This Library Has Been Blocked Pending Further Review

As a school librarian in a district that uses WebSense, I’m all too familiar with the blocked page screen. For the mostpart, filtering seems to be limited to what someone recently referred to as “bandwidth hogs”–sites like YouTube, which could definitely tax district servers if too many students tried to browse all at once.’  Every now and then I’m frustrated by a block–like when a friend recommended a book to me, and for some reason the review she linked was blocked–but I generally understand the rationale behind most blocks, even if I don’t necessarily agree with it (*cough*Facebook*cough*).

But what happens when the blocker isn’t WebSense or internet filtering at all? What if you can’t access a resource because a colleague or an administrator or your community has decided you shouldn’t?

In preparing my presentation for Sex::Tech 2009, I’ve been talking a lot with public and school librarians about sex ed and sexual health resources. The experiences I’ve heard of really run the gamut, from a religious community that apparently hasn’t recovered from controversy over Our Bodies, Ourselves in the 70s to a school whose health curriculum is structured in part by the local Planned Parenthood. One theme, though, keeps surfacing again and again: self-censorship.

A number of librarians have pointed me to the School Library Journal article on self-censorship, which I certainly recommend if you haven’t already read it. What I don’t like about the piece, though–and this is something that often irks me in media coverage of any kind of library censorship debate–is the focus on fearful librarians without much acknowledgment that these folks might be responding to very real community sentiments and precedent.

From school libraries to public libraries to academic libraries, collections usually reflect the specific demands of a community. Often that means highlighting local resources or authors, but in the case of sexual health resources, it can also mean reflecting the philosophy of that school or town. I’m learning that with high school libraries in particular, communities with an abstinence-only approach to sex ed–officially or unofficially–are less likely to have libraries stocked with comprehensive sexual health resources.

This extends beyond the non-fiction collection. Librarians in more conservative communities tell me their YA fiction collection development tends to shy away from “mature themes,” including representation of LGBTQ themes and characters.

It’s easy to cluck our tongues and think these librarians should be filling in the gaps with a broader range of materials. But in a climate of budget cuts and layoffs, can we really blame anyone for playing it safe? Sure, I love to think that if I worked in a restrictive environment, I’d put on my cape (no tights, please) and turn into Subversive Librarian… but is that just a daydream? Would I toe the line and keep my mouth shut if I found myself working with teachers afraid to step outside the abstinence-only box, and parents insisting street lit had no place on my shelves?

What’s the situation in your library? Do you feel comfortable buying fiction with sexual themes? Is your non-fiction comprehensive, or do you feel limited to the Opposing Viewpoints series? Can you collaborate with groups like school Gay-Straight Alliances and the local Planned Parenthood, or do you try to keep your library politically neutral?

About mk Eagle

I'm the librarian at Holliston High School, a bit west of Boston. In my spare time I advise my school's yearbook and Gay Straight Alliance, write about food, and root for the Red Sox.
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3 Comments

  1. What a well-balanced and thoughtful approach to this topic!

  2. Thanks, Frances! I’ve been trying to rethink my knee-jerk response to censorship. Talking with folks about their different community approaches to sex ed has definitely been an eye-opener.

  3. Working in a public library, we try so hard to be politically neutral when it comes to sex ed. Our subscription to Rosen’s Teen Health and Wellness database has been a huge help in this simply because they have articles coming from *all* of the angles of the issue. But still, even carrying a publication like Sex Etc. (which, again, has articles from all viewpoints and written by teens, no less) has led to a lot of challenges from adults who don’t agree with some of the content. The bottom line is that regardless of the community or it’s makeup, it is unfair to only represent one or two viewpoints. All sides of the issue need to be shown, even if you can ascertain 100% that no one in the community you serve feels that way (and to say you could at any point would be such a fallacy!).

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