thinking about banned books

I’ve long been a fan of Jessamyn West’s take on Banned Books Week — that it’s a marketing ploy, that most of the books that claim to be banned are actually just challenged and are not ultimately removed from library shelves, that there are many more issues of importance when it comes to censorship and the disappearance of information that used to be public. So I’ve tended to treat the subject lightly if at all at the library — I sometimes print out some stuff and throw up a book display and put a post on our website (and, in fact, that’s all I’m really doing this year), and then I complain to my librarian friends and colleagues about all my issues with the event.

This year, the lead-up to Banned Books Week in the young adult blogosphere was the attempt to have Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak, Sarah Ockler’s Twenty Boy Summer, and Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five removed from a school in Missouri. (Anderson also has a followup post.)

Now this is very much your typical book challenge of the sort recorded by the ALA’s Office of Intellectual Freedom. Someone gets upset that high school students are reading about sex and swear words and, using media-savvy, raises a huge stink. Nothing too unusual in the annals of book challenges.

But it got me thinking again, perhaps because Speak is one of my favorite books, perhaps because the description of it by the objector (“soft porn”) was so ridiculous, perhaps because I work in what is half a school library.

It’s easy to dismiss school libraries as, well, different. They’re serving a specific population. Their collection all has to “support the curriculum.” But I don’t think that we, as librarians, should take that view. As Justice Abe Fortas wrote in Tinker v. Des Moines, “[i]t can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.” Nor should they lose their right to read freely. And so many of the books that are challenged in schools deal with topics students want and need to know about. Students with same sex parents, teens questioning their own sexual orientation, young people who’ve been abused or assaulted — people don’t write books about these things to be prescriptive. They write about them because they happen. And reading about them happening is one way that those who’ve experienced those things can learn to deal with them, and one way those who have not can have their eyes opened to them.

I want to talk about a lot of things related to censorship and freedom of information, from government information and free law to the embargoes and copyright agreements and astronomical prices that often keep scholars from accessing their own work. But I still want to talk, as I so often do, about that kid lurking in the stacks, looking for something that just might change her life.

alone at the library

I spent hours of my youth at the public library. Hours and hours. Sometimes I went just to check out books, but more often than not I went just to spend time there. The Iowa City Public Library had record players and CD players you could use, and I’d flip through the albums (I first listened to the Beatles at the library), pick out a stack, and set up at a record player, put on the headphones, and read or do my homework or just daydream. I loved it there because it was the only place I ever went where people left me alone.

At school, one was usually supposed to be doing something in particular place, and if you were out of that place, or doing something else, you got in trouble. Stores are notoriously hostile toward teenagers, and of course they want you to buy things. I hate buying things. If I wanted company, I’d go to UAY or, if the weather was good, to the ped mall down town, but when I wanted to be left alone, I went to the library.

Aaron has a short jibe about How to Be Alone, a video that’s been making the rounds on YouTube and that suggests the library as a good place to go to be alone. “Not exactly what we’re going for, eh?” he asks. Commenters on the post beg to differ, and I do too.

Oh, I know building community is important. I know gate counts are important, and program attendance statistics are important, and Facebook fans are important, and people getting to know their librarians and their neighbors is important, and people creating content is important, and all that stuff is important. But every time I hear someone talking about how we need to make libraries more popular and not just places for nerds, every time I hear people talking about programming like it’s the most important and perhaps only thing we do, or should do, for teens, a little part of me wonders what place there is in that library for the fifteen year old me, the girl who just wanted listen to records and wander the stacks and look at old magazines and, well, be left alone?

I also fell in love with Jonathan Franzen while reading his book How to Be Alone, which is about a lot of things, but mostly it’s about reading and thinking and exploring ideas and following the paths of your own particular mind — things that are rightfully solitary pursuits. Some of the greatest things I have ever done have been groups and with groups. But not all of them.

“The first thing books teach you,” Franzen says, “is how to be alone.”

dream of the children’s materials OPAC

Tomorrow morning I leave, not exactly bright and early, for the WYLD Annual Meeting in Sundance, Wyoming. Sadly, this is not the site of the eponymous film festival, which is actually held in Park City, Utah, but it is near Devil’s Tower, the U.S.’s first national monument, which I probably will not have time to visit.

I will learn various things related to the OPAC, but not, I suspect, why it sucks, or more importantly, what we might do to fix it. Oh well.

At work today I was reminded of another aspect of the suckiness of OPACs, one that I haven’t seen discussed (although please correct me if I am wrong–I read fewer blogs than I might like, and I’m being lazy and not hitting the search engines–bad librarian!”). A patron came in looking for picture books with princesses in them. Now, I know there are children’s librarians out there who can take a request like that, do a little dance through the stacks, and hand you a stack of books a foot thick. I am not one of them. I rely instead on a) asking my colleagues (pages are particularly good at this sort of thing, since they see all the books on a far more regular basis than the rest of us), b) hitting the invaluable A to Zoo: A Subject Guide to Children’s Literature and then going through the tedium of figuring out which books our library actually owns, or c) trying my luck at keyword and subject searches of the catalog. And here, as you might guess, is where we get to the Why OPACs Suck for Children’s Materials bit.

People who have not worked in youth services are often intimidated by the children’s room, which, truth be told, can be quite confusing. There are a lot of catagories: picture books, easy readers, J fiction. Sometimes you also find board books, intermediate books, series books, book kits, and any number of other things separated out. The physical layout is confusing enough: what makes it worse is that almost none of these distinctions are searchable in the catalog. For instance, take today’s patron, who wanted picture books involving princesses. You can try doing a keyword search of the catalog for something like “princesses juvenile fiction,” and you should get a list of children’s books involving princesses that are fiction, but you then have to go through and separate out the picture books from the J fiction, the easy readers, and whatever other catagories may have shown up. If you wanted just nonfiction on princesses, the search string is actually “princesses juvenile literature.” I’m not kidding. That’s a trick I learned from the wonderful ESSL Children’s Literature Blog: in children’s materials (though nowhere else that I can tell), the subject term that indicates nonfiction is literature. Go figure.

In my dream children’s materials OPAC, you wouldn’t have to know arcana like that, though. You’d have a search interface that would give you options: fiction or nonfiction? picture book or easy reader or chapter book? I realize that dream kind of conflicts with the Dream of the Single Search Box, it would, I think, make the lives of library patrons and the jobs of youth services workers much easier. Of course, in my dream world, every library would also come equipped with that mythic children’s librarian, the one who can reel off a list of books on any given topic for a particular age at the drop of a hat. But some days those librarians need a vacation–and the dream children’s materials OPAC would help the rest of us not make muck of their domain.

Read Roger!

Did you know that Roger Sutton (editor of The Horn Book) has a blog?

We children’s lit people are not so far behind the times after all. (And if you like children’s literature–as I hope you do–and are a reader of blogs–as I assume you are if you are reading this–I hope you’re reading Your Fairy Bookmother. Thanks to Rochelle for pointing that one out to me.)

Sutton (I just don’t quite feel right calling him Roger, even if he does use it in his blog’s name) points out a nifty little article in the most recent issue, complete with a very cool demonstration of what a digital picture book could be. And he points to a little bit of flawed logic coming out of ALA (you’re shocked, I’m sure):

ALA has inserted itself into’s “Don’t Read” ad campaign. For the wrong reasons, I think: “trademark violation,” which is a bit obnoxious given that the ad is a parody and the ALA is allegedly in the business of protecting intellectual freedom.

Good stuff, and worth reading, if you’re so inclined.

back to school

by the numbers
Originally uploaded by newrambler.

update on 9/21: URLs fixed!

I’ve now started all my fall classes, which are a slightly different line-up from when I last posted on the topic. I’m now taking

LIS 721 Library Materials for Children
LIS 745 Searching Electronic Databases
LIS 763 Readers Advisory Services

All told, that makes for 9 hours a week of class, 19.5 hours a week at the library, 8-12 hours a week of dog-walking, and 8 hours a week commuting, not counting time spent schlepping between dogs. And all told that adds up to lots of time spent on various duties and not so much time for blogging, I expect to be checking in periodically.

Also, may I belatedly add that you should check out the most recent stops of the Carnival of the Infosciences:

while supplies last. . .

Originally uploaded by newrambler.

(Gosh, this Flickr business is fun. . . .)

I don’t normally keep track of the books I read, although I keep meaning to. I didn’t manage to this summer, either, but in case you did and feel that your summer reading efforts have gone underappreciated, may I offer you this handsome certificate, complete with Latin motto, suitable for thumbtacking to an appropriate surface?

The end of summer reading seemed to coincide with a lot of vacations, and thus a number of kids never showed up to pick up their certificates. If you would like one, please send an e-mail indicating your name as you wish it to appear on the certificate and your snail mail address to lauracrossett [at] hailmail [dot] net. I can also fill in the number of books read, and any number of Book Bucks you want, though I’m afraid that at this point they’re about as useful as Confederate money in 1865.

the anxiety of influence

Of all the jobs I do at the library, the most thrilling and frightening by far are buying and weeding books. I am in charge of all the YA books, which live (except for the nonfiction, which, when it is no longer new, gets interfiled with adult nonfiction) in two long shelves tucked in the back corner of the adult room. They are so hidden that often when I take people to find a book back there, they are surprised to learn that there is a YA section.

Because we don’t place a book order in August, I have now had over a month to fiddle with my September order. It is rare that a day goes by that I don’t take something out, only to put it back in the next day. I can spend a good deal of time worrying about the books, worrying about what kind of service I can possibly be providing to our patrons if I neglect one of them in favor of another, wondering what influence my choices will have on the people who rely on the library. For instance, the other day, courtesy of A Wandering Eyre, I happened upon this piece on the censoring of YA books from Bookslut, which praises Perfect, a novel by Natasha Friend. It was published last year and has been the subject of some controversy, chiefly, it seems, because it is about a girl who has bulimia, and it is quite graphic in its descriptions of how to become bulimic. Of the eight libraries in our system, five own it, but my library is not among them.
Now, I am all for the stocking of banned books, particularly when (as is the case with this one) they have gotten good reviews and they seem to be popular (three of the five copies in the system are out right now, and one was only just returned). I add this book to my order every few days, and then periodically I take it out, not because of the content (although I will admit that I am squeamish about eating disorders) but because, usually, there’s a newer book that I want to buy instead.

After all, the book is available in our system, I tell myself. But it’s not available in our library, says the other little voice in my head, and the other libraries aren’t anywhere near ours. If kids don’t see it here, they’re not likely to find it. But they can find it through the catalog. How the hell are they going to know to look for it in the catalog? It’s not like there are lot of high quality bookstores in Franklin Park, IL (yes, that third one you see on the list is an adult bookstore–actually, there’s another adult bookstore that doesn’t show up here that’s even closer). But I have to make choices, and if I buy this, I can’t buy a new book that might be equally important!

Well. You see how that goes.

The other day, in another fit of anxiety, I decided to do a little quasi-scientific experiment with my book order. I’ve been reading lately about the paucity of books (especially children’s and young adult books) that appeal to males and how this could be part of the reason that guys don’t read. I went through my order and classified each book, to the best of my ability, as appealing more to females, more to males, or equally to both. The results (excluding half a dozen graphic novels, which were requested by a guy but which I really don’t know where to place):

  • everyone–20
  • females–20
  • males–7

Oh dear. (And that, of course, provides another argument for not buying Perfect, which is likely to appeal only to girls).

But if the process of buying books is sometimes fraught, it pales in comparison to the process of weeding them. There are moments when weeding is satisfying. Clearing out beaten up paperbacks by R.L. Stine is a fine feeling. But more often than not, weeding is difficult, frustrating, and sometimes painful. As Rick Roche recently wrote (on both buying and weeding), “I have to accept the reality that I can not perfectly predict which books will be well read and buy the potentially hot books and shift other books to make a little more room.” I hate that.

I also hate it because I was a reader of obscure books when I was a child. At my elementary school, which was filled with the offspring of doctors, lawyers, and professors, there were lengthy waiting lists for every new book that came it. Because I did not want to wait three months to read a book, and because I didn’t know how to get on the waiting list anyway and was too shy to ask, I prowled the stacks to find the oldest, most abandoned books I could. My ideal was to find a book that hadn’t been checked out since before I was born. I read many wonderful books this way–Octagon Magic by Andre Norton and Quest in the Desert by Roy Chapman Andrews and many more. In high school, I found The Lady’s not For Burning, which had not been checked out since 1972. I checked it out nearly once a trimester for the remainder of my time there; recently, I checked the catalog to see if it was still there, and wrote to the librarian, who confirmed said that yes, the last checkouts dated from the early ’90s–my last few years in high school. (Christopher Fry, the author, died only recently. I hadn’t realized he was still alive. I would have written him a letter–the people who help get you through high school deserve to be thanked). Every time I get rid of a book, I can’t help but wonder if the book I’m tossing is one of these, if it’s a book that’s meant to be found by someone at this very library, if it’s somehow going to save even a small portion of a person’s life, and if I am interfering in God’s great plan. This is the sort of thing that can keep you up at night.

The last best word on the subject of keeping odd (albeit, in this case, well-circulating) books in libraries, though, comes from Annie Dillard, in An American Childhood. She writes about growing up in Pittsburgh in the 1950s and visiting the Homewood branch of the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh every week and what she learned from borrowing books there:

The Field Book of Ponds and Streams was a shocker from beginning to end. The greatest shock came at the end. . . . When I checked out The Field Book of Ponds and Streams for the second time, I noticed the book’s card. It was almost full. There were numbers on both sides. My hearty author and I were not alone in the world, after all. With us, and sharing our enthusiasm for dragonfly larvae and single-celled plants, were, apparently, many Negro adults.
Who were these people? Had they, in Pittsburgh’s Homewood section, found ponds? Had they found streams? At home, I read the book again; I studied the drawings; I reread Chapter 3; then I settled in to study the due-date slip. People read this book in every season. Seven or eight people were reading this book every year, even during the war. . . . The people of Homewood, some of whom lived in visible poverty, on crowded streets among burned-out houses–they dreamed of ponds and streams.

I miss the days when you could see the date stamps on your library book. I learned a great deal from them. When I stand now in the aisle, computer printout of circ records in hand, trying to decide what goes and what stays, I can only hope that I am doing justice to the worlds that reside on the shelves. The library is a growing organism, but that means, unless you have unlimited amounts of space, that it is also a dying one.

libraries meet MTV

Jessamyn had a great idea the other day–a show called Pimp Your Library:

Pimp My Library would take some ratty old library with an outdated web site, half-busted computers, no good YA room and terrible signage and trick it out to a level suitable for a modern-day information crossroads. Librarians and other staff would be forced to take the day off under the guide of professional development and would be returned to a sparkling new ergonomic and fashionable workplace with accessible standards-compliant web site. We’d still call the library. It can be done. Maybe we’d need to call the show something else though.

And then tonight’s episode of This American Life had a story about the rock band The High Strung and their summer library tour in Michigan.* (Remember those photos Michael Stephens posted the other day?)

Are you ready to rock?