Saturday, 4 July 2009

Censorship in Australian Libraries

Last night I read Clair Williams and Ken Dillon's Brought to Book: Censorship & School Libraries in Australia (1993). I was particularly interested in the chapter on "Censorship and the Philosophy of Librarianship," thinking it might make a nice counterpoint to the pieces I have been reading from the early 20th century on bad, improper, poisonous, pernicious and beastly books (see here). Unexpectedly, while I find the earnest rantings of Canon Rawnsley et al. rather amusing, I found Williams and Dillon very annoying indeed.

Williams and Dillon contrast the "liberal tradition" (and intellectual freedom) with the tradition of "social responsibility," favouring the latter. In fact they state that "absolute intellectual freedom is both undesirable and unattainable" (43), cautioning that some "naive" and "problematic" philosophical pronouncements "define intellectual freedom in terms that suggest not liberalism but libertarianism" (51). Although they recognise that "notions of intellectual freedom and free speech do not readily permit of half-measures" they, nevertheless, recommend half-measures, stating that "Absolute intellectual freedom … should obviously be rejected on moral and practical grounds."

Well, it isn't obvious to me why intellectual freedom is "naive," "problematic," and "should obviously be rejected." And Williams and Dillon are not that keen on enlightening any libertarian who doesn't agree with them on philosophical and moral grounds.

They offer only one practical difficulty: life may get difficult for a librarian committed to intellectual freedom: "Financial support may be withdrawn, jobs may be jeopardised or lost …" Sensing, perhaps, how pathetic this sounds, Williams and Dillon quickly move on to the main objection:

Advocates of absolute intellectual freedom tend to favour the demand theory of librarianship rather than the value theory. The demand theory says that the librarian should simply provide material that is demanded (what the user wants) while the value theory dictates that the librarian should provide material of value (what the user needs).

The strongest criticism of the demand theory that Williams and Dillon can muster is that "it can seem to reduce the librarian to a mere functionary dispensing commodities." Yes, that is it. Ego. It would hurt the feelings of librarians to recognise that they could be replaced "by junior administrative assistants." Far better than this, it seems, is to foster a system in which one group of people (librarians) decides what another group (every other human being, not a librarian) "needs." Failure to accept this manifest destiny of librarians is "self-effacement of the most paralysing kind" (53).

Personally, I am not happy handing over the choice of what I "need" to an un-elected group whose strongest motives are ego and sloth: namely, (1) maintaining their own sense of self-importance and (2) the desire to avoid being inconvenienced. Nor do I trust the "social responsibility" model that justifies librarians—who are prone to "elitist, middle-class ideas of literary value"—in deciding which "attitudes and ideas are positive and socially beneficial," so as "to promote social change." As Williams and Dillon explain: "the value theory of librarianship is favoured by … literary elitists; those who wish to censor material … because of their sexual, religious and political content; and those who have a commitment to social responsibility" (the latter being criticised as "left wing authoritarianism or social engineering")

As one of those pesky libertarians who favours a laissez faire approach I recognise that my right to free speech depends on the right of everyone else to free speech, including those whose opinions I most strongly disagree with or consider "anti-social." Williams and Dillon can't bring themselves to expand on this, though it is central to their rejection of "an indiscriminate openness," but they mention racist, sexist and fascist, material. In other words, the presence of Fanny Hill in a library is contingent on the presence on the same library of The Turner Diaries. For me, this is a price worth paying.

(Curiously, what they don't mention are the only two "practical" grounds I can see for limiting the scope of library collections: budgetary and legal restraints. But they are subjects for another day.)

Williams and Dillon conclude their chapter with the following statement: "even vocal defenders of intellectual freedom often happily accept the denial of such freedom to minors and find this contradiction unworthy of comment" (55). You might expect Williams and Dillon to elaborate on this question, in a book on "School Libraries in Australia," in a section titled "Children's rights," following such a criticism, but you'd be disappointed. They don't.


Doc-in-Boots said...

That is a disappointment. I remember at 9 being informed by the school librarian that I couldn't read the book in my hands because it was aimed at 10 year olds... is that really about moral and practical judgment? Many others have similar tales. And the book seems to overlook the brilliant librarians out there who fight for books to be available - who are informed about the nature of books so as to give useful advice regarding the moral and practical nature of the material in question without imposing their own moral judgment upon it. These librarians are far from "mere functionary dispensing commodities," yet they do make material available when requested. I'll have a look for the book - I'd like to read that chapter on children's rights (which hopefully isn't really 'what a small portion of adults think children should do' rights).

Patrick Spedding said...

Yes, the right to do what someone else wants you to do is willingly granted.

I may have been a little harsh with Williams and Dillon, but I had thought that a book that explains how to deal with complaints about "problem materials," which considers the banning of books in school libraries as an "important issue," may have been a little more inclined to challenge a philosophy that encourages and justifies the banning of books. I was wrong. Disappointed and wrong as it happens.