A librarian looks at censorship

When ideas conflict with community standards, those ideas are frequently censored. As recent events in Tampa, Fla., demonstrate, the resulting conflict between ideas and ideals can polarize an entire community.

The battle lines in Tampa were drawn around copies of children's books on sex. The books were turned over to a panel of professional librarians, who carefully examined them and approved them. They felt that the books did not appeal to prurient interests, and that they met nationally recognized professional standards.

But a petition drive forced the city council to decide the issue. The council chose to restrict access to the books, moving them to the adult section of the library.

The decision created a rift between city and county boards, both demanding control over library decisions, split the city into pro-censorship and anticensorship factions, and ultimately contributed to the resignation of the library's director.

A well-run and efficient library system became a political football, and efficiency and confidence were replaced by amateurism and uncertainty. Ironically, one effect of the crisis was to create an unprecedented demand for the disputed books. The library had to purchase extra copies.

Librarians, publishers, and educators, in a recent study entitled ''Limiting What Students Shall Read,'' report that the rate of censorship is increasing. In half of the 500 specific incidents of censorship for which the outcome was known , the material in question was ''altered, restricted, or removed.'' The report includes a list of over 230 books and films that some well-intentioned citizen has tried to ban or censor. The list contains such salacious and subversive publications as ''Huckleberry Finn,'' Shakespeare's ''Merchant of Venice,'' ''The American Heritage Dictionary,'' issues of Sports Illustrated, and E.B. White's ''Stuart Little.''

State and national-level challenges are most often made on ideological grounds, such as creationism, secular humanism, and pessimistic or anti-establishment views. Most local attempts at censorship, however, are aimed at sexuality, profanity, and obscenity. These are also the most difficult issues for teachers and librarians to defend; censors are usually making a highly emotional appeal, certain that their personal moral standards are appropriate for the entire community.

The Tampa case is not an isolated incident. But Tampa's decision does set a dangerous precedent. Leanne Katz, director of the National Coalition Against Censorship, said that Tampa was the first case she had encountered in which a governmental board overruled the decision of a library board.

The decision to restrict access to the offending books is a common solution to such disputes. On the surface it seems to satisfy the interests of both parties; proponents claim that it is not actually censorship because the material is still available for use. The American Library Association (ALA) responds that ''restricted access to library materials is frequently in opposition to the principles of intellectual freedom.'' The ALA maintains that ''because a majority of materials placed in restricted collections deal with controversial, unusual, or 'sensitive' subjects, asking a librarian or circulation desk for them may be embarrassing for patrons desiring the materials.'' The ALA position is that libraries and library boards ''should bear in mind that they do not serve in loco parentis.'' Parents have the right to restrict their children's reading but no right to force other parents to accept the same restrictions.

Librarians are mindful of their responsibilities to the First Amendment. They are custodians of centuries of knowledge, much of which was disputed or banned when first released. Politicians, bureaucrats, and censors, on the other hand, are usually instruments of conformity. By their actions they not only suppress novel or challenging ideas, they also cow authors, editors, and publishers into playing it safe by watering down the truth and omitting controversial material.

Censorship, in any form, represents a lack of trust in the judgment and discrimination of the individual. The passage of time provides the best perspective for sorting the wheat from the chaff.

Tampa chose to replace the decisions of professional librarians with those of politicians.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.