‘Safe’ Censorship: A Twisty Road of Understanding


By: Amy Steinbauer

One of the hardest things about censorship is that it can come from a good place — an urge to protect or shield someone from something “bad.” Of course, that something “bad” is always extremely subjective. What upsets you will be banal to someone else, and vice versa. In best-case scenarios, the one trying to protect another group is attempting to be helpful. In worse-case scenarios, the censor wants to pick and choose what you have access to.

"Safe" censorship Dr. Evil meme
In best-case censorship scenarios, the censor wants to protect another group.

As library professionals, we come across this all the time in various degrees and shades. We see it in concerned parents and school boards, and even in our coworkers’ displays and collection development. I have been on the other end of lots of these conversations.

Recently, I was discussing my love of reading “bummer books” (aka YA novels that have sad themes such as depression, suicide, and disease). I’ve always enjoyed reading these novels, and research shows it can be really beneficial for teens (and anyone) to read books that may be sad because it helps them work through conflicting emotions; they can give readers a safe space to work out fears. As I discussed this love with two library coworkers, I was surprised and frustrated when they both made a case that teens and tweens should be blocked from these “rough” subjects because it is unnecessary and “too much” for them to hear about.

I sat back, bewildered, as my coworkers launched into different arguments for why these books are more harmful than good for teens. The first colleague recollected on their own experiences with raising a teenager. She raised the concern that if her child had had a bad day and read one of those bummer books, they might use that experience to make more permanent and dangerous decisions of a temporary teenage moment. My other colleague thought life was hard enough, and books should be used to escape and relax; they shouldn’t force a depressing moment on the reader. Both coworkers were making what they thought were rational reasons for censoring those types of materials.

At first, I mostly sat back in awe. These are professionals that I am sure feel that access to all types of materials should be mandatory in libraries. But when it became a personal reflection, they had second thoughts.

Once again we need be reminded of the subjective nature of censorship. I always try to keep in mind in light of challenges that censorship is not a communistic endeavor — what is good for one is not good for all. I remember that a good librarian can use that moment to find another book that is right for that particular customer.

This is something we must make known to our colleagues, our patrons, and ourselves. So after listening to all my colleagues’ reasons about why my bummer books are so harmful for teens, I let them finish, and then I countered with this: There are people that these books help and console. Books provide an opportunity to think about horrible things with no personal outcome to the readers, and most books with sad themes deal with issues that are human struggles, such as loneliness, grief, change, doing what you want and what others are doing. What is right for one reader, may not be right for you, and vice versa, and it’s important to realize that people are different and have different information needs. But most importantly, we need to speak up.

Amy Steinbauer is a children’s librarian for DC Public Libraries. She specializes in outreach and early literacy. She has her MLISc from University of Hawaii, and a B.A. in English from Muhlenberg College in Allentown, PA. She won the 2015 Conable Scholarship to attend ALA Annual in San Francisco, and presented at the 2016 Annual conference in Orlando, FL. She loves professional development and is currently serving as a board member at large for the Association of Bookmobile and Outreach Services (ABOS), is on ALA’s Public Awareness Committee, and on the SASCO Committee through NMRT. She loves mermaids and advocating for libraries, and will one day combine them both to take over the world! Until then, follow her on twitter @merbrarian.

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