Monday, August 24, 2009

Burying the lede

The New York Times carried an article, A Library's Approach to Books that Offend by Alison Leigh Cowan on August 19, 2009.

While the article opens with the instance where Brooklyn Public Library has rather shamefully bowed to pressure from a patron to hide a Herge book, "Tintin au Congo", there is actually good news when you read through the whole article. The most embarrasing quote in the article "'It’s not for the public,' a librarian in the children’s room said this month when a patron asked to see it." It breaks your heart to see such craveness. On the other hand there is the marvelous quote from the American Library Association, "Toleration is meaningless without tolerance for what some may consider detestable." That is wonderfully heartening.

What is even more reassuring is how relatively few people ever actually follow-up their heated words or outrage with actual action. The fact that the New York Public Library, serving several millions of people, only receives six or so formal written objections a year to particular books is a wonderful statement to everyone's general broadmindedness. Alternatively one could conclude that the noisemakers are just that, makers of noise but not really serious about their nominal concerns.

At a national level, the ALA reports an average of about 700 written objections a year to particular titles. In the context of roughly 120,000 libraries serving some three hundred million Americans, that is a marvellously low number. Granted that there are probably many more complaints made verbally that are resolved without action simply by librarians explaining library policies. But still: only 700? That's great. On almost any metrics you might use (formal complaints per population, complaints per volume of books held, complaints per circs) the number is vanishingly small. That's good news that ought to be highlighted.

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