Once upon a time, when I was young and naive--oh, about a couple of years ago--I thought the American Library Association was a wonderful group looking out for libraries and performing a great public service with Banned Books Week. But then I started seeing evidence to the contrary, mostly from Nat Hentoff and the Annoyed Librarian, and my opinion changed drastically. It turns out the ALA would much rather spend its time debating the evils of the Iraq War than promoting the profession, and "banned" books is a misnomer by their own admission. Not only that, but when they do tackle library issues, it is generally with a decidedly leftist bent.
In 2007 at the ALA's midwinter meeting in Seattle, the Social Responsibilities Round Table sponsored a vote on a resolution condemning the Iraq War. I'm happy to tell you that the resolution failed to pass. Why am I happy? It's not because I support the Iraq War, although I do, but because it has nothing to do with American librarianship. The ALA wasted time on something wholly outside their purview while there are real problems like the fact library school education is a joke. I spent half of graduate school drunk and got straight A's, and it's not because I'm an exceptionally good student. So what other issues has the SRRT tackled in recent years? They have discussed impeaching President Bush, as well as homosexuals and the Boy Scouts, and SRRT has task forces about feminism and the environment. Perhaps if they want to be "socially responsible" they could address early childhood literacy or the elimination of library media specialists in a lot of public schools. I know it's not as flashy, but it would be library related and responsible.
But the ALA does focus on books once a year and that self-congratulatory orgy known as Banned Books Week starts today. The ALA takes great pride in their defense of intellectual freedom and attempts to stop book banning. Only, books aren't banned. Across the country, books are sometimes challenged, which generally means someone finds a book age inappropriate and asks for it to be moved to a different department, or parents object to assigned school reading and ask that their children be allowed to read something else. So why is it still called Banned Books Week? According to their website, ALA partners with other groups and they could not change the name without approval from the others. Fair enough. But the ALA's statement doesn't end there. They claim no one wants to change the name because, "a challenge is an attempt to ban or restrict materials, based upon the objections of a person or a group. A successful challenge would result in materials being banned or restricted." Generally when a book is "restricted," it's moved from Children's to Young Adult (I'm sorry, Teen Services--I guess some in the library world can promote name changes) or YA to Adult. Depending on the library, this could mean that a minor would not be able to check out the book without parental permission. (At my library, parents decide what age level books their children 15 and under can check out.) But what books get challenged and why? One recent brouhaha surrounded the book The Higher Power of Lucky featuring a 10 year-old girl and marketed as a children's book. Here's an excerpt:
Sammy told of the day when he had drunk half a gallon of rum listening to Johnny Cash all morning in his parked '62 Cadillac, then fallen out of the car when he saw a rattlesnake on the passenger seat biting his dog, Roy, on the scrotum.
Is it so unreasonable that parents may find this objectionable for their 5 year-olds? At library school, they pounded into our heads that librarians do not serve in loco parentis, and yet when parents are asked to choose the age level their children should be reading and that the books in that age level should be age appropriate, the ALA screams that this is an infringement on a child's right to read.
The ALA's belief in people's right to read whatever they want at any age doesn't stop at the border, either. (Actually, it depends on which border, but more on that later.) Last year the ALA's president publicly denounced a Catholic school in Canada because that school decided that the His Dark Materials series was unsuitable for middle schoolers. 1 How the American Library Association feels it's appropriate to tell Canadian school libraries what books they should have is beyond me. Also, is it really so awful that a Catholic school would choose to move a series of books that promote atheism, by the author's admission, from their middle school to their high school? (From what I understand, Catholic schools in Canada are tied to the government, so it's a bit different than in America. That doesn't change the fact that I don't know why the ALA was commenting on it in the first place.)
The ALA doesn't take it's crusade to every corner of the world, however. You see, the ALA seems to have a soft spot for commies. They did virtually nothing to support librarians in the Soviet Union and today the organization is turning its back on Cuba. 2 In 2003, Cuba had an old-fashioned book burning. On the pyre one could find the works of people like George Orwell, Vaclav Havel, and Pope John Paul II. The ALA also has turned a blind eye to librarians currently in Cuban prisons. One such librarian is Ivan Hernandez Carrillo (June 8 column) who has so far served five of his 25 years in prison for operating an independent library in his home. What was so terrible in his little library? For one, a biography of Martin Luther King, Jr. that detailed the ideas of civil disobedience. The Cuban government decided Carrillo's library would literally be excellent fuel for their fire, and a judge ordered his collection incinerated. However, the ALA refuses to defend imprisoned Cuban librarians because they aren't really librarians. 3 Those stalwarts of professional standards refuse to offer support to anyone who didn't get drunk at an ALA accredited school for a few years. People like Carrillo risk their lives and freedom to supply books to their countrymen by operating their own libraries, but the ALA is hung up on a technicality. Additionally, the ALA feels as though it would be inappropriate to defend these independent Cuban libraries because some of their support comes from the US government. 4 Without American intervention, the average Cuban would never be able to read something like The Power of the Powerless, and somehow that's a problem for the intellectual freedom-loving ALA. If the ALA is going to stick its nose into international affairs, wouldn't jailed librarians and book burning be the natural place to start?
If you go to a public library this week, chances are you will see displays and posters celebrating people's freedom to read, all thanks to the enlightened and brave folks at the ALA. Just remember that the freedom to read includes your child reading about drunken rattlesnake dog scrotum, because Bush sucks and anyone named Castro is a-okay since they never lock up gin-swilling accredited librarians.
1. The ALA is upgrading their website at the moment, and this statement is no longer available there. You can read the Annoyed Librarian's take on it here.
2. Sadly, I learned about this article today, but I could not read the full text online. If I'd waited to have the article sent to me, I would have missed Banned Books Week. I would also like to read a book I discovered on the topic today, but again, couldn't access, [i]Not Seeing Red.[/i]
3. Again, this information is not available at the moment on the ALA website. This Nat Hentoff article explains it well.
4. This is another ALA website problem that is covered in the above Hentoff article.