Weeding or Censorship?

Q: Why is it “censorship” if my library board removes a book that is challenged, and “weeding” if a staff member removes a book with problematic content?  Even though I know the difference, I’m genuinely not sure how to respond when community members ask me this.

That’s a great and timely question. We’d like to answer it simply, with a nice catchy talking point or sound bite. But maybe that’s part of the problem. Librarianship is a profession in which intellectual freedom is a foundational principle. We want people to understand the value of and support intellectual freedom, but in making our case, with the best of intentions, we too often focus most of our attention on “censorship” and “banning,” and talk about them as threats with two possible outcomes, one good (book stays on the shelf), the other bad (book is removed).

There is little room for articulating the complexity or nuance of collection management in this approach. And some might argue there shouldn’t be. But complexity and nuance defines the intersection of intellectual freedom and diversity,equity, and inclusion (DEI), all of which our profession has come to embrace as foundational.

Perhaps this lack of complexity is part of the reason why the term “banning” is sometimes misinterpreted or misconstrued by the general public. It’s a term that sparks an immediate emotional response in most of us, but it’s important we understand and use it correctly. To “ban” a book is to remove it and/or prohibit access, usually based on objections to it. The power to “ban” does not rest with the person who raised the objection but rather with an individual or group with the designated power and authority– typically a library or school board, but this can vary from place to place depending on who has decision-making authority.  (As an aside, a  book that has gone out of print hasn’t been “banned” by any authority; it’s no longer available for purchase as the result of a business decision.)  Banning can also occur when individuals with power act outside their authority (e.g, a school principal who orders a book removed from the library despite board-approved policies and procedures not giving them that authority).

Weeding, by contrast, is an ongoing part of collection management; it demands that librarians apply criteria outlined in board-approved policies and related procedures as they decide what materials will be removed. It’s decision-making grounded in professional judgment. And yes, it’s also human decision-making, and we are subjective creatures by nature, but the purpose of having and following board-approved policies and procedures is to provide both a framework and consistency for the basis of our decisions, so that professional judgment not personal opinion guides them.

Here are some of the realities we wish were part of the ongoing communication and conversations about intellectual freedom in our communities. The answer to your question can be found across them, and lies within them:

  • Libraries purchase new materials all the time. Libraries weed materials all the time. Both the acquisition of new materials and the decision to weed materials are part of the professional responsibilities related to collection management, or curation.
  • For every book a library purchases, there are dozens of books it won’t purchase.
  • For every book a library weeds, there are dozens of books it will keep.
  • Libraries are places of choice and patrons have the choice to read, listen, or view the materials with which they want to engage.
  • Libraries are funded to serve their entire communities, not any perceived or actual majority.
  • Both public and school libraries function within the framework of society, not outside it, and as society’s values, reflected in both laws and social expectations, change, so do library values, and this will inevitably be reflected in collections and services. As one example, legislative language in Wisconsin calls for public school libraries to offer a “balanced collection…which depicts in an accurate and unbiased way the cultural diversity and pluralistic nature of American society.” As another, many public institutions in recent months and years, including many Wisconsin public libraries and school districts, have issued statements affirming their commitment to equity, diversity and inclusion.

How all of these realities play out depend on what is stated in a library’s local policies and procedures, which guide the thinking that goes into collection management, including selection and weeding and reconsideration of materials. And following those policies and procedures is always, always essential.

If you’re doing that, you can assure those who want an answer to your question that the library takes both collection development and intellectual freedom seriously, which is why you are confident in the reasoning and process behind each decision, and confident that they —and others—will find a wealth of materials to enjoy and meet their needs.

None of that necessarily makes great PR copy or sound bites. But it’s the truth.

March 2021

Thank you to Monica Treptow for contributing to this response.