Libraries and Learning
January 4, 2017
A lot of people were disgusted when they heard Simon & Schuster will publish a book by Milo Yiannopoulos, a notorious right-wing troll who makes a career of offending people and hounding his chosen enemies through mass intimidation. He has even been banned from Twitter, which is incredibly difficult to do. He tried to offend his publishers with grotesque jokes as well, to no avail. They really wanted to publish his book.
In my library circles, the debate around this book is whether libraries should refuse to subsidize his aggressive bigotry and risk offending a large percentage of their communities, or if they should buy the book so people can form their own opinions – and risk offending a large part of their communities. Either response will satisfy the author, who loves nothing better than to stir up outrage. It’s his schtick. It’s how he makes a living.
For librarians, it’s a case study in how to interpret what we value and how we enact those values in practice. It’s not all that difficult a dilemma for academic librarians; we can buy a copy and assume people will accept that it’s okay to spend a few bucks on a book that will serve as a primary source for understanding trolls; even if what the troll says is offensive, it’s documentation of our contemporary culture. Books are rarely challenged in academic libraries, but in public libraries, it’s another story. If there’s a demand for a book, they may buy dozens of copies to avoid having hold lists running into the hundreds, so we’re talking about more than a few bucks. We’re also talking about money that, once spent, can’t be used to make the library shelves more diverse, less dominated by the latest celebrity thing. People have a tendency to think that if a public library buys a book, they endorse what it has to say. And everyone feels they have a say in how their local tax dollars are spent. It’s a real dilemma, if possibly short-lived. Books like this tend to end up in the book sale bin when interest wanes, as it will.
As it happens, I’ve been poking around in the history of American libraries lately and it has been illuminating to see how our established values evolved over time. In the early days (1870s – 1930s) we relied on faith. The “library faith” was the notion that reading was beneficial for both individual enlightenment and for democracy because reading would create an informed public. In the beginning this meant censorship of “addictive” and “mind-weakening” popular fiction in favor of improving non-fiction. Almost immediately a compromise had to be negotiated with the masses, who didn’t want anyone telling them what to read. Eventually the library faith included a democracy of reading tastes.
It wasn’t until the end of the 1930s that defending intellectual freedom became an article of library faith. An Iowa librarian, disturbed by the rise of fascism and the burning of books in Europe, wrote a Library Bill of Rights which was adopted by the American Library Association a year later in 1939. It took around fifty years of public librarianship and the crisis in Europe for librarians to collectively and publicly reject censorship and embrace the value of open debate and exposure to multiple viewpoints as a fundamental value and purpose of libraries. Intellectual freedom was reaffirmed during the McCarthy era, when librarians and publishers jointly issued the Freedom to Read Statement which includes the following statements:
It is in the public interest for publishers and librarians to make available the widest diversity of views and expressions, including those that are unorthodox, unpopular, or considered dangerous by the majority.
Publishers, librarians, and booksellers do not need to endorse every idea or presentation they make available. It would conflict with the public interest for them to establish their own political, moral, or aesthetic views as a standard for determining what should be published or circulated.
It is contrary to the public interest for publishers or librarians to bar access to writings on the basis of the personal history or political affiliations of the author.
We do not state these propositions in the comfortable belief that what people read is unimportant. We believe rather that what people read is deeply important; that ideas can be dangerous; but that the suppression of ideas is fatal to a democratic society. Freedom itself is a dangerous way of life, but it is ours.
I’m tempted to say our times are different. When bots can flood social media pretending to be people sharing human opinions, when we’re saturated with opinions on all sides, when the problem isn’t having access to controversial ideas, it’s figuring out how to manage the inundation, maybe we need to rethink this. In fact, the ALA has continually added to these documents with interpretations guiding librarians on a host of practical issues. Librarians are currently working out the best ways to help students and the general citizenry navigate these fraught times in which we experience both polarization-by-platform and the murky combination of clickbait, fakery, and hyper-partisanship. Maybe this book, by someone who is so very accomplished at silencing others through his aggressive practice of “extreme free speech,” should be placed in libraries – next to books that talk back. Maybe the best response is making our libraries sites of spirited and generous conversation about what we actually mean when we talk about free speech.
This week two leading public librarians, Sarah Houghton and Andy Woodworth, launched Operation 451 to encourage librarians to think how we can honor key articles in the Library Bill of Rights (4 and 5) and the first amendment (which together make a nifty reference to Ray Bradbury’s classic, composed in a library) and support the right of all to read, to assemble, and to speak, paying particular attention to non-celebrities who are vulnerable. It’s a great initiative to reconcile our historic commitment to freedom to read with dedicated support of those voices that are at risk of being silenced. I’m in.