Monday, 26 February 2007

Censorship = bad. Discuss.

A couple of weeks ago, I was talking to a very smart individual about library-related things. We got onto the issue of banned books and censorship, and where libraries fit in. I’ve been thinking about the topic on and off ever since, because it’s one of those things that benefits from that sort of approach.

My correspondent asked whether he would be able to go into the library where I work and pick up, say, Hitler’s Mein Kampf. It’s an example of a book that might be withheld from public view: it’s a controversial book whose author is considered, by and large, evil; it might infer our support of national socialist idiocy; people might seek it out in order to be offended by its presence.

My answer was that yes, you can. I was pretty sure I’d seen it in the Central Library’s Reserve Stock; it’s a large room filled with rolling stacks, fairly typical in any Central Library’s setup and filled with old books. There are Haynes manuals for old cars, 50-year-old volumes of Who’s who, and guides for the Commodore Amiga (every time I see them I ask myself why we keep them – space is a premium and the humble Amiga is long gone. People tell me that we keep the old stuff “for posterity” or “just in case”, but I don’t think they’re good enough reasons to use our most finite resource: space).

A year or two ago, I was tasked with finding out about the original launch of the then-new Central Library in the late ‘30s. I remember coming across a newspaper clipping of an article, presumably in 1939 or thereabouts. The journalist described seeing a woman shaking her fist and muttering at a display of books on a table. On asking her what she was doing, it turned out that the books were by Hitler and Mussolini, and that she was expressing her displeasure at Fascism. Not at the books, nor at the library for keeping copies of them, but at the concepts espoused in them and the people who wrote them.

This, really, is the opposite of censorship: potentially offensive texts were placed in public view for people to make up their own minds. Or, in this woman’s case, to shake your fist and mutter. This is another reason I expected to find Mein Kampf somewhere: we’ve always had it. I didn’t think it would be the same copy, because controversial books tend to be defaced, stolen or worn out through excessive use. But I thought I’d see something.

Turns out I was wrong: Mein Kampf isn’t in Reserve Stock. There are biographies of Hitler and there’s a book of commentary on it, but the autobiography itself wasn’t there.

It’s in the main library, on the open shelves, with the other biographies. I’ve seen it with my own eyes. Our LMS tells me that it’s done sterling work and has been out on loan pretty frequently. But then, biographies are very popular – probably the most popular non-fiction area – and Hitler is, you’ve got to admit, fairly well-known. In that context, it makes perfect sense for the book to be where it is and to work as hard for us as it does.

As a rule we don’t censor. We don’t withhold or decide not to purchase anything based on our personal views, preferences or beliefs. Our code of professional ethics steers curiously clear of the "c" word though: censorship is not mentioned explicitly. Instead, we get this:

Impartiality, and avoidance of inappropriate bias, in acquiring and evaluating
information and in mediating it to other information users.

But that doesn’t happen really. We’ve got some Robert Mapplethorpe books, which are kept in Closed Access. As the name suggests, Closed Access isn’t somewhere you can go. You need to ask a member of staff for CA stock, who will then fetch your items for you. We’re not homophobes, so why are we hiding homoerotic art from public view?

Partly, and this goes for nudie pictures of any kind, it’s likely to get nicked. Plates are often razored out of books. It’s a shame that people feel the need to do that, but they do. We don’t want to have to keep buying copies of books we’ve bought already, so we use this technique to try to keep them nice.

Equally unfortunate is the fact that some people will seek out “offensive” materials in order to be offended. So we head them off at the pass by hiding “offensive” books away. It saves us having to field complaints from bigots, but is pandering to their bigotry necessarily the best way to do it?

Most importantly, if the library doesn’t have a book, it’s not really censorship: you can get books at places other than the library. We don’t have Count Zero, but I don’t consider that censorship: the copy we *did* have probably fell apart through excessive use and nobody got around to replacing it. We don’t have any books on Ubuntu Linux, but they’re not banned. We just don’t have those books. We can't have all of the books ever published. That's just not feasible.

In an ideal world, we’d be able to leave any contentious material in full public view and let people censor themselves. Few things in this world are ideal. We’re left with a system which will never be as equitable as we would want it to be. That system is broken, and I don’t know where to start fixing it.

Censorship, then: a tricky issue, and one every information professional has to revisit, regularly.