Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Censorship and fear at the California Library

The Mediavilla article about the California libraries and the CLA has a lot of meaty stuff going on, I don't know where to start!

In particular, I was very interested in the ways that librarians self censored themselves at this time period, the ways that paranoia and fear existed long after McCarthy, and their opinion that if a book was challenged, no one would be there to back them up.

Were their fears justified? In what ways have we seen self-censorship already, and how do you think it functioned in libraries for the rest of the cold war? Have librarians become more bold, or could these fears still be justified today?

I'll have more questions about the Burbank attempt at book labeling and the various attempt at legislation for class on Thursday!


Jeremy4031 said...

I've always been "surprised by the surprise" whenever evidence of self-censorship comes to light. It's difficult to imagine a librarian (or teacher, professor, writer, journalist, broadcaster, etc.) who either felt so secure in his or her position or else felt so in tune with the community's outlook that he or she practiced no self-censorship.

Then again, maybe self-censorship in librarianship really is particularly worrisome because out of all the intellectual professions, librarians have the greatest powers of "stealth"--they can sneak ideas into circulation, counting on the fact that, at least initially, only a small group of dedicated people will do the legwork to find the truly radical ideas hidden in a library. If a librarian doesn't even feel confident enough to engage in this kind of "slow burn" intellectual activism, then the situation can be assumed to be dire. (Or else the librarian is just hopelessly timid.)

Molly said...

I agree with Jeremy's point about being "surprised by the surprise whenever evidence of self-censorship comes to light." For example, I was surprised that the results of the Fiske study "turned the library profession upside down" (6). Coming off of an era of fear and paranoia, it is not surprising that 2/3 of librarians studied practiced self censorship at one time. The study showed that most of these librarians believed in the importance of intellectual freedom and had "unequivocal freedom-to-read convictions" (6). However, and as Fiske points out, the political view of the community, the power and structure of the library board or controlling organization, and the personality and self-esteem of the particular librarian involved all come into play when intellectual freedom decisions are made. The author also points out that many reviewers of the report were actually more embarrassed than surprised.

I thought that the reaction of embarrassment to the study was particularly interesting in conjunction with Fiske’s findings that librarians have an overall lack of self esteem. Librarians in the United States have been fighting one stereotype or another since the profession began. I did not, however, consider the role negative stereotypes would play within the library and the decisions librarians make. It seems interesting that librarians did not like this stereotype, but at the same time played into it, perceiving themselves as unattractive and timid. I guess it would not be surprising, then, that librarians viewing themselves as such would easily fall prey to fear and conservative library boards. They would not give themselves the credit needed to take a stand for intellectual freedom.

I also wonder if the librarians’ act of living up to the stereotype is one reason they felt isolated and unconnected with the professional organizations. If they do not fee assertive as professionals, to what extent would they make an effort to keep tabs on the profession’s organizations? In a profession, contact with an organization depends on both the organization to reach out to the professionals and the professionals to actively participate and keep tabs on the organization. The article seems to indicate that even if the organization was not doing a very good job of making its presence known to librarians, the librarians did not seem to be making an effort to make their presence known to the organization.

Quinn Fullenkamp said...

Could someone discuss what is taught in collection management classes on this subject of the librarian as the censor/self-censorship? I am curious to see how this question is handled in our department.

Nancy S. said...

It is remarkable how many of us are "surprised at the surprise." I too am often surprised to hear when librarians practice self-censorship. In part I wonder if this self censorship is a result of librarianship being a profession where you are selecting for others. In one of Fiske's interviews a librarians states "..I do not trust my own judgement. I have traveled a lot...I might seem dangerous to some people." I would like to think that today she would not seem "dangerous" but perhaps, because she is a professional and her experiences are not average, she doesn't feel capable of selecting for the general public. Could that be a cause of some self-censorship? As information professionals are our experiences (in school and out) so different from the general public's that we have to or should practice self-cencorship? (and could that experience of feeling insecure in our selection for others cause low self-esteem?)

Katie K said...

Nancy, I think you make a good point. One of the moments that sticks out for me the most about LIS 450 last semester was when Michael Edmonds basically told us that we shouldn't assume that we're the norm. (I think his exact words were "You think you're all normal, but you're not!" :) ) I think he was referring to the fact that we liked reading books and the American public doesn't read as much but that has always stuck out in my mind. And maybe that's where that idea of self-censoring comes into play. I think a lot of librarians understand that their interests and information needs aren't necessarily that of their patrons. So, perhaps it's not that they don't trust their instincts--maybe they're being wise (especially in the times of limited budgets.)