Friday, May 18, 2007

Let us be honest

There was a recent conversation on the Publib list about a library that purchased a copy of Directive 19 on the request of a patron, but then did not put it out on the shelf. They would loan the book, but only if patrons asked. This reminded me of a situation in a library where I once worked. The A/V department had a copy of The Cook The Thief His Wife and Her Lover, which resulted in some complaints from patrons. The director checked it out to take it home "for review" and kept it out for well over a year, thus effectively removing it from the collection. Both of these situations illustrate a dilemma faced by librarians, whose strong sense of intellectual freedom may be at odds with their obligation to be accountable to their communities and the taxpayers whose money ultimately funds the library.

All of our collections are somewhat defined by the needs and tastes of our communities, as they should be. My library has a large collection of books in Spanish and Portuguese, but no books in Hindi or Russian. The Clark County Public Library in Las Vegas, which I recently had the opportunity to visit, subscribes to a number casino and gambling journals, but none on boating or sailing. Should it be any different to reflect the conservative (or liberal) values of the community? Surely a librarian shouldn't be obligated to pay for a subscription to National Review or Out magazine if it is never read. Is it so wrong for a librarian to say "I won't purchase that item because it is not a priority in this conservative community?" or "We regret purchasing this item and will remove it from the collection"? Maybe it isn't, but there is an awful lot of pressure on those whose profession essentially comes with a requirement to categorically oppose censorship.

In an ideal world, so the thinking of librarianship goes, we would have unlimited budgets and space and could purchase everything that is published and our collection would represent all views on all subjects. We would not have to make these difficult decisions! But how ideal would that really be? Our limited budgets give us an available excuse not to purchase truly controversial materials like pornography. If our budgets are unlimited, what will be our excuse for not subscribing to Penthouse? Would we subscribe and face the inevitable wrath of our communities? If we didn't, how would we defend our claims to be such strong proponents of intellectual freedom? Perhaps we should be glad that it is not a perfect world and we do not have to admit that our support of intellectual freedom has limits, and we can continue to find indirect ways of censoring our collections. On the other hand, maybe we owe it to ourselves, our colleagues, and our patrons to be honest about the decisions we make.

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