The County Library “Censors” Books Right and Left
An article in the Post-Dispatch describes a campaign by a group of citizens who object to some children’s materials in the St. Louis County Library. Obviously, this is not the right blog for a discussion of proper reading choices for children. What I’d like to deal with here is the response of the library and of the campaign’s critics, and their accusation that making any of the requested changes would be “censorship.” Putting aside the issue of whether the changes would be a good idea, would they restrict anyone’s rights?
The suggestions include limiting what children can check out without a parent’s permission, creating a rating system that alerts people to sexual content in books, or moving the books in question to the adult section of the library.
If any of those proposals are unconstitutional, the library is already in trouble. Currently, children can’t check out interlibrary loan books themselves — that has to be done by a parent. (There are even some reference books that nobody can check out, and I haven’t heard accusations that the library is censoring the dictionary.) The library sorts books, deciding whether they are appropriate for adults or children. It even divides books by fiction and nonfiction, and there are separate sections for biography, mysteries, and other categories. The library decides whether any given book should be shelved with the biographies or in general nonfiction, or whatever.
Children’s books are labeled by grade level, a process that involves a lot of judgment calls. The library designates Alice in Rapture, Sort Of as a book for fourth- through sixth-graders. (This novel contains lots of discussions of “French kissing,” as well as mentions of boys groping girls’ breasts, etc.) Meanwhile, the library classifies These Happy Golden Years, in which about the most graphic thing that happens is that the protagonists hold hands, as appropriate for seventh- through ninth-graders. I’m not talking about some kind of proposed, unconstitutional rating system; this is the labeling system that the library uses right now. Regardless of the system’s merits, it’s incorrect to say that the library doesn’t make decisions — sometimes controversial decisions — when sorting books by audience.
Furthermore, the video and DVD section of the library contains all the usual warnings displayed on that kind of material, such as “PG-13 for Sexual Content.” Nobody calls that censorship.
Going beyond ratings and labeling, what if the library doesn’t purchase materials at all? Is that censorship? I’ve requested that the library purchase books, and my request was turned down because the small publisher that prints the books I wanted was not on the library’s list of publishers. The publisher is still free to publish, and I’m still free to buy the books at a store. I don’t think I or anybody else was censored by that incident.
This is a bigger issue than deciding which books are appropriate for children, a problem no library policy will be able to solve to everyone’s satisfaction. If we get used to hearing the cry of “censorship” over every library shelving decision, we’ll be less alert to real cases of censorship and less vigilant about protecting the right to free speech. We should focus on defending Phyllis Reynolds Naylor’s right to publish novels about teen sexuality, not her “right” to have them placed in the elementary school section of the library.