This paper reviews a selection of literature pertaining to the subject of censorship in modern libraries. It interrogates the literature in terms of the ethical debates informing much of the contemporary academic writing on this subject. A multi-pronged approach to the subject is adopted. The review includes evaluations of the relevant aspects of particular professional codes and statements. It also evaluates opinions that have been proffered with regard to the use of Internet filters in public libraries. In public libraries, librarians must also decide whether to enable an entirely free flow of information from other mediums or to take it upon themselves to protect readers from material that might be considered harmful. These issues are complicated further in school libraries where the question of a particular duty of care to young minds arises. This paper also investigates recent representations of libricide, the most extreme form of censorship which manifests in the destruction of libraries and the burning of books.
Fourteen centuries have learned, From charred remains, that what took place When Alexandria's library burned Brain-damaged the human race.
Ted Hughes, 'Hear it Again'
The term 'censorship' is notoriously difficult to define. Although censorship is often seen as 'an enduring feature of all human communities' (Jansen 1988, 4), the concept is fluid. Even a legal definition is almost impossible to attain. However, it is generally accepted that the key aspects of censorship involve 'those actions which significantly restrict free access to information' (Moody 2004). Despite strong anti-censorship statements in professional association codes, the library and information sector often plays a major role as a censor.
There is a wide range of recent literature devoted to the issue of censorship in libraries. This literature bears witness to the fact that this is a highly controversial subject, encompassing legal, professional, social, political, and ethical issues and often giving rise to powerful emotions. If a gap exists in the contemporary literature relevant to this subject, it lies in the effective absence of documentation regarding the perspective and opinions of the customer, except perhaps in the case of concerned parents seeking to safeguard the interests of small children. Nearly all of the voices that are heard emanate from academic critics, professional organisations, government departments, and from the librarians.
This paper will review a selection of literature pertaining to the subject of censorship in modern libraries. It will interrogate the literature in terms of the ethical debates informing much of the contemporary academic writing on this subject. In particular, there is the question of the librarian's role and whether a moral duty exists to protect the public from material that might be considered harmful or whether the restriction of access to information of any kind is itself unethical. The paper includes evaluations of the relevant aspects of particular professional codes and statements, an analysis of arguments regarding censorship of the Internet, discussion of the particular problems faced by public and school libraries, and an investigation of the most extreme form of censorship that manifests in libricide. Though critical evaluations of each source are included, it is not the principal purpose of this review to advance a particular argument but to offer a compendium of the various controversies associated with the ethics of censorship in libraries.
This review focuses upon literature relevant to the ethical issues of censorship in libraries and therefore does not include extensive mention of literature explicating the purely legal aspects of matters relating to censorship such as intellectual property and copyright. All of the primary texts are recent publications, extending no further back than the late 1990s. The scope is confined to scholarly and professional publications and excludes the popular media and fictional works. The review is primarily concerned with the Australian situation, but does include some assessments of works relating to censorship practices in America. There are also some references to practices in totalitarian regimes such as Iraq, Communist China and Nazi Germany.
Many ethical codes relating to censorship in libraries are forthright and uncompromising in their statements. According to the professional code of the Australian Library and Information Association, all professional librarians must avoid censorship at all times; they should be 'committed to intellectual freedom and the free flow of ideas and information'. Similarly, the International Federation of Library Associations states: 'IFLA calls upon libraries and library staff to adhere to the principles of intellectual freedom, uninhibited access to information and freedom of expression and to recognise the privacy of the library user' and IFLA 'does not discriminate due to race, creed, gender, age or for any other reason'. The American Library Association follows suit:
ALA actively advocates in defense of the rights of library users to read, seek information, and speak freely as guaranteed by the First Amendment. A publicly supported library provides free and equal access to information for all people of that community. We enjoy this basic right in our democratic society. It is a core value of the library profession.
The current laws and regulations relating to censorship in America are illustrated in more detail by the American Library Association in their Intellectual Freedom Manual. This text advocates what is in many ways a moral duty to avoid censorship. The manual examines the Library Bill of Rights and various other statements made by the American Library Association, all the while reiterating the belief that all forms of censorship must be opposed. According to the manual, censorship stifles democracy (1996, xiv), libraries ought to be 'centres for uninhibited intellectual inquiry' (1996, xvii) and library collections must be as diverse as possible. These are worthy objectives but they are generalised. Potentially, they may result in an abdication of responsibility towards many vulnerable library users. The book is dismissive of any recommendations to implement restrictions. For example, it claims that demands for restrictions in order to protect children or to reduce the proliferation of pornography or to avoid giving offence to certain sectors of society are 'excuses' to initiate a 'return to more conservative times' (1996, xv). Furthermore, the introduction of 'sweeping anti-pornography' or 'antigay' 'rights legislation' would only 'limit the availability of constitutionally protected information' (1996, xv).
It must be acknowledged that the tone of the book is not entirely bombastic and some concessions are made. While it argues that professional librarians need take no action (1996, 21), parents are fully entitled to restrict the reading of their own children. However, for the most part, the tone the text adopts towards any would be censors is unyielding and sometimes almost patronising: 'The censor may not understand that a request that certain works be labelled or restricted, if fulfilled, would lead to an abridgment of the rights of other library users' (1996, 242). This book gives an insight not only into a certain aspect of American culture, but also into the danger of allowing a mandate against authoritarian control to become equally dictatorial.
If the Intellectual Freedom Manual truly represents the views of the American information sector then arguably, their approach to avoiding censorship has been carried to some extremes. However, it must be acknowledged that though it may be the manifestation of the dominant authority, other voices also emanate from America. In contrast to the Intellectual Freedom Manual, the professional code delivered by the American Society for Information Science and Technology is markedly mild and moderate, if overly generalised. It 'urges its members to be ever aware of the social, economic, cultural and political impacts of their actions' and to 'inform their employers, clients or sponsors of any circumstances that create a conflict of interest'. Evidently, though the injunction to avoid censorship is prevalent throughout America, some information sectors are rather more rigid in its interpretation than others.
The Australian Library and Information Association, the International Federation of Library Associations, the American Library Association, and the American Society for Information Science and Technology are all reputable professional associations. Many of their publications have provided considerable assistance to their members. However, relevant literature reveals that certain aspects of these codes have frequently been subject to scathing criticism. Indeed, this paper also submits that the statements made in the ethical codes under examination are far too sweeping and fail to account for the fact that each type of library has different priorities and perspectives and different forms of pressure are brought to bear upon each of them. Even the Intellectual Freedom Manual, which is a treatise comprising a few hundred pages rather than a succinct, one-page code, is sorely lacking in detail or depth. Therefore, the codes and statements can be of little use to librarians in the workplace who find themselves in a situation that is in any way complex. It is because complicated situations arise so frequently that noted critics such as John Thawley censure ALIA and its brother organisations quite severely, arguing that the codes of practice are in desperate need of 'fine tuning' (1997, 132).
Overall, at least in Australia and America, if the sources cited here can be taken as representative of the general situation, it would seem that little regard should be given to written ethical codes relating to censorship. Many librarians and library workers seek specific instruction that takes account of complex situations while the codes, statements and manuals offer bland generalisations or the simplistic rigidity of fundamentalism. As a result, quite often and quite rightly, they are dismissed entirely. As the following sections of this review will demonstrate, individual libraries and even individual librarians are often required to make unilateral decisions with regard to censoring their collections.
The Internet is a technological marvel that has altered the nature and practices of libraries around the world. Where once libraries were patronised only by readers and traditional researchers, many now use libraries solely for Internet access. Though many of these users are scouring the web for research information, there is also a heavy demand for social networking facilities (Australian Library and Information Association 2009, 14). However, as informative and socially engaging as the Internet can be, it is also notorious as a medium for pornography and other materials that are considered by many to be both objectionable and harmful. For this reason, in many public libraries, children under the age of twelve are excluded from Internet use (Australian Library and Information Association 2009, 13). In many instances, even adults are not granted an unrestricted licence to browse the World Wide Web. On the contrary, Internet filters are employed as a censorship tool in many public libraries (Gorman 2000, 94).
In view of the fact that exclusions and filters are a clear violation of the injunctions of several professional codes to avoid censorship, it is perhaps surprising that in the literature under discussion, no great furore has ensued. On the contrary, not one of these texts or articles challenges the ideologies prompting the widespread use of filters. In various ways and to various degrees, all endorse the notion of a moral obligation to protect the public, particularly its younger members, from harm. Michael Gorman simply states that it is sometimes necessary 'to make small accommodations' to the forces pressing on a librarian 'in order to preserve the greater good of the library and its users' (2000, 92). David Wilson is in accord, arguing that the prevalence and nature of the Internet has prompted a 'changed focus of our censorship laws' (2008, 697) and libraries are obligated to protect the 'public good from injury' (2008, 697). The tone of Niels Pors' article is flatly emphatic and not open to argument: 'Libraries have always been filtering institutions' and 'everybody acknowledges that giving access to information on the Internet is a phenomenon qualitatively very different from building a collection' (2001, 311). The more vociferous Irina Trushina goes further, and gives extreme examples of the dangers of free access in order to illustrate her arguments. She writes: 'Very few librarians would feel satisfied when assisting teenagers in finding some Web resources detailing suicide techniques or romantic death stories' (2004, 418). Still fewer would endorse the notion of providing an aspiring terrorist with information on 'feasible homemade bomb techniques' (p. 419). However, hyperbole aside, Trushina's article, like the others under examination, cogently argues the case that no law or regulation can be absolute. Once again, the point is made that official injunctions against censorship are in dire need of some flexibility.
Overall, it would seem that at least some aspects of censorship in modern times are much less controversial than others. Certainly, the literature under discussion in this section suggests that the Internet is often regarded as an absolute and perfectly acceptable exception to all official mandates against censorship. Librarians are perceived as being not only collectors of information but also as protectors of people. If they were to neglect this role, the image of the profession would be tarnished.
Practicalities of Information Ethics
The Broad View
Whatever the rights and wrongs of the situation, in practical terms censorship is often represented as impossible to maintain and ultimately ineffective. The authors of 100 Banned Books. Censorship Histories of World Literature are unashamedly forthright on the subject: 'When you look back over the centuries of censorship and see the incredible range of books and authors whose works were suppressed, you can only be struck by how absurdly ineffective and useless it has been in the long run' (Karolides, Bald and Sova 1999, xi). Building from this premise, a reader of 100 Banned Books may conclude that there is no sustainable ethical argument in favour of censorship because ethics are subjective, bound to particular cultures and subject to change.
100 Banned Books examines an extensive range of literature written over a period of centuries, all of which has been suppressed at some time by various bodies on political, religious, sexual or social grounds. It emphasises the argument that the judgements prompting such censorship are inescapably skewed. Furthermore, the act is futile. Literature deemed to be unsuitable for public circulation by a particular cultural authority at a particular point in time is almost invariably resurrected and even lionised at a later time by another cultural authority with a different view. Works such as Flaubert's Madame Bovary, now considered a classic, were once the subjects of court cases. Intermittently, the authorial tone is subtly mocking of all censors. In the view of this work, not only are many censors hopelessly blinded by cultural prejudice, they also display a patent lack of understanding with regard to the literature itself. For instance, amongst many varied examples, the book highlights the splendid irony of certain authorities banning both Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird and Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn on the specious grounds that they were racist when both books, though admittedly containing some objectionable terminology, are dedicated to the eradication of racism.
100 Banned Books is in many ways a polemic. Not once in the course of its many pages is an opposing perspective so much as considered. However, whether or not one accepts all or any of their arguments, it cannot be denied that Karolides, Bald and Sova have researched their chosen subject with admirable thoroughness. This fact alone allows the study a place amongst the landmark publications regarding the censorship of literary works.
The matter of practicalities can present particular problems when presented to public libraries of the modern world. Kim Moody's article 'Covert Censorship in Libraries: A Discussion Paper' is considerably narrower in focus than 100 Banned Books. It also presents an interesting contrast to the Intellectual Freedom Manual. While the latter is adamant that censorship must always be avoided, in effect, Moody's article demonstrates the incompatibility of the prohibition on censorship and its practical application. As Moody argues, officially the library and information profession is opposed to censorship, but battling manifestations of it, particularly when they appear in their more covert forms, is 'difficult and complex'.
Moody gives many examples of unavoidable censorship in public libraries. Some forms she views as desirable, others as regrettable. She reiterates and subtly endorses well-known ethical arguments advocating the removal of 'racist, sexist, homophobic', and 'anti-semitic' materials from public libraries. Coupled with the ethical argument is the prosaic fact that an avoidance of controversy is often the only practical course open to a librarian. However, while librarians may be obligated, both practically and ethically, to distance the public from certain materials, other forms of censorship may do the public a disservice. Sadly however, they are equally unavoidable. Moody goes on to describe some of the ways in which many libraries are compelled to bow to pressure from funding bodies, such as the government, by removing certain items from public circulation. The most insidious forms of censorship she describes are self-censorship and inappropriate cataloguing. Self-censorship is governed by the prejudices and preferences of individual librarians. Although this stance is not always consciously adopted, it often determines which books are purchased for the library and which books are promoted within it. Quite often, many books of value are overlooked in this process. Similarly, items that are labelled or catalogued inappropriately are likely to escape the attention of researchers investigating the area to which they truly belong.
There is much to be admired in Moody's article. There is no obvious indication of prejudice and her work is clear and concise with insightful and wide-ranging ideas. Most significantly, Moody offers a wealth of practical experience garnered from various quarters to counterbalance the rather idealistic notion propagated by several professional organizations that censorship can and should be opposed in all cases. Indeed, at the essence of this article is practical advice. This article transports the reader from the relative security of straightforward and uncomplicated professional codes to the minutiae of everyday life in the library.
Traditionally, the primary purpose of a school library is to supplement the school curriculum (Kirk 1990, 2). In practice though, the policies of school libraries have evolved considerably and like public libraries, school libraries seek to satisfy many of the information, leisure, cultural, and social needs of the children they serve. However, though there are routine exceptions as demonstrated by Moody's article, in a public library, librarians are frequently able to justify the inclusion of materials under challenge (Credaro 2001, 1). This relative security might account in part for the tone of Moody's article which is seemingly without prejudice or emotive force. In contrast, a multitude of books have been removed from circulation in school libraries, particularly in primary schools. Indeed, the subject of censorship in school libraries has frequently given rise to virulent and often conflicting arguments.
A librarian who also holds the position of school teacher must balance the professional imperative to avoid censorship with a duty of care. Some argue that such a librarian might be said to be acting in Ioco parentis and therefore, introducing some form of censorship might be to act 'in a more ethical manner than a professional association which tries to pretend that its members can stand aside from engagement with real ethical dilemmas and merely apply some simple rules' (Brophy 2003, 229). Others such as Jennifer Cram are distinctly contemptuous of what has been called 'the fear or anxiety about the public uttering or writing of particular words' coupled with 'the erroneous belief that people, particularly if young, will be recruited to the lifestyle and behaviour depicted in the book' (Cram 1996, 91). Still others claim that to withhold information from burgeoning young minds is to do them a grave disservice.
A prominent example of the literature against censorship in school libraries is 'Selection or Censorship: Libraries and the Intelligent Design Debate' by Michael and Connie O'Sullivan. The O'Sullivans are unequivocal in their argument that there have been instances in which censorship has retarded the intellectual development of children, an act they depict as morally wrong. As their principal example, they cite a case from 1999 in Kansas in which the study of evolution was removed from the school science curriculum and books pertaining to the subject were removed from the library. This was done in deference to pressure groups who were demanding that a fundamentalist approach to creationism be the only theory taught to the students. As the O'Sullivans phrase their view of the issue, advocates of creationism, a 'so-called new scientific theory', have unfortunately been 'successful in their attempts to undermine the teaching of legitimate science in the science class' (2007, 201). The O'Sullivans believe, as do many, that school libraries ought to house materials supporting both sides of controversial issues (2007, 202).
Though it does not necessarily detract from the writers' argument, the O'Sullivans' article, like many of the other texts germane to the issue of censorship in school libraries, is a document of passion rather than reasoned argument. However, as controversial as this subject is, the belief that librarians owe an ethical duty to their young readers and that the questions of censorship play an integral role within that duty has not been called into question. Both armies seek to elevate the welfare of children, one by offering the variety of protection that preserves innocence and the other by imparting what they view as a comprehensive education.
The most extreme form of censorship is libricide, which is defined as the deliberate destruction of a library and its contents with the specific purpose of preventing access to certain information and modes of thought. Much of the literature devoted to describing the practice of libricide is principally designed to impact upon the emotions of the reader. Vivid imagery is their keystone. As James Raven writes in Lost Libraries: 'When books burn, drown or are carted off as war booty, the images are often indelible' (2004, 8). Similarly, Lucien Polastron inverts the famous quotation from Heinrich Heine: 'Where they burn men, they will eventually burn books' (2007, 190). In the vast majority of this literature, censorship is portrayed as an evil resulting in irredeemable loss to every society's store of knowledge and culture.
One of the most comprehensive texts on the subject is Rebecca Knuth's Libricide. The Regime-Sponsored Destruction of Books and Libraries in the Twentieth Century. The form of censorship described in this book is not undertaken merely to obstruct freedom of access to information, it is designed to prevent freedom of thought. Knuth investigates the mass destructions of books and libraries performed by several totalitarian regimes including Nazi Germany and China's Cultural Revolution. Her most recent example is Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in the early 1990s. As Knuth assesses the motivations behind each case, it becomes clear that her primary goal is to highlight the power of the written word and to evoke a sense of tragedy when that power is destroyed. In her view, books, 'by their very existence and coexistence with the entirety of the world's print literature, support individualism, pluralism, creativity, rationalism, freedom of information, critical thinking and intellectual freedom' (2003, 236). Therefore, the destruction of books is seen as an imperative in most totalitarian regimes in order to 'homogenise national discourse' (2003, 54). In Knuth's view, this process always entails great social and political damage.
Knuth's book is specifically designed to promote an understanding of the 'twentieth century's plague of book destruction' in the fervent hope that readers will 'take active steps to protect the common cultural heritage of the world' (2003, vii) and prevent any cases of libricide in the future. This idea is undoubtedly meritorious, though perhaps overly ambitious. Like the Intellectual Freedom Manual and much of the literature pertaining to censorship in school libraries, the tone of Libricide is not so much academic, by which is meant detached and coolly analytical, as almost passionate. However, Knuth's book differs from the Intellectual Freedom Manual in that it does not reiterate a single ideal, all the while ignoring or rejecting the political and social implications. Knuth freely confesses that her own 'national, cultural, political and social prejudices' are reflected in her work (2003, xii). This is inevitable and for this reason, she argues that it is necessary to analyse the motivations behind specific cases of censorship by destruction in some depth before unilaterally condemning anyone who disposes of a text as a vandal and a destroyer of civilisation.
The sheer detail included in Knuth's descriptions of historical events and the accompanying extensive referencing give evidence of careful research and considered arguments. Many of the ideas and arguments presented in the book are not only instructive, well informed and often challenging but also, as a result of the book's passion, they are not to be swiftly forgotten by the general circle of readers. This book draws attention to the heavy responsibility resting upon the shoulders of many information workers. It stipulates that books and other sources of information can be powerful commodities and great care must be taken in their dissemination.
Interestingly however, contemporary opinions on the subject of libricide are not uniform, any more than the literature examined in the other sections of this review is entirely free of controversy. Knuth acknowledges discrete cases in which the burning of books is not necessarily wrong. Other writers go further in their challenge to the premise that burning books is invariably evil. Melinda Harvey poses a pertinent question: 'Could it be that the destruction of books is sometimes a positive act, and, occasionally, a necessary one?' (2009, 5). The burning of books can be cathartic. For example, when a totalitarian regime collapses and books propagating the propaganda of that regime are destroyed, the intention is to liberate the minds of the people, not to subjugate them. Harvey's measured tone presents something of a soothing contrast to the other texts discussed in this section. It also demonstrates an astute capacity to view the premise that burning books is always wrong, something that has become almost a truism, from a differing point of view. Voices such as Harvey's ought to be heard in any arena but particularly in one as controversial and emotionally charged as extremist censorship.
In conclusion, as demonstrated by the literature rising from various scholarly mediums including the publications of professional organisations, articles in online academic journals, newspaper articles, and historical studies, there are multitudinous forms of censorship ranging from the fanaticism of book burning to the comparatively innocuous cases of inappropriate cataloguing. It is also clear that attitudes towards the practice of censorship and the ethical questions incumbent upon it differ in equal measure. Censorship in school libraries is an issue often subject to unbridled passion and controversy. All of the contenders however, believe themselves to be acting in the best interests of the children. In contrast, Moody's article and the articles relating to censoring the Internet constitute a pragmatic acceptance of the inevitability and even the desirability of some censorship in public libraries. 100 Banned Books is equally pragmatic, if rather more dogmatic, in its exposition of the futility of censorship. Two forms of extremism are examined in this review--the extremist censorship described in Libricide and the extremist methods of avoiding censorship displayed by texts such as the Intellectual Freedom Manual. Both texts however, depict censorship as a moral affront.
Just as the arguments surrounding the subject of censorship are often diametrically opposed, so too does the scholarly quality of the texts under examination in this review differ considerably. This is in spite of the fact that, without exception, all purport to be primarily academic in nature. It is clear that some studies have been researched with greater assiduity than others. Furthermore, bias, even bigotry, is evident in many of these works. The arguments contained within these texts are often valid but many writers fall prey to unbalanced emotion and seek actively to vilify their opponents, an act highly likely to be detrimental to scholarship. As Stuart Macintyre argues: "The object of war is to vanquish the enemy. The duty of the scholar is to seek understanding. Adversarial intolerance is inimical to the principle of academic freedom" (2004, 9). Debate is often healthy; acrimony is almost invariably destructive. However, the charge of being unscholarly could not be sustained against every publication included in this review. Others, though not uncommitted to a particular argument, strive to be comprehensive, and gently refute opposing opinions with reasoned and accommodating discussions.
The subject of censorship in libraries is likely to remain a site of controversy. It is hoped that in this arena, many voices will continue to be heard. Perhaps there will never be a decisive conclusion. It may even transpire that ongoing, constructive debates and discussions are the best possible outcomes. They are a testament to the purposely dynamic nature of the library and information environment which strives unceasingly to seek, test and employ new and creative methods of imparting information.
Of course, this review is not exhaustive and it is submitted that an investigation into the opinions and arguments of the general public with regard to censorship in libraries, an area of the subject hitherto neglected, would reward academic scholarship. At this juncture however, regardless of the strictures espoused by some high-profile professional codes, it would seem that at least some forms of censorship in the library sector are often perceived as both inescapable and ethically sound. Therefore, at least in this country, it is generally felt that a heavy responsibility rests upon the shoulders of library workers to fulfil their duty of care towards vulnerable readers by shielding them from materials that may be harmful, all the while being careful not to thwart their right to access a great variety of materials in the information society that is modern Australia.
Manuscript received March 2010.
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Dr Fiona Guthrie has a background in both literature and librarianship. In 2007, Fiona was awarded a Doctor of Philosophy at the University of Queensland for a thesis entitled 'The Nineteenth Century in the Recent Australian Imaginary'. In 2002, she was granted a Master of Philosophy at the same institution for a more focused study entitled 'Ned Kelly and Australian Identities: Selected Representations 1880-2001'. In 2009, Fiona was awarded a Master of Applied Science (Library and Information Management) from Charles Sturt University, and she is currently working at the State Library of Queensland.
This paper has been double-blind peer reviewed to meet the Department of Innovation, Industry, Science and Research (DIISR) HERDC requirements.…