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Censors Near You

by on October 14, 2016

During the recent observation of Banned Books Week 2016 (September 25-October 1, 2016), I was reminded of the challenges that can face the information we harbor in our libraries. Whether or not we want to admit it as librarians, there is more than likely censorship in our controlled and federally regulated environment. When I think of the librarian’s professional code, I think of an intellectual freedom curator, a ninja against censorship. No matter our predilections and viewpoints on a particular topic, it is our job to make sure that materials are available to patrons. Who are the censors out there, though? How are they trying to censor the information that people want to retrieve?

The Feds

Since 2003, the Children’s Internet Protection Act has been a presence in schools and public libraries which receive certain types of federal funding.  Under this act, Internet filtering software is utilized, which can do more detriment than good. We all know that filtering software can be problematic for a teenager performing research on “safer sex practices” when they are too ashamed to ask an adult or check out a book on the subject. However, libraries are not in a financial situation to deny federal funds, so what do we do? Do we defend the principles of our vocation, filtering all of the Internet computers, and take the money? Or do we deny the funds thus giving our patrons the right to view what they want–including material deemed obscene? Librarians can override the filter if needed, but very few patrons will want to have their inquiries “approved.”

It is our job to provide information, but if we make the whole Internet accessible to our patrons, the library becomes ineligible for the eRate program. In “Fencing out Knowledge:  Impacts of CIPA 10 Years Later,” a study found that “half of all libraries with Internet filters received requests from adult patrons to unblock the filters for legitimate purposes.”[1]   To have or not to have federal funding for the library’s Internet is quite a conundrum.  Providing information and a broad array of materials to our patrons is the purpose of the library, but at what cost?

The Patrons

I have witnessed two ways in which a patron can censor or attempt to censor.  The first more traditional means of challenging materials is when a patron comes in and reports to the librarian that they believe an item is offensive. Most often this happens in the youth department, but I have seen it happen in the Adult Department. For example, a woman came in and wanted Beyond Magenta: Transgender Teens Speak Out removed because her teenager checked it out and she found it offensive. Now, this is not entirely censorship because we did not remove it, but she did want it removed.

Another incident occurred during the 2008 Barack Obama and John McCain presidential election. We had a patron at our library who decided to make all of the McCain books “unavailable” to other patrons. She achieved this by checking out all of the McCain books we had, so that other patrons could not read them.

The Librarians 

When a librarian does not want to acquire controversial material for the library because it may cause an uproar within in the community, that is a form of censorship. I once had a boss who made me send back a book to our vendor because the title was offensive and she was worried that it would insult the patrons (never mind it was a best seller). Public school libraries are not required to have LGBTQ literature in their collection. While the age in which we live is more accepting than it was at one time, a lot of people still have a problem with these materials. Therefore, many public school librarians will not add the genre to their collection, in order to dodge any potential issues that may arise.

These are a few of the types of censorship that may occur at the library and a lot of us do it more than we know. I wanted to write this article to make ourselves aware of censoring. According to Lamba Legal, in addition to not purchasing materials, “some school districts, organizations and individuals have attempted, unlawfully, to restrict students’ access to books or websites purely because they address LGBTQ themes or other issues related to diversity.”[2]  Instead of trying to hide LGBTQ themes from the library, we should be encouraging patrons to educate themselves. To educate oneself is to alleviate the fear that may be a result of ignorance. Please do not foster ignorance by denying patrons the freedom to form their own opinions.


[1] Kristen Batch. “Fencing out Knowledge: Impacts of the Children’s Internet Protection 10 Years Later.”  Policy Brief No. 5, June 2014. http://connect.ala.org/files/cipa_report.pdf  Web 23 Sept 2016.

[2] Lambda Legal. “Preventing Censorship of LGBT Information in Public Schools,” https://www.lambdalegal.org/sites/default/files/publications/downloads/fs_preventing-censorship-of-lgbt-information-in-pubilc-school-libraries_1.pdf Web.  21 Sept 2016.


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