By: Lisa Hoover
Curtis Memorial Library recently received a package in the mail containing the library’s paperback copy of “Why Grizzly Bears Should Wear Underpants” with strips of white tape and a note regarding the book and its appropriateness for children. I spoke with Melissa Orth, the teen librarian at Curtis Memorial, about the experience.
The book is a collection of comics by Matthew Inman of The Oatmeal.com. According to Amazon, “you’ll be treated to the hilarity of “The Crap We Put Up with Getting On and Off an Airplane,” “Why Captain Higgins Is My Favorite Parasitic Flatworm,” “This Is How I Feel about Buying Apps,” “6 Things You Really Don’t Need to Take a Photo of,” and much more. Along with lambasting the latest culture crazes, Inman serves up recurrent themes such as foodstuffs, holidays, e-mail, as well as technological, news-of-the-day, and his snarky yet informative comics on grammar and usage. Online and in print, The Oatmeal delivers brilliant, irreverent comic hilarity.”
First, can you tell our readers a little about your library, the book, and the incident?
Curtis Memorial Library is a public library located in Brunswick, Maine, serving the coastal towns of Brunswick and Harpswell. Brunswick is a college town, the Bowdoin College campus is within walking distance, and the population demographics indicate most adult residents are liberal, Democratic voters. The library was the first to hire a full-time teen librarian in 1999 and has a 5,000+ item strong collection of teen materials: fiction and non-fiction books, graphic novels/manga/comics, movies, audiobooks, and games geared to patrons in grades 7/8 – high school and early college.
The adult services staff received a package in the mail presented as if it were an ILL. Upon opening it, Jamie Dacyczyn found a paperback book, cataloged in the Teen Comics section, wrapped in white bandage tape with the words “filthy” and “not suited for children” and “18+” written on the tape. It also came with a 4”x 6” lined unsigned post-it note explaining how this book was found at a camp for children and it is totally inappropriate for teens, etc.
Jamie immediately contacted me and took a picture and posted it in an ALATT (ALA Think Tank) forum about censorship.
Did the person who objected to the book follow up in person or by phone/electronically, or was this the only “communication” from them?
No, they did not follow up. This was the only communication from the objector.
Yes, I have a good relationship with the parent of the teen who still had the book checked out on their record. The parent explained that the teen had been attending a summer camp and probably brought the book to camp and forgot about it. FYI this teen is 15. I called the parent only because the book was still checked out on their child’s card. I did not reveal the name of the book due to confidentiality law in the state of Maine but I did tell them about how the book came back to the library.
The parent thought the whole taping and anonymous note was rude and uncalled for; they were upset that someone would try to ruin reading for someone else, and offered to pay to replace the book so it could remain on the shelves. That wasn’t necessary since the tape was easily removed, although it did damage the book slightly. The parent was able identify the camp for us. I removed the book from their child’s record.
I find it pretty interesting that this was apparently not an objection by a parent of the patron, but by a third party. Have you ever experienced any other challenges like this?
Unfortunately yes, but not recently.
About five years ago, a patron brought to the YS desk the DVD case for Moulin Rouge they found in the Teen DVD collection, complaining that the movie was inappropriate for teens since the main female character is a prostitute. I pointed out it is rated/advised PG-13 and parents/caregivers decide what’s ok for their children to watch. The patron’s elderly parent came over to find out what their older adult child was making a fuss about and took my side in the argument, telling their child “you don’t even have kids!” and pulled their grown child away. It was all odd and amusing and I put the case right back on the shelf.
Another incident, years ago in 2000 when we had our first summer reading program, we had a pirate theme and I had hung a jolly Roger flag in the teen area. An older patron was very upset we had a “skull and crossbones in a children’s area” and rambled about how it was the sign for poison. The youth services staff were literally surrounded by children trying to sign up for the summer reading program so one parent turned to the patron and said to take the complaint to another desk or to the director since it was obvious now was not the time. Even though years later staff knows the patron who complained has and is dealing with chronic mental illness, I still think about how we should and could have been more proactive to get another staff person to listen to this person and take the complaint seriously.
Did you treat this as an actual challenge to the book? Or is it just an odd attempt at censorship?
Good question. I took it seriously and re-read the comic to see what the person might have found objectionable. The book is a series of one page comic strips and one comic is about sex, another is a rather scathing insult to Jerry Falwell but it’s not always the best course of action to second guess what a patron finds objectionable.
I reviewed it for content to see if the complaint had any merit: sometimes books should be moved to Adult. My first thought upon reading the note was that the summer camp must have been a conservative religious camp? So I was surprised to find out that the camp is a science and nature camp run by 4-H and the University of Maine. However I do not know if the note came from another camper, a camp counselor, or other staff.
The anonymity is what bothers me most because people are not aware that we DO take challenges seriously and we DO listen and we DO offer a “request for reconsideration” form and sometimes DO move materials from one section to another.
In this particular case, I also wish the person had signed the note since they did damage the book with the tape. I was able to cut most of it off but it took off one small part of the cover.
Still I cannot help but shake my head at the idea that someone took the time to tape the book, write a note, and mail it but not take responsibility for their actions.
What, if anything, are you doing as a result of or to follow up on this incident?
Nothing more beyond what’s been done. I will keep an eye on the book since it is a bit dated. I have ordered even more books featuring sex positive scenes and non-fiction titles on relationships and in the process of adding more humor titles for teens.
Do you have a challenge policy? Do you think you will make any changes to that policy – or any other policy – following this incident?
This is our policy:
Requests for Withdrawal of Objectionable Resources
- If a patron expresses objection to material in the library collection, the librarian receiving the complaint will listen to the patron’s concerns, explain CML’s materials selection policy to the patron, and ask the patron if they’d like to fill out a “Request for Reconsideration” form. (A non-librarian staff member receiving the complaint should refer the patron to a librarian.) If the patron chooses to fill out the form, he/she will be told that the form will be given to the Director for consideration and that he/she will be contacted after the Director’s review.
- Upon receipt of a written complaint, the Director and the appropriate materials selector will check reviews on the item in question, determine if it meets the standards of the materials selection policy. The Director will then decide whether or not to retain the material, and will inform the patron of the decision. The Director will also keep the library Board informed of any major challenges to materials in the library. Materials subject to complaint shall not be removed from use pending final action.
As explained, I proceeded with the second part of this policy as if the note was a written complaint and chose to keep the book on the shelves, to be reviewed in a year due to the condition of the cover and the dated humor.
Lisa Hoover is a Public Services Librarian at Clarkson University and an Adjunct Professor in criminal justice at SUNY Canton. In addition to her MLS, Lisa holds a JD and an MA in political science. She began her career as an editor and then manager for a local news organization, adjunct teaching in her “spare time.” She teaches courses in criminal procedure, criminal law and constitutional law. She is passionate about 1st Amendment issues. She recently began her career as a librarian, starting at Clarkson University in June 2017 teaching information literacy sessions and offering reference services. Lisa and her husband Lee live in Norwood, New York with their cats Hercules, Pandora and Nyx, and pug-mix Alexstrasza (Alex). Find her on Twitter @LisaHoover01.