burning Issues for Operation 451

Welch-McCarthy hearings, 1954
Welch-McCarthy hearings, 1954 via Wikimedia

Reposted from Inside Higher Ed.

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.

It concludes

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 click-bait, 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.

3 thoughts on “burning Issues for Operation 451

  1. Good evening.
    I saw your piece on truth-seeking in Inside Higher Ed and thought of a couple of library/truth-seeking questions I’ve had. Like to get your opinion.
    First, I’m going around with our local system about “Arming America”. I’ve provided links to scholarly eviscerations of same. In following the issue, I note that it was well-reviewed by library reviewers initially. Perhaps nobody likes to climb down. If you are in a position to know, what’s the general view of Bellesisles’ book and the movement to have it removed as a fraud?

    Second, your view of the Milo book brought up the necessity to purchase numerous volumes to avoid hold lists which might run to hundreds. That would be big bucks. Which brings up a library adventure from some years back. A friend asked me to read “Confessions of An Economic Hit Man”. I tried. I like to do what I say I’ll do but there are limits. What a mess of unlikely turgid sludge. So I returned it about three-quarters unread. I noted that our system had thirteen copies (big bucks), so I called the person in charge of such things. How come? “Demand”, she said. At the time, I was looking a the website which showed all of them on the shelf, but I figured there was no future in discussion. I do not recall, but I would bet there were more Harry Potter books in the system and few on shelves. But I wouldn’t bet much. Maybe enough for a small cappuccino at the Marathon station.
    This got me curious. So I checked out the county system where we were planning on retiring. Much different demographic. Twelve copies, on shelves.
    Now I was really curious. I checked maybe five other systems and found no fewer than eight in any system, all shelved.
    Big bucks for a book nobody wants to read. So I wondered; do libraries ever get a case of books with an unsigned note inside “NO CHARGE! ENJOY!”
    I asked an old college friend, a retired librarian, about this last year and she looked around. Very few available any longer.
    What do you think of the situation regarding Professor Judith Curry in Georgia?
    Do you like Patrick O’Brian? I find he has a singular facility for naming his heroes.
    Ruth Downie is new on the scene and has some interesting crime/intrigue books out.

    Richard A. Aubrey, Jr.

  2. Woo hoo! My first comment at my new home. (Rolls up sleeves) … let’s see.

    We have Arming America on our library’s shelves too, along with other books that make claims about guns that have been widely called into question. We don’t typically remove books that have been denounced or debunked because they are part of the historical record of those issues. Sometimes even a not-scholarly book stays on the shelf because its notoriety makes it historically interesting. The trick is to get more current books on the same shelf. We expect (and our history program expects) students to read enough about an issue to not be mislead by a particular source. It’s not that we don’t like to admit a mistake, it’s whether or not the book is part of the bigger story. I have used the book to illustrate how claims can come under scrutiny as other scholars track back the author’s sources.

    Academic libraries don’t buy multiple copies of books typically, even ones in demand. We have to spread our dollars around; public libraries are more likely to have waves of interest hit them that recede, so they have ways of leasing multiple copies that they know they won’t keep. I don’t actually understand the finances of that, but the books in those programs cost less because they’ll be acquired in volume and then returned. Orders are typically placed before publication, so when it’s in the news, it’s on the shelf. Sometimes people guess wrong; a “big book” is a big dud. And books that don’t get checked out won’t stay on the shelf in multiple copies for very long. Space is hugely valuable in public libraries. They’re more often criticized for discarding books too hastily than for keeping them past their shelf date (pun intended! get it?? sorry, I need more coffee.)

    I love the idea of checking a local library when you’re considering where to retire. I have had “make sure there’s a good library with generous interlibrary loan” on my list for things to check before a move, but what’s on the shelf at a public library reflects the interests of the community so can be a bit like stopping by a community gathering and overhearing conversations. Of course some libraries are better than others at drawing the entire community in and reflecting their interests on the shelves, and some simply don’t have enough money to add much at all, but you could get a feel for the place – including whether the community has the resources and will to fund a public library.

    Gifts – the idea of “here, have this book!” – are usually accepted only with the caveat that the library decides if it goes on the shelf (or stays). Most gifts don’t get added to the collection, quite honestly, and in my personal experience unsolicited gifts of new books are especially scrutinized. An example: we got a box of stuff from the Mormon church. We kept the encyclopedia, which was quite good, but that was the only thing that fit our collection guidelines.

    I’m not sure what the situation with Judith Curry is – I had to look her up – but this is one of those hairy academic freedom issues. If you teach something that is entirely contradicted by the vast majority of your professional colleagues your freedom may be limited. Imagine an engineering professor teaching an unsafe way of building bridges or a history professor insisting the Holocaust was a hoax. That’s a kind of malpractice. But an engineering professor at Northwestern who insists the Holocaust is a hoax deserves protection, according to some, because as a citizen he has the right to express opinions; as an engineer he should avoid teaching his students something that is dangerously false. I don’t know what the deal is with Curry, but she’s certainly in a tiny minority of scientists when she gives climate change a shrug. Wouldn’t it be a relief if she were right? I don’t think she is. I think we’re facing a terrible crisis. More to the point, my kids are.

    Always happy to have reading suggestions!

    1. Thanks for your response. Rumination on deflowering will not be forthcoming.
      Would it be kosher to put a note inside a book like Arming America to the point that the guy got fired, awards were rescinded, and the whole thing is as shaky as upside down pyramid? Fair warning, in other words.
      Perhaps in a public library.
      My idea of “gifts” referring to Confessions was paranoid. Maybe some subversive ponied up the money and sent them around. Among other things, it would encourage the author to do another (shudder). I suppose a library system has to get on board on or before the train leaves the station, but somebody should have looked at the thing….
      I have discovered that a currently active author, like you, will respond to a comment or question about half the time. I get the impression that conversation is not in order, though. The exception is that SF/Fantasy author David Drake. We were at the same place at almost the same time for the same reason, so we have that in common.

      I have had a couple of back-and-froths with Ruth Downie, mostly based on some experience I had which might have applied to one of her books.

      Thanks for your response.


      Richard A. Aubrey, Jr.

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