Monday, September 15, 2008

Banning Books?

Check out this thought provoking post from the Volokh Conspiracy's David Bernstein on whether or not allegations of book banning are as serious as they're made out to be.

Librarians make content-based decisions as to what books should be on the shelves every day. Well-run libraries apparently typically have set policies as to how to determine whether or not to acquire books, but, as Earl Maltz points out, these policies obviously reflect background social/political norms. You're certainly not going to find a "classics comics" version of Mein Kampf in a public library, nor are you likely to find children's books (or, outside research libraries, adult books) that advocate slavery, racism, or other ideas deemed socially unacceptable. You are also unlikely to find Playboy, much less more hard-core pornographic magazines or books.

So, libraries engage in "censorship" every day; they just call it "professional discretion based on objective policies."

The question, then, is why taxpayers must defer to the professional librarians' decisions. Sure, librarians are "professionals." But citizens who complain about a particular children's book (for its presence or absence) may have Ph.D.s in child psychology, have raised 10 children and have 20 grandchildren, have MSWs and work with children all day, spent 20 years teaching in a seminary, or otherwise have a range of knowledge and experience that make them potentially more qualified than a librarian to determine what is or is not appropriate material for children.

Given that public libraries are ubiquitous in the modern world, it seems to me that Bernstein is on the right track- that citizens seeking a voice in the material their public library carries is not really tantamount to book banning, even when citizens literally seek to have books removed from the library. The brief libertarian response (as Bernstein points out) is that these editorial decisions are precisely what is wrong with taxpayer funded libraries in the first place. But if you're going to have public libraries, then you have to accept this messiness. Even when drawing a line of "appropriateness," there will always be some disagreement as to just where that line should be drawn.


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