True Stories of Censorship Battles in America’s Libraries [Review]

reviewed by Alex Kyrios

True Stories of Censorship Battles in America’s Libraries 
Edited by Valerie Nye and Kathy Barco
Chicago, IL: ALA Editions, 2012
ISBN-13: 978-0-8389-1130-3, softcover
200 pages, $50.00

Despite its title, True Stories of Censorship Battles in America’s Libraries isn’t full of tales of battle. Some of the brushes with censorship described are just skirmishes, or even cases of conflict narrowly avoided. The 31 chapters edited by Valerie Nye and Kathy Barco, of Santa Fe University of Art and Design and Albuquerque Public Library, respectively, cover an admirably broad span of topics, each a reflection of censorship in an American library. We may think of censorship as an issue affecting only public and school libraries, but there are also cases from academic libraries as well as a prison library.

These personal stories, which range from serious descriptions of heated community battles (such as “32 Pages, 26 Sentences, 603 Words and $500,000 Later: When School Boards Have Their Way”) to the lighthearted “The Princess Librarian: An Allegory,” will appeal to librarians, library staff, and readers with an interest in censorship issues. Readers will also find the discussion questions, related to some of the scenarios described in the book, a valuable resource. These questions, such as how a library can establish community ties, respond to challenges and appropriately classify materials, can foster important conversations in a library faced with book challenges—or better yet, before that happens.

One of the common themes in the chapters is the willingness of groups such as the ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom to support librarians fighting censorship. Especially in cases where a loud or influential patron stirs up a media circus over a book, organizations such as ALA and the American Civil Liberties Union are willing to back up library staff and help them respond to challenges appropriately.

This book will be a valuable companion to libraries facing censorship attempts, but it may be more effective at preparing librarians and staff to deal with censorship issues before they happen. The authors stress the importance of libraries having a comprehensive collection development policy which can be referred to when library materials are challenged. The book’s stories prove that librarians and library staff who can specifically explain why a controversial book meets the library’s collection development policy are on much more solid ground than those who have to make ad hoc arguments with challenging patrons.

One of the more interesting sections is a pair of chapters addressing materials on Native American tribes, especially in cases where scholarly sources contradict tribal tradition or ignore cultural sensitivities. How should a librarian balance the cause of intellectual freedom with inclusion of minority groups? The book shows that sometimes there are no right answers.

True Stories of Censorship Battles in America’s Libraries includes something for librarians and staff in any type of library. Some of us may never have to talk to a patron who objects to a book, but we may have to deal with coworkers who want to censor objectionable materials. Any library employee who would have to answer a material challenge should read this—and if your library doesn’t know who that person is, that’s a problem! Libraries across the country have dealt with all sorts of challenges, and this book is full of accounts of triumphs and defeats to inspire and inform a beleaguered library. You don’t have to go it alone.

Alex Kyrios is a Metadata and Catalog Librarian at the University of Idaho.

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