Sunday, February 7, 2016

Self-Censorship: Alive and Well

“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.” Megan Schliesman

Recently, Roger Sutton over at The Horn Book wrote “I’d really like to ban the term “self-censorship” from discourse, given that we already have a spectrum of words–from “prudence” to “cowardice”–that say more precisely what we mean, and because it causes us to be confused about what censorship actually is.” I’ve been thinking about this post since I read it and felt that it warranted a response here. While Roger’s post wasn’t inherently about the type of self-censorship I cover in my teaching and research, I do think it’s important to consider the (ironically) chilling effect that his words could have on our field. (Of course, it could be that Roger was being a bit facetious, but many people take his words at face value regardless of intent.)

I do believe that we need to keep using the term “self-censorship” in LIS education, practice, and research. Regardless of whether we are limiting our definition to acts of suppression by the government or using a more expansive Foucauldian definition to recognize the government’s subversive power throughout our daily lives, any librarian that receives their paycheck from a local, state, or federal governmental agency is capable of self-censorship.

In 1958, Marjorie Fiske published the ground-breaking Book Selection and Censorship: A Study of School and Public Libraries in California (there are still used copies floating around if you don’t yet own one) and offered an extensive look at the influence of self-censorship on selection. Louise Robbin’s Censorship and the American Library: the American Library Association's response to threats to intellectual freedom, 1939-1969 is also an important work for connecting the work of Fiske and others to the larger issue of censorship in U.S. libraries.

I tend to take a more expansive view of self-censorship, following in the footsteps of Sandy Berman. (Back when I was still selecting in libraries, I would humorously imagine a tiny Sandy Berman sitting on my shoulder, guiding me through any qualms I might have about ordering something.) Typically my work falls within the realm of youth services or “diversity” in libraries, but this semester, I am teaching our required collection development course, which allows me to explore the issue in a number of contexts. And I will be using the term “self-censorship,” rather than some of Roger’s suggestions (although I’m sure those will come up as well).

From personal experience, from current and former students, and from the literature, I know that self-censorship is happening in libraries across America. I know the internal struggles I faced when starting a bilingual Spanish/English youth collection in a county that wasn’t exactly friendly to the growing Latinx community. I know how I had to overcome the resistance I expected from library staff and vocal White library users when I spent a lot of my collection development money on diverse titles in multiple formats.

I also hear from students, both former and current, about their own internal battles. These librarians and future librarians are not only thinking about perceived threats to their selections but also about actual threats. I hear from school librarians who know that their principals have removed “controversial” GLBT and/or “edgy” POC titles from their collections overnight who worry that buying future titles will not only be a waste of their limited budgets, but may even one day cost them their jobs. I hear from public librarians who have been “discouraged,” if not actually forbidden, from buying “those ethnic award” titles, because their communities are White and they won’t circulate. I even hear from academic librarians who, due to antiquated vendor agreements, have basically given up selecting many of the GLTQ and POC/Native books because the paperwork required to purchase books not carried by the vendor causes too much suspicion and questioning from their acquisitions and technical services peers.

And we have all heard from the literature, from the sources linked above to Debra Lau Whelan, Rebecca Hill, Peggy Kaney, and a number of others. A great starting point for those new to this conversation is this LibGuide.

I purchase a lot of books for my teaching and research every year and my work tends toward GLBT and POC/Native voices and subjects. To save money, many of the books I buy are used, particularly as these titles often go out of print more quickly than books by/about White, straight people (a post for another day). One of my research projects at the moment arose from a trend I noticed when buying these titles. Over the past several years, I have been able to get “Like New” copies from third parties such as Better World Books. Once they arrive, I discover that they are obviously uncirculated but withdrawn titles processed for library use. My belief is that these titles are arriving as part of purchase plans but being pulled before they even enter the collections. Since these titles are preprocessed, I know the public and school libraries from whence they originate and have verified through OPACs that this isn’t a case of too many copies, as these libraries actually don’t have the books in their online holdings. Since some of the school library catalogs aren’t online, I’ve even called to ask if a particular title is available. These titles never made it to the shelves.

As quoted by Megan at the onset, the most insidious form of self-censorship results from personal bias. This is why research in this area is so difficult. We don’t want to admit that our biases might affect our jobs. I’m currently working on a book chapter for a Library Juice Press title, Topographies of Whiteness: Mapping Whiteness in Library and Information Science, edited by Gina Schlesselman-Tarango. The tentative title of that chapter is “Blinded by the White: Color Blindness, Racial Coding, and Self-Censorship in Public Library Collection Development and Management” This chapter is based on the experiences I had during the course of my dissertation fieldwork. In it, I will explore how racial bias and racism can cause conscious or subconscious self-censorship, which in turn influences any meaningful, widespread progress in providing library users with collections that reflect the lived experiences of people of color and First/Native peoples. I will also address the possibility of increased self-censorship regarding racially diverse titles that intersect with other forms of identity (especially gender identity and/or sexual orientation). This topic wasn’t even the point of my dissertation research, but rather arose because of things that White library staff admitted to me (often inadvertently) during my interviews. Since I am White, I guess they had no qualms about admitting their biases and how they influenced the selection (or not) of certain types of diverse titles.

Many of us who work in this field do so because of the importance these books have in the lives of the youth in our communities, states, nations, and the world. There is power in naming the forces that work against serving all of these children and teens. There is also power in not naming these forces. Removing terms like “self-censorship” from our discourse won’t prevent it from happening. In fact, it could make it easier for librarians to ignore the professional responsibilities that should guide daily decisions. Self-censorship is real. Self-censorship is alive and well in libraries around the world. Calling it something else doesn’t clarify what’s happening. It actually muddies the water.


  1. I wrote a blog post related to this awhile ago.

  2. Sorry to just get over here, Robin. I guess I don't understand why you refer to the collection development biases of librarians as "self-censorship." If I choose not to buy a book for a collection because I personally disapprove of its contents, or for fear that someone else will disapprove of its contents and I will therefore get in trouble, aren't I simply engaging in censorship?

    1. Thanks for your response, Roger. I think that I, along with others, see self-censorship as a specific type of censorship. I think it's important to name it specifically and engage my students in discussions about it specifically so that it doesn't get overlooked in the larger censorship discussion. Too often, as both a student and a librarian, I've seen censorship discussions become so wrapped up in being about "Banned Books Week" and other post-selection challenge issues that any censorship that happens at the individual librarian level before a book ever enters the collection never enters the discussion. My concern with that omission it that it makes it too easy for those discussions to simply never happen at all. Regardless of whether we call it self-censorship or censorship in general, I don't think we talk about it enough.

  3. I'm with you there, Robin. But at the risk of being pedantic, I have to say that "self-censorship" sounds to me like one is censoring oneself--I remember Judy Blume using the term this way to describe her decision to omit a masturbation scene from TIGER EYES. I think it would be good for librarians to have to confront the fact that when they make a quiet decision to not purchase something because of its potential for controversy they are engaging in censorship full-stop, an exact example of what not to do when engaged in a public trust.