By: Rebecca Slocum
Al Franken: Giant of the Senate. The Babbo Cookbook. Dark Knights: Metal. The Art of the Deal.
What do all of these titles have in common? They are all written or edited by high-profile men who are amongst the growing list of those currently facing allegations of sexual misconduct or assault. Some admit guilt in response to the accusations and have issued apologies; some deny any and all claims of wrong doing. Many have been released from their positions by CEOs who do not wish to have their company associated with these allegations. And for good reason. Because despite the legal right of presumed innocence until one is proven guilty, it is difficult for those accused of sexual misconduct and/or assault to disassociate themselves, and their work, from the shadow of being accused. Now, I’m not here to judge these men one way or the other. I am here, however, to defend the rights of people to have access to and read the books these men have written.
In 2016, following the 2015 charges against Bill Cosby for drugging and sexually assaulting a woman, the Little Bill series, written by the famous actor/comedian, became the first title to join the Top Ten Challenged Books based solely on the author’s actions rather than the content of the book. If this incident establishes a pattern, librarians could very well be looking at a host of future challenges to the above titles, as well as others.
Why is that? The Babbo Cookbook, by Mario Batali, is a book of Italian recipes. Dark Knights: Metal, edited by Eddie Berganza, is about the Justice League battling evil versions of Batman. The content of these books is not typical of the books found on frequently challenged lists. However, just as Cosby’s books are now associated with the actions of the author, it seems the works of other high-profile men could be cemented with their alleged behavior. As ALA Director of the Office for Intellectual Freedom James LaRue states, “I think it’s our fascination with celebrity. If we love the person we love everything about him. If we hate the person we hate everything about him. We don’t seem to be able to separate the message from the messenger.”
What Can We Do?
So, how do we as librarians prepare to handle these potential challenges based on an author’s behavior? The same way we would handle a potential challenge based on the book’s content.
A challenge is defined as an attempt to remove or restrict a book from an individual library’s collection, based on a person’s or people’s objections. So, first and foremost, ensure that your library’s materials selection policy is clearly outlined and available to patrons. It should include the procedure for the review of challenged library materials. It is easier to defend including a book in the collection when the patron can clearly understand the reasons for why it was chosen.
Second, be familiar and familiarize your staff with how to handle an oral complaint or concern. Respectfully explain that the library strives to select materials that serve everyone in the community and represent a wide variety of viewpoints; and while it is certainly their right to express their disapproval of certain materials, other patrons may not harbor that same viewpoint of the material. Oftentimes, patrons simply want to voice their disapproval and feel that a concerned librarian has heard them.
Of course, applying these two measures does not always successfully prevent formal challenges from occurring. In those instances, ensure that the reconsideration procedure is being followed. And report the challenge! We need light shined on these instances if we’re going to provide the best defense. If further assistance is needed, the Office for Intellectual Freedom is a wealth of resources and support for librarians experiencing challenges to their collection.
Indeed, however difficult it might be to differentiate the men who authored these books from their words on the page, it is vital to our First Amendment rights and the promotion of intellectual freedom that we do not let that difficulty interfere with our duties as librarians. Patrons possess, and should continue to hold, the right to decide for themselves whether or not they want to read these materials.
Rebecca Slocum has worked in education as a teacher and library consultant for the last five years and is a recent MLIS graduate student from the University of North Texas. She is interested in issues involving intellectual freedom, censorship, and collection development in school libraries. In her spare time, Rebecca enjoys reading, writing, running, and roaming the world. Currently, she stays at home caring for her son and writes at her blog, The Dewey Decimator. Find her on Twitter @bcslocum.