Blacking Out Books: What Would You Do?

Censorship, Library Bill of Rights

By: Samantha Mairson

Libraries are reopening in a post-COVID world. It is a good time to revisit the Library Bill of Rights and ethical considerations that should ground the everyday work of libraries. 

Library Bill of Rights

The Library Bill of Rights originated in 1939. According to the American Library Association (ALA) website, the document was amended in 1944, 1948, 1961, 1967, 1980, and 2019.

The Library Bill of Rights says libraries:

  • Are forums for information and ideas,
  • Provide for the interest, information and enlightenment of all people in the library’s community,
  • Must not exclude creative works due to the creators’ origin, age, background or views,
  • Should provide all points of view on current and historical issues,
  • Should NOT exercise partisan or doctrinal disapproval,
  • MUST challenge censorship, and cooperate with people who challenge censorship,
  • Let people use the library regardless of their origin, age, background or views,
  • Make library spaces equitably available, and, 
  • Advocate for, educate about, and actively protect people’s right to privacy.

The 28 interpretations are ALA Council’s “P.S.” to library professionals.

Expurgation

To “expurgate” library materials is to delete part of them, and the American Library Association has outlined how not to do this in Expurgation of Library Materials: An Interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights

Expurgating library materials [in the name of censorship] is a violation of the Library Bill of Rights. Expurgation as defined by this interpretation includes any deletion, excision, alteration, editing, or obliteration of any part(s) of books or other library resources by the library, its agent, or its parent institution. Amended 2014.

Expurgation

The word choice in this interpretation requires a dictionary. Classic, librarians. What exactly is expurgation and why has the ALA Council spent serious time considering it?

ex·pur·gate
/ˈekspərˌɡāt/
verb
verb: expurgate 3rd person present: expurgates past tense: expurgated past participle: expurgated gerund or present participle: expurgating

  1. remove matter thought to be objectionable or unsuitable from (a book or account).: “the expurgated Arabian Nights“.
    synonyms: censor, bowdlerize, blue-pencil, redact, cut, edit, clean up, purge, purify, sanitize, make acceptable, make palatable, make presentable, water down, emasculate

There is an interesting line in the interpretation: “Expurgation without permission from the rights holder may violate the copyright provisions of the United States Code”. Copyright expert Jill Hurst-Wahl notes two things about this line of the interpretation:

  1. Notice the word “may”. It isn’t clear that this would be a violation.  How much is expunged or expurgated might matter.
  2. The rights of the copyright owner (creator) are in Section 106 [“of the United States code”]. Those rights include the creation of derivative works. Section 101 defines derivative work as a work based upon one or more preexisting works, such as a translation, musical arrangement, dramatization, fictionalization, motion picture version, sound recording, art reproduction, abridgment, condensation, or any other form in which a work may be recast, transformed, or adapted. A work consisting of editorial revisions, annotations, elaborations, or other modifications, which, as a whole, represent an original work of authorship, is a “derivative work”.

The next ALA sentence in the interpretation says, “The decision of rights holders to alter or expurgate future versions of a work does not impose a duty on librarians to alter or expurgate earlier versions of a work.”  Wahl notes this is affirming the copyright holder’s right to do derivative work.

Scenarios from the News

New York Times article chronicles the 2014 school board vote in Gilbert, AZ to “excise or redact two pages deep inside the book — 544 and 545 — because they discuss sexually transmitted diseases and contraception.”

In 1992, a Venado Middle School 8th grade teacher passed out copies of Fahrenheit 451 with scores of words – mostly hells and damns – blacked out. (Reported by the Seattle Times.) 

It is not unusual to hear about The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn with the N-word crossed out but Salon discusses the 2011 news that New South Publishing released a racial epithet-free version of the book.

In a memorial to late author, Maurice Sendak, the Washington Post describes how librarians chose to draw diapers over the book’s full-frontal nudity of the protagonist.

Why is Expurgation Censorship?

Some terms from the American Library Association:

  • A challenge is an attempt to remove or restrict materials, based upon the objections of a person or group. A banning is the removal of those materials. Challenges do not simply involve a person expressing a point of view; rather, they are an attempt to remove material from the curriculum or library, thereby restricting the access of others. 
  • Censorship is a change in the access status of material, based on the content of the work and made by a governing authority or its representatives. Such changes include exclusion, restriction, removal, or age/grade level changes.
  • Intellectual freedom is the right of every individual to both seek and receive information from all points of view without restriction. It provides for free access to all expressions of ideas through which any and all sides of a question, cause or movement may be explored.

When the intent of the expurgation is clearly to suppress ideas thought to be objectionable or offensive, it is censorship. “The act of expurgation denies access to the complete work and the entire spectrum of ideas that the work is intended to express. This is censorship. Expurgation based on the premise that certain portions of a work may be harmful to minors is equally a violation of the Library Bill of Rights.”

Discussion starters

  • If you found a blacked out copy of a book, what would you do?
  • Does your library have a process for dealing with patron challenges to the contents of the collection? If so, what is it? Could it be better?
  • Do you know where and how to report challenges?
  • Is a “clean” version of a book, music, or movie acceptable?
  • How would you defend against expurgation of a library material? 
  • How is expurgation addressed in the ALA Code of Ethics?
  • Pick one of the above scenarios. How would you deal with it?

This post is part of a series that looks at interpretations of the American Library Association’s Library Bill of Rights


Samantha Mairson

Samantha Mairson is a children’s librarian at the Rye Free Reading Room in New York. She is a staunch intellectual freedom fighter. Previously she worked for EveryLibrary, the first national political action committee for libraries. Samantha is a graduate of the Syracuse University MLIS program with a Certificate of Advanced Study in Information Security Management, and the University of Connecticut where she studied Digital Media Design and Spanish. She once walked from North Carolina to Connecticut, and dreams of building a tiny home. She currently resides in New York City with her husband, sister-in-law, newborn baby, and the family dog, Rocky!

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