February 3, 2009


Kathleen de la Peña McCook has linked to a review of David Denby’s new book, Snark, published in Salon recently, aiming her post at a particularly snarky and nasty blogger who likes to attack her personally.

Kathleen is right on the money in bringing this book to the attention of the blogosphere.


…snide, undermining abuse, nasty and knowing, that is spreading like pinkeye through the media and threatening to take over how Americans converse with each other and what they can count on as true.

(as defined by Denby)

I agree with Kathleen about the relevance of the book, and I feel that to the extent that library discourse lowers itself to that level, it is a sign that our profession is in a serious state of deterioration. I think we owe it to our institutions and to the future of the profession to be better than that.

(For the record, I am not saying anonymity should be banned, or that bad speech should be banned, or that anyone’s employer should be called because of an offensive blog post, or that IF is not a right, or that there should be rules against snarkiness. But I would definitely say that celebrating the right to ugly expression is not the same thing as celebrating ugly expression. I’m for the former and against the latter. Ugliness, viciousness, intolerance, and stupidity in our discourse are part of the cost we pay for our freedom, but we don’t need to celebrate those things when we celebrate our freedom.)

Age Appropriateness and IF

Intellectual Freedom is a right that has a range of threats to it. Most obviously, governments have banned books and censored the internet. But there are other dimensions to the threats to intellectual freedom. Publishers have refused to publish books for fear of controversy. Criticism of corporations is squelched by pulling out of advertising contracts; through baseless attacks on the reputations of the critics or journalists, placed in high-profile media venues; by filing SLAPP suits and product defamation suits; and by requiring non-disclosure agreements as a condition of employment or contract. Criticism of government is squelched by arresting protesters or by threatening to revoke an organization’s 501(c)(3) tax status. Entertainment media, both the content and the advertising, play a large role in shaping the thoughts of most people. Power relations in general affect what people will read read, say, and think.

That is the breadth of intellectual freedom issues that we as librarians should think about.

This is why I have always found it odd that the only type of news story that consistently gets the “intellectual freedom” label attached to it is the story about the children’s book that someone objects to having in a school library or the children’s collection of a public library.

It’s not that these stories aren’t about intellectual freedom, or that they aren’t important. They certainly are, and in a library-specific context. But they are also about what the challengers claim they are about: age appropriateness. I find it dismaying that librarians almost always defend these books solely on intellectual freedom grounds, as though no book could be age-inappropriate. The grounds for keeping a book in a children’s collection once it has been challenged as not appropriate for the students who use the collection (or in the class where the book has been assigned) should always be that the book is in fact age-appropriate, or that it is reasonable for more than a few parents to consider it age-appropriate. The way the debate usually runs, however, at least in public fora, makes it seem as though librarians want to avoid the question of age appropriateness, as if according to intellectual freedom principles all books are appropriate for all ages. I don’t think that intellectual freedom principles say that, and I think that avoiding the question of age appropriateness, which is generally the question actually being raised by the challengers, harms the image of intellectual freedom advocates.

If the disagreement is over whether children should have different intellectual freedom rights than adults or not, then let’s discuss this question. I think few people would say that children’s reading should not be limited in some way, or that library collection development for children’s collections shouldn’t consider these limitations. If the disagreement is about what is appropriate for the kids using the library, then that is the question that should be discussed. It doesn’t make sense to appeal to a binary principle when the question is age-appropriateness.

Personally, I think most people would consider my views relatively liberal regarding what is appropriate for children. I think the science probably supports my outlook on it, too. Scientific studies on the effects on children of exposure to subject matter concerning sex or other adult topics, and of their appropriateness for the education of young people into adulthood, should logically be a part of this debate, but I seldom see them referred to in it. Instead, just a lot of knee jerk stuff that suggests a rather narrow conception of intellectual freedom.

Sorry to gripe, but I don’t often do it here.