When a Good Deed Meets Bad Press

October 19, 2010

A promptly handled reconsideration request at the Waukee (Iowa) Public Library morphed into a public-relations nightmare for Director Maryann Mori last week when area residents misinterpreted a Des Moines Register story about the relocation of The Notebook Girls from the YA section to adult nonfiction as restricting adolescents’ ability to borrow the title.

However, nothing could be further from the truth, Mori told American Libraries, acknowledging that the community reaction “was discouraging for me because the decision the board made, based on the recommendation of the committee, was very logical.” She explained that a September 28 request to have the book withdrawn from the collection altogether resulted in a quickly assembled review committee concluding that Waukee PL’s copy of The Notebook Girls “had originally been miscataloged [as YA fiction],” as it is in many other public libraries. Ironically, she added, the relocation will undoubtedly heighten the book’s visibility since “teens will go to the adult nonfiction section more readily than an adult will go to the teen nonfiction section,” and patrons of all ages can borrow a book from any section. The library board agreed at its October 12 meeting.

Mori noted that the book of frank observations by four Manhattan teenagers “has some very useful information for parents and educators”—an observation shared by the review committee that was a key factor in retaining the title. In fact, library trustee and review-committee member Sue Ellen Kennedy said in the October 15 Register that after “discuss[ing] the different cultural and social aspects of the book,” the committee had voted unanimously for its reclassification.

Case closed—except for the flak

Readers of the Register thought they saw censorship in the outcome of the materials challenge (which, the article explained, was made because the unidentified complainant objected to “foul language” and “cussing” in the book), and wasted no time in saying so. Online commenter MrClean wrote: “I’m so relieved now . . . Because teenagers have NEVER heard of sex, drinking and drug use.” DaFonz remarked, “This is the first step toward putting the book onto the ‘burn pile,’ right under Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury.” Agreeing with DaFonz, Robertsgunshop added, “See where ‘reclassifying’ and ‘banning’ books leads.”

Understandably upset by the reaction, Mori astutely posted her own comment to the article, which after reiterating the facts, asserted:

WPL and its Board are obviously committed to intellectual freedom, freedom of access to information, and patron privacy based upon the library’s current policies regarding mission, purpose, collection development, and freedom to read. Once all the facts are known, it is obvious that the recent decision was not a form of censorship or book banning; it was a way to ensure that the book is accurately cataloged and in a location where it can be accessed by the most readers.

In doing so, Mori demonstrated a bullet point in ALA’s “In Case of Controversy” tipsheet (PDF file): “Monitor news reports so you can quell rumors and correct inaccuracies.” Her one regret, Mori told AL, was in not emailing the reporter who contacted her a copy of the library’s collection development and freedom to read policies as an accuracy safeguard.

Of course, the silver lining in Mori’s dark-press cloud was the abhorrence of censorship that greeted word of the book-banning attempt. Astute Register commenter Realmomtotwo said it best: “I bet there will be a waiting list to read this book now.”