ASSOCIATES (2011, July, v. 18, no. 1)


Joined at the Hip: Self-Censorship in Youth Collection Development and Public Service

Brandon Hackbarth
St. Paul, MN.

[Editor’s note: This is an edited version of an essay written by Brandon. A copy of the complete essay can be obtained from Brandon or the Editor.]

As any parent will almost certainly concur, children are just chock-full of the most amazing, outlandish, and even potentially frightening questions… and if you’re lucky enough to be blessed by an overly clever one, more often than not a single question can be outlandishly, amazingly, and frighteningly illuminative all at once. Take for instance, my seven year-old daughter. One morning a few months ago she was playing quietly in her bedroom with Barbie dolls and other little-girl miscellany while I was typing away on the computer. Over the clatter of button-pushing and coffee slurping I heard her call for me to join her in her room. Upon entering her bedroom I encountered an interesting visual tableaux, my daughter, on all fours, dutifully and quite calculatingly exploring the bottom of one of her now stripped-bare Barbie dolls, whom she had positioned to resemble an upside down “V.” I immediately realized that my daughter wasn’t involved in mere role-playing, imagining a magic castle kingdom a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away – no, what I had walked in upon was more like… an examination. “Honey, what’s up?” I asked. “Dad…” she replied, vaguely looking in my general direction – “… where’s Barbie’s anus? There’s no hole.” You can probably see where this is going. After explaining how Barbie dolls are meant primarily for role-playing and not necessarily 100% anatomically correct, i.e. the flipper hands/feet, the generic contours of the breasts etc., the conversation inevitably returned to human anatomy – which, as we all know, in the mind of a child is just a hop, skip, and a jump away to another oft-discussed powder-keg topic: sex.

I feel that one of my duties as a parent is to answer any question posed by my daughter (which other parents may consider taboo) in a truthful and neutral manner. And, at times, I rely on books as a way to illustrate certain issues to her. In this specific case, I made a trip to my neighborhood library and checked out an illustrated book on human anatomy, as well as, the very excellent It’s So Amazing!: A Book about Eggs, Sperm, Birth, Babies, and Families by Robie H. Harris. But what if her mother and I weren’t open-minded parents, or, simply too flummoxed to answer these questions? Who or what would my daughter seek out in order to obtain appropriate feedback? Of course there are many options, but for purposes of this article let’s focus on the obvious: her school’s media center or the closest public library. One would assume they are an ideal source for this type of information. Right?

Well, by using my daughter’s circumstances as an example the answer would be an emphatic, resounding “NO.” Firstly, despite the fact that my daughter attends a fairly progressive school containing a media center housing several hundred books, audio/visual materials, etc., I could not locate one single item covering the topic of human reproduction or sexuality. This may be due to the fact that all of the media center’s books are donated by faculty and parents. Or it may be because the student body is quite ethnically diverse, and, in an attempt to quell any potential outcry from the more reticent parents, administration has purposely omitted these types of materials. More than likely it’s a combination of both reasons. Secondly, even though the public library our family frequents appropriately catalogs Harris’ It’s So Amazing!, as juvenile non-fiction, I have a hard time imagining my daughter (or any 5-12 year-old child for that matter) actually locating it – simply because it is shelved with other (non-anatomical/sexually/reproductive themed) materials. And if a child were not accompanied by a parent… well, in such an instance a librarian, and, to an extent, paraprofessionals would be integral in bridging this “gap” – both in terms of cataloging and shelving these materials, as well as proactively guiding patrons to these resources.

From an emerging paraprofessional standpoint I’m not particularly interested in school media centers per se or in focusing my career on youth services – I am however explicitly interested in any patron’s access (or lack of) – regardless of age – to materials that are, by subject, considered controversial. Still, if youth-oriented materials are subject to acquisitions censorship, where does one draw the line? If a child or adolescent cannot seek out information pertaining to anatomy or sexuality then we as librarians and paraprofessionals are complicit in their ignorance. Librarians and paraprofessionals, can, albeit in a limited way, seek to be more proactive in ensuring access to these materials by adopting more precise cataloging methods and by actually promoting these materials. Certainly, every school media center and public library should consider human reproduction/teen sexuality to be an integral part of their collection development plan, and librarians should strive to act more as educators and facilitators in this regard – rather than playing the role of an “impartial guide.”

From a purely technical services viewpoint it would seem that the most pressing issue is the inconsistency of cataloging various subject headings – especially in terms of Gay, Lesbian, Bi-sexual, Transgender (GLBT) themed materials. But what, on a local level, can a librarian or paraprofessional actually do? I understand that many, if not nearly all teenagers are anxious, suspicious, and insecure – whatever their circumstances or inclinations may be. But it still makes at least some sense to emphasize the fact that your friendly, neighborhood library houses such a collection – however limited it may be. While I don’t believe materials pertaining to anatomy/reproduction and sexuality should be “segregated” from the general collection (imagine the mind-bending anxiety evoked within a young person upon discovering that his/her desired material has been relegated to the “smut corner”). I often question whether librarians and paraprofessionals are proactive enough in the “promotion” of these materials. If one subscribes to the notion that a librarian is in fact an instructor, and believes S.R. Ranganathan’s “every reader his book/every book its reader” mantra to be an ethical viewpoint, then it would seem that such a professional would have to be a proponent of public consensus and dissent. This may seem rather “activist” in tone, but librarians and paraprofessionals are not expected to fulfill or even vaguely imitate a parental role. From a technical services standpoint, it is our responsibility to acquire and properly catalog materials which reflect the needs of the respective communities we serve. So let’s face it. Is there a single community in which a concern for human sexuality, health (drug abuse), and sociology is nonexistent? And if not, then why do so many libraries inconspicuously evade the inherent need for such information? Fledgling paraprofessionals who quiver at the thought of aiding in the development of policies, collections, and services “within a framework of human rights and social justice” (Shrader, 107) should seek a different vocation. What’s the alternative? Develop a collection that reflects a violation of human rights and social justice?

I believe one of the reasons why libraries are subject to budgetary cuts and seen by many as a nonessential public service is because they are perceived to be too characterless in their approach. Of course this is a misguided assumption. Libraries have undergone various mutations in terms of what is expected service-wise – both in the technical and public realm. Media centers and public libraries are (yet again) in the midst of a transitional period. Librarians have evolved from “gatekeepers of information” or censors to their current, more “democratic” incarnation. But libraries have always been, and most likely will always be, struggling to adjust to “official” public consensus. It seems that media centers and public libraries are walking on eggshells because staff wish to placate certain so-called social, political, and for-profit “allies” who may or may not feel it appropriate for someone like my daughter to brush up on her knowledge of the location and function of human anuses, or to enjoy It’s So Amazing! – or for a teenager from my neighborhood to check out GLBTQ: The Survival Guide for Queer and Questioning Teens. Many “allies” would be compelled to believe that that these relatively innocuous materials are not in the best interests of the community and are therefore relatively unexplored nooks of the library’s collection. Clearly, in my opinion, this is a form of censorship bred in acquisitions and cataloging, then intensified by meek and or indifferent public service staff.

Because, ironically, the only group librarians and paraprofessionals are truly beholden to are their patrons – whether they’re children, teenagers or adults, GLBT or straight, addicted or clean. They are our allies. And we should be expected to promote their materials as a means to bridge whatever information gap confronts their community. Public and technical services are inextricably linked. Neutrality is not an option. Even the most practical of librarians involved in collections development are prone to rely on their own subjectivity and even the most prepared and outgoing of public services staff can mishandle a reference interview. But this cannot excuse library staff timidly cataloging an item according to a diluted sub-headings directory or, and perhaps more importantly, pointing a young patron in their respective direction with a languid hand. Rather, do as the late James Brown admonished us, and with no reservations, “Get up, get into it, and get involved.”

Schrader, Alvin M. “Challenging Silence, Challenging Censorship Building Resilience: LGBTQ Services and Collections in Public, School and Post-Secondary Libraries.” Feliciter 55.3 (2009): 107-109. Library, Information Science & Technology Abstracts. EBSCO.