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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

Morality and Libraries

Each week in my YA literature class there is one book that disturbs one of my students. Sonya Harnett’s Surrender did that one week, this week it was Janne Teller’s Nothing — though there have been those who take serious objection to more popular favorites such as Mockingbird and the Twilight series. So the question came up for these future librarians, these graduate students in library school, if there is a book that you find morally offensive, even morally dangerous, for young people, yet it is within the collection development policy of your library to purchase it (award winner, starred reviews, etc.) what would you do? Now in one way the answer is obvious, and enough students had taken previous classes to cite the ALA mandates and Library Bill of Rights. And yet those rules do not end the personal conflict — and thus the actual actions — students considered.

One suggested that how she would treat a book might depend on the views and attitudes of the community in which she worked. The problem there, of course, is the same as pointed out by the recent study of how high school biology teachers handle evolution: “Only 28 percent of teachers consistently present the evidence for evolution as a unifying theme in biology, as the National Research Council recommends. The rest — Berkman and Plutzer call them the “cautious 60 percent” — should concern advocates of scientific literacy (such as the president) even more than the minority of creationists. Their caution promotes the idea that scientific findings are a matter of opinion, not rigorous research.“Many of the teachers we classify as advocates for evolutionary biology, they recounted incidents where a student complained, and they calmly sat down with the student, or a parent or principal,” Plutzer said. “They’d be confident enough say, ‘That’s a controversy that has no real basis in fact.’ They could quote particular stats; they were very confident. They told us they went back to the classroom and taught exactly as they had before.“This cautious 60 percent often don’t think they’ll come out quite as well in such an encounter.” (here is the source of that quotation:  

You cannot be in a position where you give students misinformation, or no information, because you are afraid that your community does not approve of that knowledge. Another student seemed to suggest that she would not feature a book that bothered her — would not put in a display of latest and greatest, or whatever theme it might fit. In effect she would shelve the book but let it quietly gather dust. That outraged another student who said such actions do not befit being a librarian. And yet another said with absolute certainty that she cannot picture any book causing moral harm to a young person, even Mein Kampf. Speaking now as an author, I find these issues both less and more clear cut. A librarian’s obligation is to provide the books that are within the collection development policy of her library to its patrons. And I am very chary of any instrumental view of books — the idea that we can know that, for example, this “good message” in a book will “help” or that this “bad role model” will harm. I am sure books can have a profound effect on readers. I am not at all convinced that we can predict how. And yet, as an author, any time I come to a place in a book where I might use a curse word, or quote someone who used such language, or where a vivid depiction of some outrage might fit the text, I hesitate. I do not want to abuse reader — to present material that is not appropriate. Even in Sugar Changed the World, Marina and I thoguht long and hard, and talked to many teachers of even elementary school classes, before talking about the 138 enslaved women with whom he had sexual relations. Ultimately we did decide to include it — as the sign, the evidence, of the power he held and the cruelty of slavery. But we were not sure as authors, So I can understand why a librarian may not be sure when she thinks of handing out the book.   Now there is one easy answer — age/parents. Up through what may well be the new ALSC ages (13 as the end point) it is plausible to suggest that a reader consider discussing a book with his/her parents, or, if the parent is there checking it out, encouraging them to read it as well. That way the library is in the book sharing business, but the family then can weigh, share, consider, discuss anything in the book that may be of concern. From 14 up, the reader is on her own. Another idea — and you may tell me I am totally wrong — would be for librarians to have a space to share their concerns. In other words, as professionals, you all follow the ALA rules. But then there is a blog, a listserv, something, where — having handed a book on hacking to a kid who spends 12 hours a day at a computer, or Nothing (which some of my students saw as nihilistic) to a puzzled, depressed-looking, tween, the librarian could share her conflicts with peers. The rule is the rule, but the adult has an outlet for her experiences.  

What do you think?


  1. I am not a librarian, but I hope you don’t mind if I take a stab at answering.

    If I was a librarian, every time I shared, with my left hand, a book that was morally offensive to me, I’d also share, with my right hand, a book that was morally right in my eyes.

    We dare not rule by oppressing readers or suppressing voices. It is no good to force someone to choose our side. If we do that we are no better than that megalomaniac in North Korea. Is that what we want? Do we want to keep our children from the Internet and from literature and from all opposing ideologies so we can control them? Do we want to brainwash our children?

    I have very strong opinions and I arrived at those opinions by studying various sides of issues and landing on the side I thought was best. Our children need to do the same. This is at the root of my Christian beliefs. All men are created in the image of God and they are free moral agents. That means they must be allowed to choose for themselves which side they stand on. God loves the oppressed and hates the oppressor. To withhold ideas and to brainwash people is a form of oppression.

    We need to give them Humanistic and Christian and Muslim literature. And then we need to let them decide where they stand. Some will side with us. Others will side against us. So be it.

    We need to give them Hitler and Gandhi and Jesus Christ. And may the best man win.

  2. But Marc, what’s so magical about turning fourteen? If, when I was twelve–or ten–a librarian suggested I might want to “share” with my parents what I was reading (especially if this was not a general suggestion but went along with a particular book) I would never have trusted that librarian again.

  3. Marc Aronson says:

    fair enough, but ALSC v YALSA, especially as ALSC defines itself down, seems like a way to establish some kind of policy line where the reader is or is not seen as totally idendendent of her family’s concerns. I will say that this is relatively new territory for me — to this point I’ve had to make author/editor choices about what to put into a book, not librarian choices about the books you hand out.

  4. How well I remember my school librarian refusing to check a book out to me that she deemed above my grade level and thus not appropriate! I even remember what book it was, too – “Dealing with Dragons,” by Patricia Wrede, and I still am not sure what could be offensive in it. My mother, a librarian herself, had an absolute FIT, and you may rest assured that the school heard about it.

    The clincher? I told the librarian at the time, absolutely truthfully, that I had already READ the book; I had it at home. I just wanted to reread it during class…