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Finding a Balance in the Stacks: Addressing Questionable Non-fiction, Controversial Material, and Unintentional Sanitation in Public Libraries

by Andrew Hart, Research Librarian, State of Ohio

Librarians come from many different backgrounds, and every librarian has their own set of formative experiences that have made them who they are today. The core of a person consists of the steps they have taken in life, and the different journeys they have endured. Education, family, organizational groups, memberships, friendships, religion, living location, jobs accepted, jobs turned down, movies viewed, books read, country of residence, research conducted, all adds to one’s overall self. This in turn is reflected and expressed in one’s daily life and reactions. Viewpoints and beliefs generated by our overall self influence us all the time, from shopping at the grocery store to deciding where to go on vacation. Because of the influence of one’s overall self, librarians need to ponder their decisions, especially when it comes to collection development. A library’s collection needs to be balanced, fair, and equitable. Subjective beliefs should not play a part in confronting dubious non-fiction, material questioned by patrons, and material in general.    

Librarians working in all facets of library service directly impact their community and patron population. Collection development, research, programming, readers’ advisory, administrative decisions, and circulation management contribute to the overall library program offered to stakeholders. A central truth lies at the heart of libraries and library service: everything offered by a library, and every item contained therein, is intentionally there. It was selected, approved, and added to the library’s venue purposefully. I wonder if librarians realize this? All that a library is, is what librarians make it to be. This is a frightening, humbling thought. Even stakeholder-initiated purchases, such as many public libraries’ ‘recommend a book’ options, are still funneled through an acquisitions librarian who makes the final decision whether to obtain the resource.  

The mission of a public librarian is to make the library a welcoming place for all; a place that is equitable and representative of many beliefs and viewpoints. The acquisitions librarian’s job is to select materials to satisfy the needs of the community. This can be difficult, especially for large, diverse populations. But the hardest thing an acquisitions librarian must do is overcome their own prejudices, beliefs, and preferences, in order to serve their community with singleness of mind. Subjectivity has no place for any librarian, let alone those ordering materials for people with multiple interests and viewpoints. Questionable resources, controversial material, and unintentional sanitation of the collection are all obstacles that an acquisitions librarian should plan to confront and be ready to respond to.

The Danger of Subjective Beliefs

Subjective beliefs are those that we hold that are not based on fact or reason, but rather personal experience and the overall self (the collected experience of life). Subjective beliefs are not a bad thing, but they can pose a danger to the balanced and fair goal that libraries of all types share. Public libraries pride themselves on housing a diverse and broad spectrum of informational resources. Not all beliefs housed in a library will be shared by librarians and staff. Since librarians make the library what it is by their purposeful decisions and intent, it is therefore imperative that librarians’ personal beliefs do not color and influence what they obtain and purchase for the library. The library collection should not reflect a librarian’s beliefs, but rather that of the needs and interests of the community.    

What Does the American Library Association (ALA) and the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA) Say About Collection Development?

The American Library Association (ALA) and the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA) have created sets of ethical standards by which librarians and staff are to practice. Included in each of the Codes are sections that list requirements for collection development. The ethical standard to keep collections free of architect bias is important and needs to be taken seriously by all.

ALA states the following in its Code of Ethics:

“We do not advance private interests at the expense of library users, colleagues, or our employing institutions” (Clause 6).

“We distinguish between our personal convictions and professional duties and do not allow our personal beliefs to interfere with fair representation of the aims of our institutions or the provision of access to their information resources” (Clause 7).

IFLA states the following in its Code of Ethics for Librarians and other Information Workers:

“Librarians and other information workers are strictly committed to neutrality and an unbiased stance regarding collection, access and service. Neutrality results in the most balanced collection and the most balanced access to information achievable” (Sec. 5, Clause 1).

“Librarians and other information workers distinguish between their personal convictions and professional duties. They do not advance private interests or personal beliefs at the expense of neutrality” (Sec. 5, Clause 3).

The Problem of Potentially Misleading Non-fiction

The concern for non-fiction items of dubious research quality or merit pertain to items’ subject matter. Non-fiction publishers and authors for various controversial, debatable, and conspiratorial concepts and argumentations are of concern. Books and other material that have dubious research backing, pseudoscience, or questionable logic might be lurking in the collection or be presented for sale to libraries in trade magazines. Books such as these have an agenda to convince readers of the argument they are making, which may be fantastical, unbelievable, or downright ludicrous. Should such things be bought? Should they be removed from the collection?

It depends on library type. Non-public libraries, such as academic and special libraries, have specialized, tailored collections that will by their nature omit purchasing certain types of material. A scientific library, such as an academic science library, will of course want to purchase only reliable, research-verified books and resources. Such a library will most undoubtedly have a specialized, narrow list of materials that they will purchase. Books that contain pseudo-research, amateur research, or unreliable sources would most likely not be purchased, perhaps only if the item served an illustrative purpose. A special library, such as a corporate business library may have the same protocols and limit purchases to business related material. Public libraries, on the other hand, exist for the public and all its stakeholders, some of whom may be interested in non-fiction books that have shaky research and dubious other qualifications.

If public librarians base their decisions to not purchase a book or other material solely on subject matter alone, they might be forcing their views on the library and its patrons. Just because a librarian does not believe in a subject, that it merits study, or that opposing sides of a debate should be heard, does not mean they have the right to cut off access to patrons to information. This action goes directly against the American Library Association (ALA) and the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions’ (IFLA) Code of Ethics (see above for more information). The action boils down to the public librarian not wanting members of the community to have access to information that the librarian them self finds displeasing, uncomfortable, ridiculous, incendiary, unworthy, or lacking. This can occur in fiction too (e.g. a librarian not wanting to purchase a certain title or add books of a certain genre). Again, public libraries serve the public and its stakeholders. The public library should house all viewpoints, no matter how ridiculous or controversial or fake it seems.

The Problem of Controversial Material

Sometimes patrons, including library staff and parents, may complain about material like that mentioned above, but most times it is about the most controversial topics in society such as LGBTQIA+ issues, political books, religious texts, etc. The essential argument by complainers against a public library having such materials is that the public library is paid by taxes and should not collect material that members of the taxed community disagree with. The problem is that while there are some that disagree with said controversial materials, there are others in the community who want access to them. What is an acquisitions librarian to do?

By no account should an acquisitions librarian not purchase a book solely because the subject matter or author has been complained about in the past. It is understandable to not purchase more copies of the same item in question until the complaint is resolved, but not the topic/author completely. Libraries have always received complaints about material and will continue to do so. It’s nothing new. The danger for acquisitions librarians comes when a librarian agrees with the complainer and sees merit in eliminating the topic or author from further purchases. It’s OK if a librarian does not purchase an item because of issues like price or availability, or other objective factors, but rarely will a situation occur where an entire topic area will meet this criterion.

The Problem of Unintentional Sanitation

Sanitation of a public library collection is simple: it is the removal or refusal of certain materials from a collection. This problem is a hidden one because it has its roots deep in the stacks. It may not be apparent until one searches the catalog or physical collection. We’ve already talked about intentional sanitation, but what about when shunning certain topics or material is unintentional?

This can happen quite easily. For instance, weeding the collection can produce a low number of books on a certain topic, while the opposing viewpoint overshadows them. A good illustrative example is weeding political books. The weeding might produce a majority of books for a certain political party, which might give the appearance that the library favors one party over the other. Care must be taken, especially with politics and religion, to keep the collections as balanced as possible. This ensures that the library does not appear to be pushing a political or religious agenda.

Unintentional sanitation can also occur when one’s beliefs influence purchasing or removal of materials subconsciously. It is not to say that librarians are not aware that it is happening, which might be the honest case, but that they may think it to be normal behavior and good rationale. Librarians that think this could be happening to them, may want to create a list (see below for an example) that they can go through to make sure their decisions to buy or not to buy are not biased.  

As a Public Librarian, What Can I Do?

Remember, S. T. A. D.:

Stop.
Think.
Ask a colleague.
Decide.

If a decision to purchase something (for or against) is based on any of the following, it may go against the ALA and IFLA Code of Ethics (see above):

  1. The political views of the author, subject matter, or book characters;
  2. An author’s religion or a book’s portrayal of religion;
  3. LGBTQIA+ content;
  4. Questionable research;
  5. Genre;
  6. Pseudoscience;
  7. Religious affiliation;
  8. An author’s or character’s race;
  9. A book’s publisher.
Or, if you find yourself thinking any of the following while considering the purchase of material, it may be unethical, and you should question the true intentions of your reasoning:

  1. “The people in this town need to know more about this topic...”
  2. “I love this genre, and I know others will too...”
  3. “We have had too much trouble with this topic in the past...”
  4. “I wasn’t raised to believe that...”
  5. “This AUTHOR is so overrated...”
  6. “People don’t appreciate this AUTHOR enough...”
  7. “I can’t believe people would want to read this...”
  8. “This topic is too ridiculous to consider...”
Paging Doctor Librarian!

If you can identify a reason listed above, seek a second opinion from a colleague. Just like a doctor who is unsure of a diagnosis, a librarian too can use fellow librarians as resources to figure out the correct way to handle a situation, or to see if there’s a situation at all. Choose someone that is impartial, and if possible, not in acquisitions. Before discussing the item with the colleague, let them review the material first so that their review is not biased; then, after they finish, explain why an item should or should not be purchased. See if they come to the same conclusion as you. If you are both in agreement, there is a good chance that your reasoning to purchase/not purchase the item is in good ethical standing. If not, you should reconsider your initial assessment and seek an additional opinion if necessary.

Sources Consulted
The American Library Association (ALA). Code of Ethics. Retrieved from http://www.ala.org/tools/ethics.

Budd, J. M. (Winter 2006). Politics & Public Library Collections. Progressive Librarian, Issue 28, p78-86.

International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA). Code of Ethics for Librarians and other Information Workers. Retrieved from https://www.ifla.org/publications/node/11092#neutrality.

Copyright 2018 by Andrew Hart.

About the Author: Andrew Hart currently works as a Research Librarian for the State of Ohio. In addition to government, he has experience in special collections, and public and prison library settings. Andrew has a Master of Science in Library Science degree from Clarion University of Pennsylvania, a Master of Social Science degree from Ohio University, and a Bachelor of Arts degree in criminology from The Ohio State University. He has contributed to Public Libraries Online, American Libraries Magazine, Library History Roundtable News and Notes, and has written chapters for McFarland’s Genealogy and the Librarian: Perspectives on Research, Instruction, Outreach and Management (2018) and Social Justice and Activism in Libraries: Essays on Diversity and Change (date TBD). All views presented belong to the author alone.