Tuesday, March 26, 2013

"Anti-Gay" Books and Professional Disagreement

Last month the Association for Library Service to Children's (ALSC's) intellectual freedom committee posed a question:
"It is widely accepted (we hope!) that Vanita Oelschlager’s A Tale of Two Mommies should be on every library shelf. If it isn’t on yours, we would love to hear why not.

The real question we have today is: does Sheila Butt’s Does God Love Michael’s Two Daddies? belong on your shelves as well?" (web links added)
I will be looking at responses from two locations: replies to the original ALSC post, and email messages in the American Library Association's (ALA's) intellectual freedom roundtable discussion list. I'm interested in this discussion because it highlights a clash of professional values that I believe should be acknowledged rather than ignored.

So does this "anti-gay" book belong on library shelves? I've split select responses into three broad categories...

No, Because of Viewpoint
"I am totally floored and personally offended that ALSC would even propose the question, 'Do anti-gay books have a place in the library?' Would they ask, 'Do anti-African American books have a place in the library?' or 'Do anti-Jewish books have a place in the library?'" — Stephen B.
"My short answer is: No. I don’t think a library needs to carry anti-gay material, even for the sake of intellectual freedom, in the same way that I don’t feel a library is obligated to carry anti-semetic material, or any material that targets a minority group. If there were some sort of reference book about what Christians believe about homosexuality that was positively reviewed by professional resources, then I could see putting it in a library’s collection. But a book like 'Does G-d Love Michael’s Two Daddies?' sounds no better than propaganda, and that makes me very uncomfortable." — Tess
"Anti-gay books qualify as 'hate literature,' along with books that demonize other minorities. As a small public library, we have to prioritize how we spend our money. Books or other items put out by hate groups (or individuals with the same perspective) are not compatible with our collection development policy." — James E.
"The more I think about this topic, the more I’ve come up with this simple idea: I don’t want a child to pick up a book from the picture book section that tells them they’re 'bad' or that their families aren’t good enough. I just don’t." — Ingrid A.
Maybe, Because Libraries Should Be Viewpoint Inclusive
"IMHO you would definitely be violating his/her right to read what he or she choose by making your decision based on content alone.  It easiest just to ignore religion and focus on having a variety of views represented in our collections whatever the subject -- even or especially those that offend us personally." — Doug A.
"More and more, we are seeing 'hate speech' as an excuse to censor viewpoints we do not share, which is not to deny that cruel and distasteful viewpoints abound. But are we doing our patrons a favor by denying them access to all points of view, thereby preventing them from gathering arguments against viewpoints with which they disagree?" — Robert K.
"As a queer librarian, yes, anti-gay books have a role in the library.  They represent a significant opinion about which many people might wish to find out more.  That's the role of the library, IMO." — Laura Q.
"The book seems extremely biased, but the point of intellectual freedom is to allow for all sides of an issue to be accessible. It took me a long time to accept that I cannot both campaign for glbt materials in my library without seeing the other side of the coin." — Sarah
No, But Not Because of Viewpoint
"Should a library have a book that reflects different thoughts on the issue of homosexuality? Yes. This particular book, though, judging from reviews, is not one that belongs in the library." — Craig W.
"I would stand by any of my professional colleagues decisions to not include this book. It has been reviewed by an expert, and consumer reviews (amazon.com) are very low. This is, going by all the sources that I have checked within the short time I have explored this blog post, a very lousy book, so no, I wouldn’t buy it." — Another Tess

"As many have noted, this particular book would not clear the common hurdles for collection development. Libraries are not obligated to make exceptions to their collection development standards and purchase low-quality materials to fill a hateful or 'anti' gap in the collection, especially among our current budget realities." — Amanda
Judging from this last category, the book put forward for discussion is not an especially good candidate for forcing librarians to wrestle with the general question. According to the top rated customer review on Amazon, "It's hard to tell if the author objects more to Michael's dads being a gay couple, or an interracial couple." Unfortunately (fortunately?), I wasn't able to find a better candidate in children's literature. Let's assume, however, that such a book is soon to be published in response to the spreading legalization of same sex marriage. Maybe it wouldn't get a positive review from Horn Book Magazine, but assume this is solely because of viewpoint: it's well-illustrated, cleverly told, and appealing to families who want their children to view different-sex couples as the ideal. It's a popular title for younger audiences representing the worldview seen in A Parent's Guide to Preventing Homosexuality (which is carried by my local-ish Omaha Public Library).

Should public libraries carry this hypothetical "anti-gay"-but-otherwise-attractive children's book?

Mission Matters

It depends on what public libraries are for. If libraries are fundamentally about providing "materials and information presenting all points of view on current and historical issues," as Article Two of the Library Bill of Rights states, then there no question. Librarians must provide "anti-gay" books. It's not like this is an obscure historical viewpoint in contemporary America; roughly four in ten Americans still want to deny marriage to same sex couples.

On the other hand, if public libraries have a fundamental purpose that is better served by counting "hate literature" as a reason for excluding or de-prioritizing materials, then surely children's picture books would be the least appropriate place for such "hate literature."

Which is the right answer? There isn't one without first deciding what we really want. There are important historical reasons behind the non-judgmental stance taken by the Library Bill of Rights. Views on what constitutes immoral, hateful, or dangerous materials change and sometimes invert! It's easy to think "anti-gay" books are undeserving of library representation, but what about the times when people thought the same about "anti-slavery" or "anti-capitalism" books. Once you start making exceptions, why couldn't another librarian with other values make her own exceptions to intellectual freedom ideals? After all, there's nothing in the librarian handbook to authorize one type of censorship, but not the other.

Plan B

Absolutism is seductive. It's pure. It's simple. It makes for great slogans.

Unfortunately, absolute adherence to any single value can demand severe compromises on other deeply-held values. Consider the First Amendment and its absolutist wording: "Congress shall make no law [...] abridging the freedom of speech." Seems straightforward, but imagine if the First Amendment were strictly applied. A gang leader's order to kill would be protected. A prankster's bomb threats would be protected. A politician's 3am speeches delivered by megaphone in residential neighborhoods would be protected. Thanks to judicial tradition, our Constitutional right to free speech is subject to a limited number of exceptions. These exceptions aren't precisely where I would draw the lines, but I don't know anyone seriously advocating an absolutist understanding of the First Amendment; not even the American Civil Liberties Union.

What's the point in having a First Amendment if judges are just going to make exceptions? In a way, having a few, well-defined types of exceptions allows the remaining kinds of speech to be protected more robustly. For example, an explicit free speech exception which permits the government to restrict the sale of sexual materials to minors allows for an uncompromising freedom to sell those same kinds of materials to adults, or to sell violent materials to minors. If we're ever going to make exceptions, it's better to enumerate the areas where exceptions are allowed, so that we can leave all other areas exceptionless.

I suggest librarians take a similar approach to the Library Bill of Rights. In practice, are conscientious librarians today strictly and absolutely adhering to this document at all times? If not, let's not ignore the fact; let's face it in the open. Just as champions of free speech are willing to restrict 3am bullhorn speeches, there may be widespread agreement that the kind of intellectual freedom we champion does not require us to provide children's books focused on promoting a negative viewpoint toward some part of our community.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Quote of the Day: Moon on Parental Despotism

"We need to take a hard look at the rights of the young to access information. It is an issue we have avoided for far too long. And what seems to have become our traditional stance—that it is up to parents to control the reading and viewing of their offspring—may be politically expedient but it isn't particularly principled.

The arrival of compulsory education provided one escape route for those children whose parents seemed determined to establish a dynasty of ignorance. Some parents still struggle to protect their children from education but, by and large, society has come to accept education as among the rights of the young. Society usually does things for selfish reasons, however, and this may be no more than acceptance that the need for an educated next generation to continue or improve upon what we have wrought is so important that it must even supersede the rather despotic rights we have customarily accorded to parents.

The question for us, though, is do we then accept that the child's or young adult's right of access to knowledge stops when the school doors close? Do we believe that education happens only in school, that libraries are not educational, that they are less important, less relevant than schools? If we do not believe these things, then how come we do not protest as strongly when an individual parent bars the door of the library (or the adult section) to his or her child as when the governor of a state stands in the schoolhouse door and bars entry to children who seek nothing more dangerous than an equal crack at a decent education?"

from Eric Moon's inaugural address as president for the American Library Association at the conference in Detroit in 1977, as quoted in Lillian Gerhardt's critical editorial on page 9 of the Sept. 1977 issue of School Library Journal.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Reflecting On... Patron-Driven Acquisitions

[This is a so-called reading reflection paper for my Collections Management class, but really it's more like a book report on an article of our choosing.]

There was a brief mention of patron-driven acquisitions in class, but I wanted to know more about how this is being done. Patron-driven acquisitions are purchases made more-or-less directly because of specific patron interest in titles, as opposed to the more traditional method of collection librarians supplying titles, and patrons choosing from what already exists. From late 2009 through late 2010, the University of Iowa library system experimented with a patron-driven acquisition program for e-books, then reported their results:
Fischer, K.S., Wright, M., Clatanoff, K., Barton, H., & Shreeves, E. (2012, September). Give ‘em what they want: A one-year study of unmediated patron-driven acquisition of e-books. College & Research Libraries, 73(5), 469-492. Retrieved from http://crl.acrl.org/content/73/5/469.abstract
University of Iowa Libraries set aside $50,000 for the experiment, with $25,000 initially in their ebrary account (p. 473). After ten views of a title’s preview pages, that title would quietly and automatically be purchased (p. 474). Patrons would easily discover these titles because ebrary supplied free MARC records which librarians judged to be of sufficient quality to add to the ILS without modification (p. 472).

There were some limitations on titles. Publishers who were already represented in other library-purchased databases were excluded to avoid duplications. Popular (as opposed to academic) titles were excluded. Same for titles costing over $250, or titles with a pre-2008 publication date. These exclusions, plus an unexpected-but-fortuitous error in MARC loading that left out many titles before the winnowing left the selectable pool at a manageable 12,000 titles (p. 473-474).

To understand the results, it helps to understand why these librarians were interested in this acquisition model in the first place. In short: expert selection of titles in academic libraries has historically resulted in a scarily large percentage of unused or little-used materials. Referring to an earlier study:
“If the criterion for a cost-effective acquisitions program was based on a minimum of two circulation uses, 54.2 percent of the titles purchased in 1969 would not have been ordered. In fact, 39.8 percent of the new books tracked from 1969 through 1975 never circulated during their first six years on the library shelves.” (p. 471)
By contrast, this experiment’s results were quite promising:
“Books purchased by PDA [i.e. patron-driven acquisition] show persistent downstream use once triggered. The majority (60%) of PDA books experienced between two and five user sessions in the past year, and more than 80 percent of the books saw between two and ten user sessions […]. This represents significantly more use than most print books receive as measured by circulations in a given year [….]” (p. 479)
Some interesting stats: weekly average cost was $1848, average books purchased per month was 71, average spent per title was $106, average uses per title was 6.3 (p. 474). The most popular subject areas in descending order were: Medicine, Sociology, Economics, Education, Biology, and Psychology.

Overall, the experiment was considered a success. Does this mean Iowa University Libraries will be switching over fully to patron-drive acquisition? No. E-book offerings don’t yet provide the coverage of print titles, and is still considered a supplement to “expert selection as practiced by liaison librarians” (p. 490). E-book usage also raises issues that need to be addressed moving forward, such as: “licensing terms and copyright, effects on interlibrary cooperation, long-term preservation, user experience, pricing models, the calculation of value (or cost/benefit), and the continued role of print, among others” (p. 490). However, there is now good research indicating that it will be worth the effort to face these challenges.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Quote of the Day: Public Libraries as Literary Culture Incubators

"The third and last class of objections to public libraries to which I shall direct your attention relates to the kind and quality of the books circulated. These objections, which are usually made by educated and scholarly persons, are based on an entire misconception of the facts in the case. The objectors do not divest themselves of the old ideas that libraries are established for the exclusive benefit of scholars; whereas the purpose of these [i.e. public libraries] is to furnish reading for all classes in the community. On no other principle would a general tax for their support be justifiable.

The masses of a community have very little of literary and scholarly culture. They need more of this culture, and the purpose of the library is to develop and increase it. This is done by placing in their hands such books as they can read with pleasure and appreciate, and by stimulating them to acquire the habit of reading. We must first interest the reader before we can educate him; and, to this end, must commence at his own standard of intelligence.

The scholar, in his pride of intellect, forgets the progressive steps he took in his own mental development—the stories read to him in the nursery, the boy's book of adventure in which he revelled with delight, and the sentimental novel over which he shed tears in his youth. Our objector supposes that the masses will read books of his standard if they were not supplied with the books to which he objects; but he is mistaken. Shut up to this choice, they will read no books. When the habit of reading is once acquired, the reader's taste, and hence the quality of his reading, progressively improves."

Poole, WM. F. (1876). Some popular objections to public libraries. The American Library Journal 1(2), p. 48-49. [Paragraph breaks added for readability.]

Friday, March 1, 2013

Monthly Picks

On the first day of each month, I will be posting about papers I've found interesting in Philosophy or Library & Information Science. I'll try to make sure at least one is accessible to everyone.


Still feeling lazy (actually very busy), so here are some older essays I like quite a bit:

There's Plenty of Room at the Bottom, in which Richard Feynman invented the field of nanotechnology. Not exaggerating.

On Being the Right Size, in which J.B.S. Haldane ruined Honey, I Shrunk the Kids for me.

Science: The Endless Frontier, in which Vannevar Bush invented government-funded civilian research. Exaggerating.