libraries are tasked with the responsibility of providing free access to resources and content to suffice the intellectual and social needs of a community. In doing so, librarians have to ensure that they curate book collections that expose patrons to diverse ideas and perspectives. The goal here is simple: to support the core values of librarianship as it pertains to the “rights of library users to read, seek information, and speak freely as guaranteed by the First Amendment.”

In selecting books, it’s not the popular opinion that librarians should seek. It is a myriad of opinions represented by books that reflect the social and intellectual diversity of the world. According to the American Library Association’s Freedom to Read statement, librarians should strive to support their patron’s constitutional rights, by upholding the following propositions:

  1. It is in the public interest for publishers and librarians to make available the widest diversity of views and expressions, including those that are unorthodox, unpopular, or considered dangerous by the majority.
  2. Publishers, librarians, and booksellers do not need to endorse every idea or presentation they make available. It would conflict with the public interest for them to establish their own political, moral, or aesthetic views as a standard for determining what should be published or circulated.
  3. It is contrary to the public interest for publishers or librarians to bar access to writings on the basis of the personal history or political affiliations of the author.
  4. There is no place in our society for efforts to coerce the taste of others, to confine adults to the reading matter deemed suitable for adolescents, or to inhibit the efforts of writers to achieve artistic expression.
  5. It is not in the public interest to force a reader to accept the prejudgment of a label characterizing any expression or its author as subversive or dangerous.
  6. It is the responsibility of publishers and librarians, as guardians of the people’s freedom to read, to contest encroachments upon that freedom by individuals or groups seeking to impose their own standards or tastes upon the community at large; and by the government whenever it seeks to reduce or deny public access to public information.
  7. It is the responsibility of publishers and librarians to give full meaning to the freedom to read by providing books that enrich the quality and diversity of thought and expression. By the exercise of this affirmative responsibility, they can demonstrate that the answer to a “bad” book is a good one, the answer to a “bad” idea is a good one.

The problem here is that theory doesn’t always translate into action. Recently librarians have come under scrutiny for engaging in actions, believed by some, to be contrary the professional values of librarianship. Dubbed self-censoring, there is a growing concern that many librarians are purposefully omitting certain books and content from library collections due to personal bias opposed to professional judgment. According to an article in the School Library Journal, self-censorship is “a dirty secret that no one in the profession wants to talk about or admit practicing. Yet everyone knows some librarians bypass good books—those with literary merit or that fill a need in their collections.”

A 2008 survey, conducted by the School Library Journal on self-censorship, revealed that school librarians are most culpable when it comes to this type of censoring. Survey results indicate that some school librarians admitted to self-censoring. Out of 653 schools librarians, many indicated a tendency to avoid books with “sexual content (87%), language (61%), violence (51%), homosexuality (47%), racism (34%), and religion (16%) because they are afraid of parental backlash.” Although backlash from parents may seem somewhat innocuous, there are more extreme reasons as to why librarians may self-censor — recall the Charlie Hebdo incident. Yet, self-censoring due to “fear” can become a slippery slope with consequences more disastrous than the fear itself.

The American Library Association urges librarians to think of the dangers to democracy as a result of censorship by maintaining the position that “freedom has given the United States the elasticity to endure strain. Freedom keeps open the path of novel and creative solutions and enables change to come by choice. Every silencing of a heresy, every enforcement of an orthodoxy, diminishes the toughness and resilience of our society and leaves it the less able to deal with controversy and difference.”

As we move into the future, it is definitely becoming more apparent that advocacy will play in integral role in librarianship. However, as we work to resolve some of the world’s problems, we have to ensure that we are not one of them.


Andrea JamisonAndrea Q. Jamison is a professional librarian, writer, and current Ph.D. student whose research involves examining the pervasive lack of diversity in literature. She has over 17 years of experience working in schools and libraries, and she is the author of two books: Against the Waterfalls and Super SonjaIn addition to her full-time duties in librarianship, she is a mom, Board Member for ALA’s Ethnic & Multicultural Information Exchange Roundtable, Chair for the EMIERT Multicultural Awards, reviewer for the School Library Journal, reviewer for Indieview, freelance writer, avid blogger, and social justice advocate. She also works with the Illinois School Library Media Association as a member of their advocacy and conference planning committees. Andrea thoroughly enjoys working with children and speaks nationally on issues related to creating diverse and inclusive learning spaces for youth. Find her on Twitter @achitownj.


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