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Stephan Barker column: A compromise on the book ban debate
Books and Libraries

Stephan Barker column: A compromise on the book ban debate

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Efforts to withdraw “offensive” materials from libraries have been a perennial issue across the country. Recently, the school board in Spotsylvania County rescinded a decision to ban “sexually explicit” materials from school libraries after librarians and members of the local community denounced the move as censorship. Proponents of the ban vowed to continue the fight, despite a statement by the school district’s attorney that withdrawing the books might be unconstitutional.

The issue is hardly confined to Virginia. The American Library Association’s Office of Intellectual Freedom reports an “unprecedented volume of challenges” by groups seeking to remove items from local libraries. In Kootenai County, Idaho, two candidates won seats on a local library board after vowing to rid the children’s collection of materials dealing with racism, sexual orientation and gender identity. In Campbell County, Wyoming, another citizen’s group, claiming library materials were obscene, reported the library to the local sheriff and asked that criminal charges be filed.

The dispute in Spotsylvania struck a nerve. After working in education and public libraries for most of my life, I have a certain perspective on these issues. I decided to conduct an experiment: I went to my local library’s online catalog and did a keyword search using the F-word for all the books in their collection. The result: 323 hits.

Here are a few of the titles that popped up: “The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F---”; “Everything is F---ed: A Book About Hope”; “Never F--- Up”; “F---, Now There are Two of You”; “Calm The F--- Down.”

Working my way down the expletive scale, I entered the F-word’s scatological sister into the library’s online catalog. The result: 499 hits.

Some representative titles: “S---, Actually”; “Get Your S--- Together”; “Holy S---”; “S--- That Pisses Me Off”; “Get S--- Done”

Several years ago, while working for a suburban library system, I clicked on the library’s webpage and saw “Go the F--- to Sleep” at the bottom of the screen. I immediately called the library’s administrative office and suggested they remove the title from the webpage, since it was sure to anger parents and others in the community. I never asked them to remove the title from our collection; that would have been censorship.

A few years after “Go the F--- to Sleep” was published, a children’s book titled “Sex is a Funny Word” began appearing in libraries. Aimed at 8- to 10-year olds, the book attempts to promote conversations between adults and children on such topics as anatomy, gender and sexuality. It is thoughtful and well-written, and the cover, with “sex” in big yellow letters, can be seen from across the room.

For me, that was the issue: Every time I walked into the library’s children’s book area, “Sex is a Funny Word” was on a book display, staring me in the face. When no one was looking, I would take the book off the display and return it to its call number location on the shelves. The next day, it would be back on the display shelf, greeting kids and their parents as they entered the children’s room. Someone in the library really wanted that book out front.

Profanity doesn’t play a part in all spheres of public life. People watch the evening news, read newspapers (including this one) and visit their doctor’s office without encountering the F-word. We may live in permissive times, but many library users still expect a certain level of civility when they visit their local branch. Librarians, on the other hand, are eager to appear relevant. Placing books with racy titles on display helps them shed their stodgy image and appear au courant.

A proposal for compromise: Don’t ban these books, but don’t promote them either. I did not violate anyone’s First Amendment rights when I suggested that “Go the F--- to Sleep” be taken off the front page of the library’s website, nor should I be taken to task for taking “Sex is a Funny Word” off a display and putting it in its regular place on the shelves. These materials should be part of the materials we offer to the public, not the focal point of the collection.

Stephan Barker has worked in academic, corporate and public libraries. From 1981 to 1997, he worked at the Prince George’s County Memorial Library System in Maryland. He lives in Silver Spring, Md. Contact him at:


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