Academic journal article Reference & User Services Quarterly

Social Tolerance and Racist Materials in Public Libraries

Academic journal article Reference & User Services Quarterly

Social Tolerance and Racist Materials in Public Libraries

Article excerpt

When asked about a hypothetical book containing racist beliefs, do people support removing the book from their public library or not? The study examined responses to this question from surveys conducted from 1976 to 2006. Responses were analyzed for changes over time and for differences between demographic categories of respondents. Data were gathered by the General Social Survey, a well-respected social sciences data resource.

How much we value the right of free speech is put to its severest test when the speaker is someone we disagree with most.

--American Civil Liberties Union, "Hate Speech on Campus"

Librarians are against censorship in principle and advocate against censorship in many ways, such as the American Library Association's (ALA) annual Banned Books Week and various activities by intellectual freedom committees of state and national organizations. But does this advocacy extend to all types of materials? What about literature that is "negative" or of questionable accuracy, such as Herrnstein and Murray's The Bell Curve (Free Press, 1994), holocaust denial literature, or other literature that denigrates racial or ethnic groups? Does this literature belong in public libraries? The following literature review summarizes three areas of thought to form a framework from which to examine the concept of books with racist content in public libraries. First is an introduction to the concept of intellectual freedom in libraries. This is followed by a brief review of library and information studies (LIS) literature concerning racism in library books. Most of this literature has concerned children's materials, although children's materials are not the focus of this study. Last is a brief introduction to scholarly thought from different disciplines concerning racist speech or hate speech and whether such speech should be controlled. The paper then uses data analysis to examine the opinions of the U.S. population on the idea of racism in library books, and concludes with a discussion of similarities and differences between the opinions of the experts and scholars as presented in the literature review and the opinions of the general population as examined in the data analysis section.


If there exists a right to express an opinion, then there also exists a right to know about that opinion.

Where else but in the library, and especially in the public library, can all citizens avail themselves of that right?

--John Robotham and Gerald Shields, Freedom of Access to Library Material

The library literature abounds with expression of the centrality of intellectual freedom to the mission of libraries. Some examples include Immroth's statement that "intellectual freedom is considered a basic principle of modern American library practice.' (1) Saunders similarly declared that "intellectual freedom is a concept at the very core of professional librarianship." (2) ALAs Library Bill of Rights, adopted more than fifty years ago, emphasizes that "materials should not be excluded because of the origin, background, or views of those contributing to their creation." (3) Salak worded this assertion somewhat differently: "If a public library is doing its job, it has something in it that offends every single person." (4)

Conversely, some library experts have cautioned that librarians must carefully consider whether to include controversial materials in their collections. For example, in 1967 Shera said,

   When a librarian really believes
   that a book is harmful, that its
   content is contrary to the welfare
   of the community, or that
   it is destructive of good taste,
   even if those are his opinions
   only, he has not only the right,
   but also the obligation to do
   what he properly can to keep
   that book out of the hands of
   those whom he thinks might be
   injured by it. (5)

Where is the line between harmful books that do not belong in libraries, as described by Shera, and offensive books that do belong in libraries, as indicated by Salak? …

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