Covert Censorship, Overt Libraries

“Knowledge, like air, is vital to life. Like air, no one should be denied it.” ― Alan Moore, V for Vendetta

The Censorship is Coming From Inside the Library!

When I took over as Branch Librarian for an established public library at the beginning of 2015 I knew there would be challenges. If you’ve read any of my previous posts you’ll most likely be familiar with my love of comics so it comes as no surprise that I’m very defensive of the medium. A month or two into my new job I discovered a hidden part of the library, so hidden that most of the long term staff had forgotten it existed. This small shelf tucked behind the staff side of the oppressive circulation desk held items that were not meant for general circulation (although many were ‘available for loan’). Weeding this collection I discovered a surprisingly large number of items that should have been in the general collection, including sex manuals, photographic art books, and of course, Alan Moore and Melinda Gebbie’s Lost Girls. In addition to being placed in this closed reserve section, most of the books came with a polite warning label about their content.

I quietly removed all the labels and released these items back into the wilds of the general collection and waited. Purchased in 2012 Lost Girls was issued a total of zero times, but once put back into circulation the item went out almost immediately (and has been out at least once a month since). It took longer than I thought for someone to mention anything and it was only by pure chance that it came up. An interlibrary loan request for Lost Girls prompted a discussion/outrage in my workroom as a staff member was horrified as they processed it. I listened from my office as several staff discussed the item, all of them calling for at the very least a warning label to be placed on the item (and many wanting to remove the item from the collection). It was then that I stepped in and explained how that would be a form of covert censorship and clearly people wanted to access this item so why should we stop them? Lost Girls is no stranger to controversy and the creators even admit it’s pornography, but a lot things in our collections could also be classified as pornography (50 Shades comes to mind, as does the Karma Sutra, etc.). This labelling of items to prevent possible complaints is common and slips silently into our libraries. It’s at this point you begin to wonder what else is being pre-emptively censored?


Having spent seven years running a large sexual health library, my view of ‘acceptable’ material (and conversation) tends to run wide of most people’s. I spent a lot of time with clients openly discussing sex, gender, sexuality and recommending items that many people would find confronting. Part of my ongoing review of my new collection has been to improve these areas, especially when I noticed the lack of GLBTQIA+ items. While not censorship per say, I have found many libraries (my own included) that separated GLBTQIA+ sex manuals from the heterosexual items (306.76 and 613.96 for those cataloguers out there). I’m not going to start on the horribleness that is the DDC, but simple things like cataloguing all the sex manuals together can make a huge amount of difference to GLBTQIA+ people. Again, this is something that can seem perfectly fine, “It’s with all the other lesbian books!”, like adding a warning label to something you think might confront someone. At this point I’m not trying to tell you what is or isn’t censorship, if you are reading this then you’re most likely a librarian and should know the difference by now. What I do want to do is give you a reminder that this type of censorship creeps into our libraries slow and quietly, and always with the best of intentions.

The Quiet Fight

Recently a few cases have come to my attention that combine my interest in freedom of information and comics. Two cases in particular 12 where university students tried to ban comics stood out. Both articles argue about some of the most amazing books (in this author’s humble opinion) and in both cases the universities have refused to remove the items from the unit and bookshop. One of the students involved is quoted as saying “at least get a warning on the books…at most I would like the books eradicated from the system. I don’t want them taught anymore. I don’t want anyone else to have to read this garbage” (Murphy 2015). This probably got your library heckles up, I know it did mine, but how many of you have ‘helpful’ warning labels on items in your collection? How many have moved items away from certain areas to prevent complaints? Ever steered a young person away from a book that ‘is a little too old for them‘? These are all subtle and quiet ways in which we censor our collections, or as @craigarian recently commented on twitter:

@PerfectOrdered @HughRundle @katie_haden we don't censor, but we judge. This is what has no place in libraries

— tenacious c (@craigarian) August 13, 2015

When it Gets Loud

Libraries in general are happy to yell the battle cry of ‘freedom to read’ when it comes to censorship; it’s one of our core guiding principles after all. When blatant censorship rears its ugly head we as a profession are usually there fighting the good fight. Recent outcry over Ted Dawe’s book ‘Into the River’ being banned in New Zealand has a lot of people up in arms, including LIANZA and Auckland Libraries. This is good and we should get angry over censorship issues, but what intrigued me was an almost throwaway reference to Auckland Libraries submitting a book to be reviewed. No surprises that it’s our aforementioned Lost Girls, submitted voluntarily by Auckland Libraries after ‘concerns’ that they could be at risk if the OFLC decided to later ban the book. There doesn’t seem to have been any external complaints made about the book, in fact there were several subsequent requests after the item had been pulled to purchase another copy. In the response from Auckland Libraries defending their action to remove Lost Girls permanently from the collection they also defend holding and loaning copies of Dawe’s ‘Into the River’ (this being 2013 and before the new review) despite actual customer complaints.

How Far Would You Go?

Freedom and privacy are two things I feel that are becoming more and more important for libraries to uphold. I like to think that I would be willing to risk my job to defend the principles that define my profession. When libraries let their fear of reprisal get in the way of their core values we start to see things like the British Library declining Taliban archives, or librarians telling a PhD student to remove all references to WikiLeaks in her dissertation. We proudly show off banned book displays every year, but how many would push the letter of the law to give people the freedom to read what they want? I’ve always remembered an anecdote told by Dr. Jules Black a prominent Australian sexologist:

“Being a medical doctor affords one certain privileges, and one can exploit some of them for the public good. When I came back to Australia in 1972, censorship was still rampant. What Harry would do was as follows: where he felt that a woman’s problem would be helped with a copy of “The Sensuous Woman”, he would write a prescription for a copy. Armed with this prescription the woman could go down to the Department of Customs and Excise and the prescription empowered her to receive an import licence for one copy of this “dirty book”. In turn armed with this import licence she then went to a bookstore of her choice, which in turn was enabled to import one copy. Harry wrote hundreds of such prescriptions flooding the market, and this was one of the acts that ultimately helped to bring down the walls of censorship.”Dr Jules Black

That to me is what libraries should be doing. Pushing the limits of censorship, getting information to those people who need it or want it and defending our rights to it. The Japanese movie Library Wars shows a dystopian view of this where libraries swoop in and rescue books from censorship so the people can read without reprisal. Thankfully the level of censorship isn’t at 1970s level today. We still see a fight to protect the rights to read items like Dawe’s book but with the same hand we remove the right for people to read things like Lost Girls. This kind of judgement call shouldn’t exist in the library sphere, it’s not our call to make.

What Else?

When we look at how something as fundamental as censorship can creep into libraries and nobody bats an eye, what else is creeping into our profession? While I have been writing this blog post a library in the US has had their Tor exit node shut down by police urging. Now, the amazing people behind this project (Library Freedom Project) are fighting to reverse this decision and so far seem to have the support of the wider community. However, how many other libraries would stand up and fight for this right to privacy and freedom? How many wouldn’t even set up a Tor exit node for fear of reprisal? Libraries seem to be really good at standing up to the loud, overt dangers to our principles but it’s the subtle erosion of these same principles that we let slip by that will ultimately damage us. Don’t let our profession quietly fade into the background just because it ‘comes from a good place’, we need to yell twice as loud when it is the most quiet.