Your Bookshelf May Be Part of the Problem: A Rebuttal

Banned and Challenged Books, Censorship, Intellectual Freedom Issues

By: Ross Sempek

I’m relieved that Juan Vidal is not a librarian. The condescending and short-sighted tone of his article “Your Bookshelf May Be Part of the Problem” is so anathema to librarianship and the joy of reading it made my face contort.  

If you recall the Columbine shooting and its aftermath, there was a similar call-to-arms against violent video games, and other scary media like Marilyn Manson. The assumption being that humans, having no agency over their intake of ideas, sop up this supposed evil and in turn unleash it on the world. And it wasn’t even that long ago that President Trump decried violent video games and the internet as abetting factors in the 2019 WalMart shooting in El Paso, Texas. Mainstream media outfits were quick to counter these blanket accusations.

Well, not so much any more. Now these accusations come straight from the horse’s mouth, and instead of video games it’s books. And not just any books; your books. And not just anybody’s books; white people’s books. It’s gotten so ridiculously specific that it might pass muster within a population overwhelmed by white guilt. Because condemning this sort of tripe should transcend race, politics, etcetera. Addressing the variety of things wrong with Vidal’s opinion piece would necessitate that I exceed my word-count limit (and appetite for drivel) so let’s focus on the more salient points of lunacy.

First off, the article’s title itself invokes the trite apothegm “If you’re not part of the solution, then you’re part of the problem.” An opportunistic war cry to the myopic, it automatically puts the listener in a defensive position, only to be overcome by a blind adherence to whatever the “solution” might be. There is of course no 3rd, 4th, or 5th option. Life really is that simple. Vidal also assumes I know what the problem is. Is it racism? Systemic inequities? Police brutality? All of the above? My love of reading might be an integral tile is this grisly mosaic? This level of extrapolation teeters on the farcical.

Secondly, Vidal uses language that is curious considering the overall context of his piece.

 “the summer [sic] of our discontent is only just beginning”  

When writing an article encouraging white people to “decolonize” their bookshelves, Vidal could do better than to appropriate the Bard of Avon, and by proxy, John Steinbeck. His thesis (albeit patently absurd) suffers under the historical weight of a royal save-the-princess narrative by a white writer popular in a country that, at the time, was in its colonialist heyday. Just a note.

Here’s another gem:

“Anti-racist books will only do a person good if they silence themselves first and enter into the reading — provided they care enough to do so.”

By “person,” Vidal means “white person.” But what does he mean by “silence?” It’s a word worth unpacking; Silence my skepticism? Critical thinking? Personal tastes? Additionally, If he really wants me to silence myself, he must first tell me how to do that while I read “broadly and with intention.”

But I’ve saved the best for last:

“If you are white, take a moment to examine your bookshelf.”

Phew! BIPOCs, y’all are off the hook. Your skin color and naturally-occurring defenses against colonial ideas abdicate you from any sort of prejudice against any person at all, ever. Even if you read the same books as me. Good to know.

The most egregious offense of the article, though, is quite simple: Juan Vidal, my bookshelf is none of your business.

Ross Sempek

Ross Sempek is a recent MLIS graduate and a Library Assistant at the Happy Valley Public Library just outside of Portland, Oregon. He comes from a blue-collar family that values art, literature, and an even consideration for all world-views. This informs his passion for intellectual freedom, which he considers to be the bedrock for blooming to one’s fullest potential. It defines this country’s unique freedoms and allows an unfettered fulfillment of one’s purpose in life. When he is not actively championing librarianship, he loves lounging with his cat, cycling, and doing crossword puzzles – He’s even written a handful of puzzles himself.


  • I agree wholeheartedly. Thank you Ross for remembering the main tenets of librarianship when so many seem to be forgetting what we are all supposed to hold dear. It is critical to refrain from censorship ESPECIALLY when the subject at hand is questionable to us. If it matters only when the subject is repugnant to others that is not being true to the principle. As clearly stated in our Freedom to Read Statement (1953), Libraries: An American Value Statement, and again in ALA’s Library Bill of Rights (1939) we are to treat information neutrally and provide access to it.

    Freedom to Read Statement (1953)
    A collaborative statement by literary, publishing, and censorship organizations declaring the importance of our constitutionally protected right to access information and affirming the need for our professions to oppose censorship.

    Libraries: An American Value (1999)
    Adopted by ALA Council, this brief statement pronounces the distinguished place libraries hold in our society and their core tenets of access to materials and diversity of ideas.

    ALA’s Library Bill of Right (1939):

    The American Library Association affirms that all libraries are forums for information and ideas, and that the following basic policies should guide their services.

    I. Books and other library resources should be provided for the interest, information, and enlightenment of all people of the community the library serves. Materials should not be excluded because of the origin, age, background, or views of those contributing to their creation.

    II. Libraries should provide materials and information presenting all points of view on current and historical issues. Materials should not be proscribed or removed because of partisan or doctrinal disapproval.

    III. Libraries should challenge censorship in the fulfillment of their responsibility to provide information and enlightenment.

    IV. Libraries should cooperate with all persons and groups concerned with resisting abridgment of free expression and free access to ideas.

    V. A person’s right to use a library should not be denied or abridged because of origin, age, background, or views.

    VI. Libraries which make exhibit spaces and meeting rooms available to the public they serve should make such facilities available on an equitable basis, regardless of the beliefs or affiliations of individuals or groups requesting their use.

    VII. All people, regardless of origin, age, background, or views, possess a right to privacy and confidentiality in their library use. Libraries should advocate for, educate about, and protect people’s privacy, safeguarding all library use data, including personally identifiable information.

    Adopted June 19, 1939, by the ALA Council; amended October 14, 1944; June 18, 1948; February 2, 1961; June 27, 1967; January 23, 1980; January 29, 2019. Inclusion of “age” reaffirmed January 23, 1996.

  • I appreciate your comments and readership, Jennifer!

    It’s weird to me how censorship can get dressed up with righteousness, to the point where it’s acceptable to judge someone you don’t know based on their skin color and taste in literature. Vidal is on the opposite side of intellectual freedom. Making meaningful human connections through a love of literature is overrated apparently, he’d rather tear down my bookshelf.

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