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Wednesday
Mar072018

Judging a book by its author

 

The American Library Association's Professional Ethics principle that for me that is the most challenging to uphold is the seventh:

We distinguish between our personal convictions and professional duties and do not allow our personal beliefs to interfere with fair representation of the aims of our institutions or the provision of access to their information resources.

Like most people, I have strong personal beliefs about a lot of stuff, especially social issues. My sense is that being the mission-driven profession that it is, those of us in librarianship may have even more strongly held (and informed) beliefs than the general population. And when selecting or weeding a library collection, we walk a very fine line of exercising our professional expertise in collection development and maintaining a collection that upholds the principles of intellectual freedom - making materials available that may not align to our personal social standards. 

I thought about this principle while reading discussion surround the disposition of children's and YA books written by authors and illustrators who have been accussed of sexual harassment. A question being asked is "If we learn that the creator of materials in our collections has been accused of personally unacceptable behaviors, do we still keep the materials?"

A related question involves retain materials by much loved authors whose works do not reflect modern sensibilities in relationship to race and culture. (1, 2) Do we keep these books and use them as discussion starters? Do we toss their books that show obvious racism? Or do we weed all books by those authors, defining them as created by racists?

Let me say up front that I have never experienced sexual harassment nor racial discrimination. These experiences remain academic and abstract for me, not personal, and thus the following argument is perhaps easier to make that it is for many.

My hope is that we judge any creative work for itself, not by its creator. I hope we keep materials in our collection for the good in them and use their historical biases as a springboards for discussion. I hope we can separate our personal reaction to socially unacceptable behaviors and beliefs from our professional obligations as librarians.

I hope that we at least have thoughtful discussions based on professional ethics, rather than have the latest revelations of misdeeds, guide us in determining the disposition of materials in our collections.

I often wonder how our great-great-great grandchildren will view early 21st century values and accepted practices. Will they look back and ask:

  • How could people have eaten meat from animals raised in confinement?
  • How could people have used carbon-based fuels knowing that doing so was harming the environment?
  • How could people have paid women and minorities less?
  • How could societies have allowed any child to go hungry and homeless?

As an author, I wonder if one day my books might be banned for values I held that are today accepted (or tolerated), but tomorrow may seem abhorrent?

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Reader Comments (3)

Doug,

This is an important question I have been wrestling with in my head. I have reached a similar decision as you for books on the shelf, but I feel like you only addressed one part of this debate. What about additional copies or new books by the same author? Do we continue to put the books on recommended summer reading knowing that many families will purchase the books? For some reason it feels different when we talk about continuing to financially support these authors with our buying power.

March 8, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterBrad Malone

I mean I still buy Matilda and other Roald Dahl books even though I know he was a garbage human being who was eventually dropped by his publisher for being unreasonably demanding and anti-Semitic. I'm just not going to go out of my way to display or read aloud or book talk anything by anyone currently living that I happen to know is terrible. But I agree with Doug in terms of providing access to creative works whether or not the creator is a good person.

I mean I like the Ender's Game series but only read copies I've borrowed from the library because I don't want to give any money to O. Scott Card and his anti-gay campaign. But I also don't think librarians who have made decisions not to purchase things based on the reputation of the author are engaging in censorship. Censorship is solely when the government illegally suppresses these kinds of works. If I decide not to buy Bill O'Reilly's children's book about manners because I don't think he's one to teach anyone about such things, then that's selection. (And yeah, not buying that one Bill!)

March 9, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterJim

Hi Brad,

That is an interesting question. Seems to me that not purchasing something is equivalent to removing it​ from the collection, but it is a tricky question.

I would also wonder that if we refuse to purchase an item by an author who we deem needs "punishment" for his/her personal values/action, are we not also punishing the illustrator, editor, bookseller, etc?

A complex and fascinating world we live in...

Thanks for adding to the discussion be sure to read Jim's comment that follows yours.

Doug

Hi Jim,

I have to say this topic has been an eye-opener for me. I knew about Card's homophobia and of course O'Reilly's right wing craziness, but unless the book itself was intentionally politically inflammatory, I ​never really thought much about the character of the author. Do you discriminate between using purchasing as a political action tool between school and personal decision?

I guess there are places I will not shop because of the company's political leanings so I certainly can't fault others for how they choose to live their beliefs.

Doug​

March 10, 2018 | Registered CommenterDoug Johnson

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