Libraries and Censorship

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 199

A library is an organized (using a classification system) collection of books and other print and nonprint materials. Library contents and materials vary according to the patrons or clientele being served. Library searches used to be done through the card catalog, a record of the collection’s materials. Most libraries, in the late twentieth century, switched their records (under the same classification systems) to computers, so that users can access information in various databases. Libraries’ vast collections of materials can be obtained by such methods as going to the shelf and finding a desired book, requesting a book (many libraries do not allow patrons to access books directly), making a computer printout, or asking for a book through interlibrary loan. Libraries are vital organizations in modern global societies. They house not only books but also other resources, including periodicals, newspapers, audiovisual materials and various other print and nonprint information. Librarians provide a variety of services to a clientele used to a service oriented, computer-age society. The Internet has enabled individuals to reach libraries across nations and to acquire information instantaneously. The roles of libraries and librarians have become more complex and challenging, especially in issues of selection and censorship.

Historical Perspective

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 385

The earliest known libraries (of clay tablets) date back to Mesopotamia of 3500 b.c.e. The ancient library (of papyrus documents) in Alexandria (305-283 b.c.e.) was destroyed in various fires. Scholars at this Egyptian library copied, revised, and collated works of classical Greek writers. Libraries flourished for centuries and held about 500,000 rolls. The Roman Empire had many libraries, but during the Middle Ages the Roman Catholic church kept the library traditions in Europe. Libraries in the Middle Ages were primarily in monasteries, cathedrals, and universities. Books were laboriously made by hand, by monks, thus limiting the size and number of libraries. Additionally, books that the Church thought immoral were destroyed. The great libraries of Damascus and Baghdad were destroyed by the thirteenth century. The first libraries in China appeared with the Ch’in Dynasty. A copy of every book was stored in the imperial library.

During the Renaissance more libraries emerged, including the Vatican Library. The invention of the printing press further increased the number of libraries, and more books became available, primarily for elites with private libraries. Public libraries started in the seventeenth century and their number multiplied throughout Europe and America. As illiteracy rates decreased, the use of public libraries increased in the eighteenth century. National libraries appeared—La Bibliotheque National in Paris in the seventeenth century, the British Museum in London and Italy’s National Library in Florence in the eighteenth century, Russia’s Saltikov-Shchdrin Library in Saint Petersburg, and the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., which started with purchases from Thomas Jefferson’s personal library.

Most countries have national libraries, as well as other scholarly libraries—Charles University in Prague, the Jewish National and University Library in Jerusalem, the Egyptian National Library in Cairo, and others. In some countries, public libraries are not as abundant as in the United States and Canada. Canada maintains government libraries in Ottawa—the Library of Parliament, the National Library of Canada, and the Canadian Institute for Scientific and Technical Information. The Internet allows easy access to these libraries and others throughout the world. Several organizations work to improve libraries across the world, including UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization), AID (the Agency for International Development), IFLA (International Federation of Library Associations), IASL (International Association of School Librarianship), and others.

Types of Libraries, Organization, and Services

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There are various types of libraries: private, public, academic, school, and specialized. The first libraries were private collections of rulers, aristocrats, and those who could afford to build collections. With the advent of the printing press, more books became available and public libraries were organized. Most private and public libraries benefited from donor generosity, and many private collections are available to the public for research (such as Huntington Library in San Marino, California, or the Ambrosian Library in Milan, Italy). Andrew Carnegie helped establish two thousand public libraries in the United States. Private libraries may limit access to their collections, and use is often based on the research needs of clients. Public libraries have a responsibility to maintain a collection that reflects the needs of the community and that is accessible to all users.

Public libraries often work cooperatively with other libraries, especially school libraries. In some cases, public libraries may lend collections to schools for a period of time. Public libraries are actively involved in providing services for children and young adults. Story hour and literacy programs are popular, along with writer group meetings and other community activities. Services for special groups are also available, for example materials for the visually impaired. More and more public (and school) libraries are purchasing materials in many different languages to accommodate the needs of culturally diverse communities. Public libraries often provide literacy and immigrant services, as well as provide programs that enrich the community. Special libraries (medicine, law, and other fields) can be located in private companies and large academic libraries.

Academic libraries are associated with universities and colleges. The content of academic libraries varies according to the size and goals of the university. Large research libraries have specialized content in addition to the range of subjects available in other libraries. Original manuscripts, some historical documents, and rare books are usually housed in the special collections area of academic libraries. Academic libraries require large, specialized staffs to meet the needs of the campus population in supporting and facilitating research for students and faculty.

School libraries are run by school districts and serve students in elementary, middle school, and high school settings. The contents of school libraries usually support the curriculum and encourage students to become library users of public and academic libraries. School libraries often work cooperatively with public libraries for additional resources and information. Librarians are also certified teachers who must not only provide resources to support curricula but also must also work cooperatively with other faculty members to provide a variety of library curricular and extracurricular programs.

The American Library Association (ALA), founded in 1876, is devoted to the advancement of library and information science and to the provision of library services and materials to all users. This association is active in many library related issues—library education, library publications, and the establishment of standards for all types of libraries. It encourages open access to library stacks, the increase of special services for children and young adults, the disabled, linguistically diverse populations, and other cultural groups. The ALA seeks to improve standards for library schools and ensure that professionals are updated on electronic databases, the Internet, and other challenges of the information highway. The Intellectual Freedom Committee of the ALA works diligently to preserve the users’ right to read and to assist librarians with censorship issues. United States public libraries and especially school libraries have always been targets of censorship. Library censorship includes other materials besides books—films, videotapes, photographs, and other nonprint information.

Censorship and Selection

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 738

Acquisition of library materials is usually delegated to a committee (of professional librarians and community members) decision and is based on a written selection policy. Ultimate control over those controversial decisions that cannot be handled by librarians are determined by library governing boards for public libraries and school boards for school library media centers. Librarians and selection committees choose materials for the whole community, especially in public libraries.

School libraries select materials to support the curriculum; public libraries must meet the needs of a variety of patrons. Adult materials often fall victim to censorship complaints. The Intellectual Freedom Committee of the ALA provides counsel and legal support to librarians embattled by censorship issues. School libraries report the highest incidence of censorship complaints, followed by public libraries. Academic libraries appear to have few censorship incidents, perhaps because of the academic freedom afforded university libraries. Private, religious colleges, however, may actually practice censorship through the selection process. Authors such as Judy Blume and Kurt Vonnegut, along with publisher associations, are stout defenders of libraries and the freedom to read.

The ALA is concerned about attempts to suppress individuals’ rights of access to library materials. The association believes that free communication is necessary for the preservation of creativity in a free society. The ALA has publicly affirmed its stance against censorship and on behalf of free debate. It argues that it is in the public interest for publishers and librarians to make available the widest diversity of views and expressions, including those which are unorthodox or unpopular with the majority. The association’s Library Bill of Rights specifically addresses censorship concerns and affirms that all libraries are forums for information and ideas. The ALA recognizes the educational level and program of school libraries; however, it encourages librarians to follow the principles of the Library Bill of Rights, specifically recommending that school librarians take the lead in promoting the freedom to read.

Among the many forms that censorship has taken, there have been efforts to get librarians to reveal users’ names and borrowing patterns. To prevent censors from acquiring information on library users, the ALA has developed a policy that clearly states that records of users and usage are confidential. Whether or not specific legislation exists to enforce this confidentiality, librarians are urged to respect the rights of all users, including children. Despite efforts to protect individuals’ rights to read, libraries still face censorship. One way to address censorship problems is to have a written selection policy with a censorship clause and a form in which would-be censors may express, in writing, their specific concern regarding the material in question.

Censorship concerns date back to Plato, who reasoned that fiction could be potentially disturbing to young people. Subjects deemed worthy of censorship are boundless. They include: profanity, blasphemy, and un-Christian thought; indecency (sexual language, nude pictures, explicit sex descriptions, and discussion of human sexuality); drug use; politics; sexist or racist ideas and language; racial stereotypes and derogatory descriptions of culturally diverse groups; ideas undermining the family, society, human relationships, and traditional values; description of extramarital affairs; expressions of unpatriotic ideas; lack of educational value; vulgarity; secular humanism; cultural diversity; ethnic studies; multicultural education; critical thinking; and ecology.

There is very little, perhaps nothing, in a library that will not offend someone. Examples of works that have been censored, and, at times, removed from libraries include: the Bible (certain passages seen as violent), dictionaries (for containing vulgar words), works by William Shakespeare (fond of the dirty pun, plus his tragedies have sad endings), and textbooks. Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee (1970) has been censored for being slanted (presumably, when it comes to a massacre, only a balanced view of both sides of the issue is allowable). Dr. Seuss’s The Lorax (1971) has been attacked in Oregon for encouraging saving trees. The Diary of Anne Frank (1947) has been censored for being a “downer.” Maya Angelou’s autobiographical I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1970) has been censored for “preaching hatred and bitterness against whites” and for Angelou’s description of her being raped as a child, which one censor said was pornographic. Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House (1879) has been called feminist propaganda, which to some means that it should be censored. Examples, unfortunately, abound. Censorship organizations such as the National Legion for Decency, along with governing boards of public libraries and schools, often act to remove materials from classrooms and library shelves.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 254

Walter M. Daniels’ The Censorship of Books (New York: H. W. Wilson, 1954) provides a comprehensive historical perspective on book censorship. Grant S. McClellan’s Censorship in the United States (New York: H. W. Wilson, 1967) presents a historical perspective. Mary Duncan Carter, Wallace John Bonk, and Rose Mary Magrill’s Building Library Collections (Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1974) provides information and guidelines for developing library collections. Eli M. Oboler’s Censorship and Education (New York: H. W. Wilson, 1981) focuses on issues of censorship in educational settings. The Newsletter on Intellectual Freedom, published serially by the American Library Association, gives examples of censorship, along with the court cases involved. Jean Key Gates’s Guide to the Use of Books and Libraries (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1983) presents a historical perspective on books and libraries, organization and management, including censorship. Information Power: Guidelines for School Library Media Programs (Chicago: American Library Association, 1988) gives standards for developing, organizing, and managing school library media programs, along with policy statements for dealing with censorship. Henry Reichman’s Censorship and Selection: Issues and Answers for Schools (Chicago: American Library Association, 1993) is a useful resource for school media specialists offering suggestions for dealing with censorship problems. Daniel F. Ring’s “Has the American Public Library Lost Its Purpose?” in Public Libraries (July-August, 1994) is an insightful article on many aspects of public librarianship. Phyllis J. Van Orden’s The Collection Program in Schools: Concepts, Practices, and Information Sources (2d ed. Englewood, Colo.: Libraries Unlimited, 1995) includes policies, guidelines, and procedures for selecting library materials for schools.

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