Social Tolerance and Racist Materials in Public Libraries

Susan K. Burke

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When asked about a hypothetical book containing racist beliefs, do people support removing the book from their public library or not? The study examined responses to this question from surveys conducted from 1976 to 2006. Responses were analyzed for changes over time and for differences between demographic categories of respondents. Data were gathered by the General Social Survey, a well-respected social sciences data resource.

How much we value the right of free speech is put to its severest test when the speaker is someone we disagree with most.—American Civil Liberties Union, “Hate Speech on Campus”

Librarians are against censorship in principle and advocate against censorship in many ways, such as the American Library Association’s (ALA) annual Banned Books Week and various activities by intellectual freedom committees of state and national organizations. But does this advocacy extend to all types of materials? What about literature that is “negative” or of questionable accuracy, such as Herrnstein and Murray’s The Bell Curve (Free Press, 1994), holocaust denial literature, or other literature that denigrates racial or ethnic groups? Does

this literature belong in public libraries? The following literature review summarizes three areas of thought to form a framework from which to examine the concept of books with racist content in public libraries. First is an introduction to the concept of intellectual freedom in libraries. This is followed by a brief review of library and information studies (LIS) literature concerning racism in library books. Most of this literature has concerned children’s materials, although children’s materials are not the focus of this study. Last is a brief introduction to scholarly thought from different disciplines concerning racist speech or hate speech and whether such speech should be controlled. The paper then uses data analysis to examine the opinions of the U.S. population on the idea of racism in library books, and concludes with a discussion of similarities and differences between the opinions of the experts and scholars as presented in the literature review and the opinions of the general population as examined in the data analysis section.

Library Values and Intellectual Freedom

If there exists a right to express an opinion, then there also exists a right to know about that opinion. Where else but in the library, and especially in the public library, can all citizens avail themselves of that right?—John Robotham and Gerald Shields, Freedom of Access to Library Material

The library literature abounds with expression of the centrality of intellectual freedom to the mission of libraries. Some examples include Immroth’s statement that “intellectual freedom is considered a basic principle of modern American library practice.”1 Saunders similarly declared that “intellectual freedom is a concept at the very core of professional librarianship.”2 ALA’s Library Bill of Rights, adopted more than fifty years ago, emphasizes that “materials should not be excluded because of the origin, background, or views of those contributing to their creation.”3 Salak worded this assertion somewhat differently: “If a public library is doing its job, it has something in it that offends every single person.”4

Conversely, some library experts have cautioned that librarians must carefully consider whether to include controversial materials in their collections. For example, in 1967 Shera said,

When a librarian really believes that a book is harmful, that its content is contrary to the welfare of the community, or that it is destructive of good taste, even if those are his opinions only, he has not only the right, but also the obligation to do what he properly can to keep that book out of the hands of those whom he thinks might be injured by it.5

Where is the line between harmful books that do not belong in libraries, as described by Shera, and offensive books that do belong in libraries, as indicated by Salak? Estabrook and Horak, in a survey conducted in 1991, found that there were differences of opinion between librarians and the public. Particularly, the study found the public to be more conservative than librarians concerning materials on controversial topics in libraries.6

Is the difference in opinion between librarians and the public about controversial books predominately tied to the age of the intended audience? According to the ALA Office of Intellectual Freedom’s (OIF) database of challenged books, most of the challenges received in libraries are to materials for children.7 While parents may want librarians to monitor their children’s reading materials, the Library Bill of Rights advocates free access to information for all age levels, and librarians expect parents to be responsible for monitoring their children’s book choices at the library.8 At issue is the conflict between those that believe exposure to controversial ideas is harmful versus those that believe that exposure to a variety of viewpoints teaches readers to be critical thinkers.9 Some writers advocate that free access to information from an early age leads children to be able to discard negative depictions and stand by morals and values taught by their parents, while others “have argued that public libraries and public school educators … have a responsibility to inculcate values.”10 According to Willett, “Librarians tend to share the general adult belief that children need guidance in matters of literary quality and appropriateness” and take their positions as transmitters of cultural heritage seriously.11 One of the difficulties in this task is that different adults have different views about what values are important and what ideas are appropriate. Steinle suggests that teaching values, beliefs, and ideals to children is the most important responsibility of society, but that cultural behavior and expectations change and have made this enculturation more difficult in the last several decades.12

Racism in Library Books

Sova included racist literature in the category of literature that has met social opposition for containing vulgar expressions unacceptable to community standards and that challengers view as harmful to readers.13 Most of the discussions in the library literature of racism in books concerns controversial images or depictions in children’s literature. Ashmore, for example, discussed the historical roots of concern for positive images in literature for African American children, particularly the writings of Du Bois and Dill in 1919. She went on to discuss other early criticisms of negative portrayals of African Americans in children’s literature, such as the work of Charlemae Hill Rollins.14 Pescosolido, Grauerholz, and Milkie analyzed African Americans in U.S. children’s picture books in three sets from 1937 to 1993 and concluded that depictions of African Americans varied significantly over time.15 Taylor discussed books that she enjoyed as a child, but when she was reintroduced to them as an adult she realized that they were blatantly racist.16 Willett’s analysis of the social climate that surrounded proposed changes due to racial issues to Rifles for Watie, an award-winning children’s book in 1958, detailed the complex interactions of current social issues, history, and the viewpoints of librarians, authors, and publishers in the judgment of a book’s contents.17

An example of an adult book that generated a great deal of controversy for its purported racism is The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life, which was published in 1994. Fraser called it “clearly the most incendiary piece of social science to appear in the last decade or more.”18 Librarians have not shied away from adding this controversial book to their collections. An OCLC search for the book in all formats revealed 4,276 holdings, and even more holdings for the several books subsequently published to refute the claims of The Bell Curve.

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