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Self-Censorship:
Let's Talk about It

by Megan Schliesman, Cooperative Children's Book Center

(This article was originally published in the Spring, 2007, Wisconsin Library Association Intellectual Freedom Roundtable Newsletter).

No doubt many librarians are by now aware of the controversy that surrounded the 2007 Newbery Award winner, The Higher Power of Lucky by Susan Patron. The appearance of the word “scrotum” on the novel’s first page—mentioned in an anecdote about a dog who is bitten by a rattlesnake on his scrotum—led to a firestorm of activity on professional listservs, as well as a front page story in the New York Times and follow-up articles in local papers and other media across the country.

The anecdote in the story is told by an adult and overheard by the novel’s main character, 10-year-old Lucky. Unlike many adults in the real world, Lucky’s attention is not subsequently focused single-mindedly on that or any other aspect of the dog’s anatomy. Not only isn’t she scarred by hearing the word; she barely takes notice of it. She has a life to live and business to attend to, just as author Susan Patron had a story to tell—a lovely, literary story full of well-drawn, singular characters whose lives intersect with Lucky’s, which is lucky for her, and for readers, too.

What happened in the days following the initial posts on the listserv LM-Net about the appearance of the word “scrotum” and the subsequent New York Times story [“With One Word, Children’s Book Sets Off Uproar” in the Feb. 18, 2007 issue] detailing the “dozens” of school librarians who were “banning” or refusing to buy the book offers several lessons for us all: on the professional standards we should strive to uphold with regard to collection development, on the way we respond to colleagues who are struggling with concerns about what they select, and, finally, on a topic about which we all should know better—believing everything we read.

Let’s start with Media 101. A follow-up story to the New York Times article, done by an AP reporter, found that the “dozens” of librarians reportedly “banning” the book were two dozen individuals, some of whom had merely expressed concerns or reservations, and a number of these already had the book on order or in their collections. It was sloppy reporting in the New York Times that, ignorantly or intentionally, served to heighten the hype and the shock-factor for readers surrounding the appearance of “scrotum” in a book that had just been given our country’s highest honor in literature for children.

But that initial New York Times story led to a flurry—and sometimes fury—of exchanges on library listservs (not to mention AOL) about this book in particular and intellectual freedom in general.

It’s great when we as professionals talk about intellectual freedom—we don’t do it enough. But perhaps more troubling, the story also led to snap judgments about those who expressed a concern or reservation about the book. [Read Susan Patron’s reaction to the controversy online at the Publisher’s Weekly Children’s Bookshelf.]

When the story first broke, I fell into the trap headfirst and did my share of fuming about librarians who are doing the very thing that we lament in would-be censors: judging a work as a whole because of a piece or part taken out of context. Have they really thought about what they are saying, I wondered? Are they really prepared to start going through every book in their library with the same level of scrutiny, because once they’ve opened the door to rejecting a book based on a single word, they’ve set a precedent that will be impossible to uphold either personally or professionally.

But then I remembered what I’d learned in a workshop offered by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center two years ago: “How Far Is Too Far: Pushing the Boundaries in Young Adult Literature.” That day opened my eyes in a new way to the very real fears and concerns that librarians and teachers sometimes have about facing challenges.

Do I advocate that librarians who are fearful should ignore their professional responsibilities? Not at all. But shoving professional principles down the throats of colleagues who are struggling and fearful won’t go far in helping them move beyond their fears, and may very well leave them feeling resentful and alone.

As a profession, we don’t talk much about self-censorship—why it happens and what we can do about it. And the reality is that one of the biggest challenges librarians may face in choosing books or other materials for a collection are their own fears or biases. We need to encourage one another to talk about barriers that can arise in materials selection openly and honestly, and we need to create environments where these discussions can take place without fear of judgment. In doing so, we might not be able to alleviate everyone’s fears, but we can certainly help mitigate them, and decrease the sense of isolation that is certainly a reality for some librarians who feel out on a limb when making material selection decisions.

Acknowledging that self-censorship happens is the critical first step to overcoming it. Perhaps a good place to start is admitting our own fears and biases—most of us struggle with them, and not all of us are able to move beyond them. But it’s scary. It’s scary to admit to ourselves that we can be fearful or biased in ways that might impact our professional decision-making, and it’s even scarier to think about admitting it to a colleague.

If you are in a leadership position in your library, on a library board, or among library colleagues, think about ways to create a “safe space” in which to start a dialogue. No one will speak openly and honestly if they are worried about being criticized, judged, or attacked. You might start by sharing an example of a time when you struggled to put professional responsibility ahead of fear or personal bias.

You might also start by defining the common ground on which everyone stands. Get out your collection development policies and start talking about what they really mean. Where is there shared understanding of how to interpret the policy when it comes to materials selection? Where are there questions or differences of opinion? Why are there questions or differences of opinion?

If fear is at the root of self-censoring behavior, talk about those fears and weigh them against reality. No matter how certain someone is that a book or other item will offend someone, no one knows for certain when—or over what—a challenge may arise. And no library can function effectively if any member of the staff is fearful of making selection decisions. Everyone responsible for materials selection needs to understand their policy: how it supports and empowers them to serve their community, be it students and staff in a school, or the citizens of a community.

Perhaps the most insidious form of self-censorship, and therefore the most difficult to overcome, is that rooted in personal bias. And that’s when it’s time to be more assertive in affirming a library’s responsibility to the diverse members of its community and to the First Amendment rights of everyone it serves. A library collection should reflect the wide-ranging needs and interests found within the community it serves, not those of the librarian(s) responsible for selecting materials. A librarian who is rejecting items on topics or with content that he or she finds personally objectionable is, quite simply, not doing her or his job.

The New York Library Association has a terrific “Self-Censorship Checklist.” Reviewing it is one way to start thinking more critically about your own work and your library’s practices.

 


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