Tuesday, March 26, 2013

"Anti-Gay" Books and Professional Disagreement

Last month the Association for Library Service to Children's (ALSC's) intellectual freedom committee posed a question:
"It is widely accepted (we hope!) that Vanita Oelschlager’s A Tale of Two Mommies should be on every library shelf. If it isn’t on yours, we would love to hear why not.

The real question we have today is: does Sheila Butt’s Does God Love Michael’s Two Daddies? belong on your shelves as well?" (web links added)
I will be looking at responses from two locations: replies to the original ALSC post, and email messages in the American Library Association's (ALA's) intellectual freedom roundtable discussion list. I'm interested in this discussion because it highlights a clash of professional values that I believe should be acknowledged rather than ignored.

So does this "anti-gay" book belong on library shelves? I've split select responses into three broad categories...

No, Because of Viewpoint
"I am totally floored and personally offended that ALSC would even propose the question, 'Do anti-gay books have a place in the library?' Would they ask, 'Do anti-African American books have a place in the library?' or 'Do anti-Jewish books have a place in the library?'" — Stephen B.
"My short answer is: No. I don’t think a library needs to carry anti-gay material, even for the sake of intellectual freedom, in the same way that I don’t feel a library is obligated to carry anti-semetic material, or any material that targets a minority group. If there were some sort of reference book about what Christians believe about homosexuality that was positively reviewed by professional resources, then I could see putting it in a library’s collection. But a book like 'Does G-d Love Michael’s Two Daddies?' sounds no better than propaganda, and that makes me very uncomfortable." — Tess
"Anti-gay books qualify as 'hate literature,' along with books that demonize other minorities. As a small public library, we have to prioritize how we spend our money. Books or other items put out by hate groups (or individuals with the same perspective) are not compatible with our collection development policy." — James E.
"The more I think about this topic, the more I’ve come up with this simple idea: I don’t want a child to pick up a book from the picture book section that tells them they’re 'bad' or that their families aren’t good enough. I just don’t." — Ingrid A.
Maybe, Because Libraries Should Be Viewpoint Inclusive
"IMHO you would definitely be violating his/her right to read what he or she choose by making your decision based on content alone.  It easiest just to ignore religion and focus on having a variety of views represented in our collections whatever the subject -- even or especially those that offend us personally." — Doug A.
"More and more, we are seeing 'hate speech' as an excuse to censor viewpoints we do not share, which is not to deny that cruel and distasteful viewpoints abound. But are we doing our patrons a favor by denying them access to all points of view, thereby preventing them from gathering arguments against viewpoints with which they disagree?" — Robert K.
"As a queer librarian, yes, anti-gay books have a role in the library.  They represent a significant opinion about which many people might wish to find out more.  That's the role of the library, IMO." — Laura Q.
"The book seems extremely biased, but the point of intellectual freedom is to allow for all sides of an issue to be accessible. It took me a long time to accept that I cannot both campaign for glbt materials in my library without seeing the other side of the coin." — Sarah
No, But Not Because of Viewpoint
"Should a library have a book that reflects different thoughts on the issue of homosexuality? Yes. This particular book, though, judging from reviews, is not one that belongs in the library." — Craig W.
"I would stand by any of my professional colleagues decisions to not include this book. It has been reviewed by an expert, and consumer reviews (amazon.com) are very low. This is, going by all the sources that I have checked within the short time I have explored this blog post, a very lousy book, so no, I wouldn’t buy it." — Another Tess

"As many have noted, this particular book would not clear the common hurdles for collection development. Libraries are not obligated to make exceptions to their collection development standards and purchase low-quality materials to fill a hateful or 'anti' gap in the collection, especially among our current budget realities." — Amanda
Judging from this last category, the book put forward for discussion is not an especially good candidate for forcing librarians to wrestle with the general question. According to the top rated customer review on Amazon, "It's hard to tell if the author objects more to Michael's dads being a gay couple, or an interracial couple." Unfortunately (fortunately?), I wasn't able to find a better candidate in children's literature. Let's assume, however, that such a book is soon to be published in response to the spreading legalization of same sex marriage. Maybe it wouldn't get a positive review from Horn Book Magazine, but assume this is solely because of viewpoint: it's well-illustrated, cleverly told, and appealing to families who want their children to view different-sex couples as the ideal. It's a popular title for younger audiences representing the worldview seen in A Parent's Guide to Preventing Homosexuality (which is carried by my local-ish Omaha Public Library).

Should public libraries carry this hypothetical "anti-gay"-but-otherwise-attractive children's book?

Mission Matters

It depends on what public libraries are for. If libraries are fundamentally about providing "materials and information presenting all points of view on current and historical issues," as Article Two of the Library Bill of Rights states, then there no question. Librarians must provide "anti-gay" books. It's not like this is an obscure historical viewpoint in contemporary America; roughly four in ten Americans still want to deny marriage to same sex couples.

On the other hand, if public libraries have a fundamental purpose that is better served by counting "hate literature" as a reason for excluding or de-prioritizing materials, then surely children's picture books would be the least appropriate place for such "hate literature."

Which is the right answer? There isn't one without first deciding what we really want. There are important historical reasons behind the non-judgmental stance taken by the Library Bill of Rights. Views on what constitutes immoral, hateful, or dangerous materials change and sometimes invert! It's easy to think "anti-gay" books are undeserving of library representation, but what about the times when people thought the same about "anti-slavery" or "anti-capitalism" books. Once you start making exceptions, why couldn't another librarian with other values make her own exceptions to intellectual freedom ideals? After all, there's nothing in the librarian handbook to authorize one type of censorship, but not the other.

Plan B

Absolutism is seductive. It's pure. It's simple. It makes for great slogans.

Unfortunately, absolute adherence to any single value can demand severe compromises on other deeply-held values. Consider the First Amendment and its absolutist wording: "Congress shall make no law [...] abridging the freedom of speech." Seems straightforward, but imagine if the First Amendment were strictly applied. A gang leader's order to kill would be protected. A prankster's bomb threats would be protected. A politician's 3am speeches delivered by megaphone in residential neighborhoods would be protected. Thanks to judicial tradition, our Constitutional right to free speech is subject to a limited number of exceptions. These exceptions aren't precisely where I would draw the lines, but I don't know anyone seriously advocating an absolutist understanding of the First Amendment; not even the American Civil Liberties Union.

What's the point in having a First Amendment if judges are just going to make exceptions? In a way, having a few, well-defined types of exceptions allows the remaining kinds of speech to be protected more robustly. For example, an explicit free speech exception which permits the government to restrict the sale of sexual materials to minors allows for an uncompromising freedom to sell those same kinds of materials to adults, or to sell violent materials to minors. If we're ever going to make exceptions, it's better to enumerate the areas where exceptions are allowed, so that we can leave all other areas exceptionless.

I suggest librarians take a similar approach to the Library Bill of Rights. In practice, are conscientious librarians today strictly and absolutely adhering to this document at all times? If not, let's not ignore the fact; let's face it in the open. Just as champions of free speech are willing to restrict 3am bullhorn speeches, there may be widespread agreement that the kind of intellectual freedom we champion does not require us to provide children's books focused on promoting a negative viewpoint toward some part of our community.


  1. I must say this post of yours is the very best of all those posts that the original ALSC post engendered. And mainly, that's due to your well-reasoned approach. Do you have a Twitter account? I want to retweet you on this.

  2. Thank you, Dan. One thing that really bugs me is the tendency many people have of avoiding important discussions by trying their best to pretend differences don't exist. I've had one lecturer say that scientific accuracy is an important element in public library nonfiction collections, and another say accuracy is absolutely not the business of librarians as they pass along published "information." These are wildly different approaches! Sometimes I feel like I'm rocking the boat when I point this stuff out, but the boat is already rocking from the clash of ideas; it doesn't do any long term good to ignore it.

    Whew, ok that's it for tonight's rant. Regarding the Twitter question: I don't have an account and I don't intend to change that. Retweeting may be a bit more convenient, but I understand that URLs can be linked in tweets too.

  3. Just tweeted to 862 followers:

    "'Anti-Gay' Books and Professional Disagreement" http://wordsideasandthings.blogspot.com/2013/03/anti-gay-books-and-professional.html re #ALA @ALSCblog #IntellectualFreedom #lgbt #h8 #libraries #libchat