Reports of sexual misconduct by authors of critically acclaimed, well-liked literature continue to abound and be publicized. This reckoning is good for our industry and our profession, and hopefully it is empowering for survivors.
Yet these revelations and incidents lead to troublesome, difficult questions: What should we do about the books these authors have written? Do we remove them from circulation or pledge to no longer purchase them? Do we keep them on the shelves as if nothing has changed? Do we owe something to our patrons, our colleagues, and ourselves?
I want to state, emphatically, that I support survivors and their allies. I abhor the perpetrators and the damage their actions have caused. But I believe the first place to start is with our foundational principles.
One of the core values of the American Library Association (ALA) is intellectual freedom: “We … resist all efforts to censor library resources.” In ALA’s Library Bill of Rights, a precept states: “Materials should not be excluded because of the origin, background, or views of those contributing to their creation.” And turning to the Freedom to Read Statement: “It is contrary to the public interest for publishers or librarians to bar access to writings on the basis of the personal history or political affiliations of the author.” Taken together, these points indicate that we should not remove the books of authors who have committed sexual misconduct or harassment.
Many libraries contain items that individual librarians (and patrons, of course) take issue with. Nearly all librarians have selected and put on shelves content with which they disagree—and sometimes that disagreement is very strong. It’s a slippery slope to say that authors accused of sexual misconduct do not belong on our shelves. What about authors who have committed other crimes? What about those whose political or religious views are harmful to marginalized groups? The lines become impossible to draw.
Librarians should not be in the business of drawing lines regarding what to exclude from their libraries. Instead, we should commit to evaluating a work on its merits. This leads to the collection development policy, which every library should have. Do the materials in question meet the criteria of your policy?
Librarians should not be in the business of drawing lines regarding what to exclude from their libraries.
Let’s consider The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie. It’s beloved by many and has received several awards. On the other hand, it’s more than a decade old. Is it still circulating? Is it still relevant and meaningful to your patrons? Are there other books that portray growing up as an American Indian, in poverty, in less-than-ideal home conditions, or as a marginalized youth? Are there less well-known authors you could amplify? Different libraries may have different answers to these questions.
This quandary might also lead to thoughtful programming. Maybe patrons would like to discuss the implications of the #MeToo movement and how it has caused complications and ripples of pain that affect each of us in different ways. Maybe this dialogue could be the spark for a writing group in your library, to create stories to replace the tarnished ones.
It’s important to make one decision professionally and another personally. You may see that removing these books from the library is problematic but decide you will no longer read or support these authors in your personal life. The trouble arises when someone tries to institute individually held preferences over all library patrons.
After all, isn’t this thinking at the root of most library challenges? A patron finds a book objectionable and wants to stop everyone else from having access to it. Libraries often respond that individuals can make their own choices but cannot compel others to abide by those choices. To respond otherwise would counter the very heart of our profession.