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The Seduction of the American Public Library

by Helen Chaffee Biehle

"We could drop our kids off at the library while you and I finish our shopping," I said to my young friend. She looked shocked. "I never let my kids go to the library alone!"

I did a double take. I was, after all, a library lover. As a teacher for 25 years, I had gone to the library more often that I'd gone to the grocer. But I had not looked into the youth division since my grown children had used it.

My friend sputtered on. "The librarians say they have special rights, so they can't protect children any more and can't notify parents. And parents don't have any rights. If we complain, they call us `censors.' I dare you to go into the youth section at County Library and see what's there. Some of the stuff will curl your hair."

The next morning, I opened the local paper and understood instantly what my friend was getting at. There in bold print was the story of Mrs. Cindy Friedman, her 12-year-old son and the county library. She had refused her son permission to buy 2 Live Crew's Rap tape, "As Nasty As They Wanna Be," as had the local record store, on the legal ground that he was underage. (For those who have been away for the last three years, 2 Live Crew is a rap group that narrowly missed going to jail on obscenity charges for a performance in Florida.) True to its title, the tape is nasty, indeed, glorifying rape, with men's voices shouting "I'm gonna break you" and "I wanna see you bleed!" over the plaintive voice of a young girl crying "no" "no." All the lyrics on the tape are unremittingly gutter profanity, and all are about violent and casual sex with "bitches" and "ho's."

Imagine Mrs. Friedman's astonishment when she discovered that her son, on an innocent trip to the library, had not only found the offending tape in the library's collection, but had been allowed to check it out with his library card with no questions asked.

But, according to the Sun Press account, Mrs. Friedman, with the perfectly normal reactions of a responsible parent, fell into the library's ideological trap. "If he has to be 18 to buy the tape, he should have to be 18 to take it out of the library," she said. Zap! "The Library Bill of Rights forbids discrimination on the basis of age," said the library head.

"The library should have a system of warning parents what kids are taking out," said Mrs. Friedman. Zap! "That would be censorship. Besides, librarians cannot act `in loco parentis'." (Excuse me, I thought. Who said so? They had formerly been doing this, just as teachers had, for almost 100 years.)

This article upset me! What was going on here? No apology of any kind for giving Mrs. Friedman's child what John Leo calls the cultural equivalent to poison gas? I reached for the telephone.

"I'd like to speak to the director of the Cuyahoga County Library system." Then I began to get cold feet. This is a system with 28 libraries and 440,000 patrons (now called card-holders). But my outrage stiffened my spine. The director came on the line. I questioned her current policy on children, and asked for some adult supervision in the purchasing department. She was completely calm and utterly unapologetic. Much later, I learned that her calm came from following the detailed instructions given by the library's Intellectual Freedom Manual for handling irate taxpayers like me.

The Library Director's first defense was diversity. "Neither you nor I might approve of `As Nasty As They Wanna Be,' she said, but we serve a diverse population." I assumed that this was a code word for minority groups. But, not long afterward, my trust in her excuse about diversity began to evaporate as I read accounts in the New York Times about African-American parents demonstrating against Rap music and its effects on their kids. And last year, we all saw the news reports about Rap performers who had been arrested and charged with rape or murder. I checked with the Cleveland and Chicago public libraries, both of which serve large groups of African-Americans. Cleveland did not have the tape at all and Chicago had one or two copies of the "cleaned-up" version. Only our county library, most of whose constituents are white and suburban, had bought the down-and-dirty version -- 11 copies, to be exact.

The library head's second line of defense was philosophic. "Not to buy the tape would be making a moral judgment," she said. "We can't do that." Not make a moral judgment? Do we not all make moral judgments every day? And can we not all agree that cruelty is wrong? Can we not agree that cruelty packaged as entertainment and given to children is morally indefensible? Apparently not. I couldn't resist recommending a book to the library head: British philosopher Mary Midgley's Can't We Make Moral Judgments. It should be required reading for all librarians.

The library head's third line of defense was the Library Bill of Rights. "You need to read this," she said. "It states clearly that we can't keep materials from children on the basis of age. You can find a copy of it in the American Library Association's Intellectual Freedom Manual." I hung up the receiver and drove to the nearest library. I was determined to find out what had caused this dreadful change in a formerly beloved institution. Buried in the chapters of that little ALA paperback manual is the entire history of who changed our libraries, how, when and why.

This philosophical change did not come about accidentally. The culture of today's library is the result of deliberate initiatives by the ALA's powerful Intellectual Freedom Office, funneled through its Council and then approved by the ALA council, which is its governing body. This is made up of one delegate from each state, one from each library division and 100 delegates at large. The quorum of delegates needed for a vote is 75, making 39 votes a majority. This is how decisions are made for 55,000 librarians.

The library with which most Americans over the age of 30 grew up was the creation of people like William Fletcher, who, writing at the turn of the century, encouraged librarians to accept responsibility for the library's moral influence in the community. This is the heart of the change: today the ALA resoundingly rejects this responsibility as naive and old-fashioned. Its official statements ridicule and ostracize librarians who do not comply with this rejection of responsibility to the community, and library schools teach this new doctrine. The acceptance of moral responsibility for children in the library is now called "unprofessional," making a responsible moral judgment about materials purchased for the library is called "elitist," and the librarian who is brave enough to do either is labeled a "censor."

Look at the philosophic change: for its entire history, until the 1960s, the philosophy that undergirded the American public library was the same as that which informed the U.S. Constitution's Bill of Rights, and made the free speech clause possible. James Madison's thinking sprang from the English Enlightenment, with its emphasis on human reason. However, the dignity of the individual and the attribution to him/her of rights was based on a theistic idea which Madison took for granted: that persons were created by God, who was the Source of human rights. Madison said in another context, "We have staked the whole of our political institutions on the capacity of mankind to govern themselves according to the Ten Commandments of God." Until the 1960s, the American library shared common values with its public, and compared with today's library, was a communitarianinstitution. (Communitarianism accepts the idea that individual freedoms must stop short of harm to others and that the good of the community is of great importance.) Libraries, before the 1960s, had great local autonomy. Librarians were free to make moral judgments and were thus free to acquire the best available materials for their library collections. There were separate collections for children and adults.

Where did the ALA's current, radically subjectivist/individualist philosophy come from? The ALA, which constantly quotes from the First Amendment and whose brochures picture the Founding Fathers, would have you believe that it springs from James Madison's Enlightenment ideas about freedom. Not so. The ALA's philosophy comes from four sources: first, the later Enlightenment philosopher, Voltaire, who was hostile to all revealed religion. Second, to John Stuart Mill, whose mid-19th century writing preached that the individual is sovereign over his own mind and body, and who shifted the focus of life away from helping others toward the need to fulfill the self. Yet, even Mill believed that freedom should stop short of harm to others. Thus, he accepted the need for libel and slander laws, and believed that children needed protection from themselves. The ALA has rejected this idea of the Right to Protect and has instead accepted the nihilistic ideas of the 19th century German philosopher, Friedrick Nietsche, who preached the now-familiar refrain that "God is dead" and that there is no common good to which we are all responsible. The fourth source is Jean-Paul Sartre, the French existentialist who was so fashionable in the 1940s. He held the absolute freedom of the individual to be the highest good and yet saw all values as relative. His idea that there are no rules by which we must govern our conduct dispenses handily with Madison's idea that the Ten Commandments are necessary for peaceful self-government.

To sum up, the radical individualist/subjectivist philosophy which informs the policies and actions of the ALA, sees freedom of speech as radically extendible. Little or no attention is paid to the concept of harm to others. The right to know is always seen as more important than the right to protect, even where children are involved. And a relativist value system finds the use of standards of judgment in acquiring library material to be elitist and old-fashioned. Indeed, good and evil are seen as merely subjective opinions. Under these philosophic views, the ALA no longer encourages libraries to be responsive to the community, but encourages confrontation, viewing the community as a dangerous source of potential "censorship" against which librarians must be eternally vigilant.

When did these ideas begin to infiltrate the ALA? And who brought them in? During the social turmoil of the late sixties, the Office of Intellectual Freedom in the ALA headquarters in Chicago became very important in the making of policy. Around this time, Judith Krug began her tenure as director of that office, and in 1970 forged strong links between the ALA and the American Civil Liberties Union. The ACLU functioned under a philosophy of nihilism/individualism since its founding by Roger Baldwin after the turn of the century. For a time in the 1970s, Ms. Krug served simultaneously as ALA Intellectual Freedom Director and as a board member of the ACLU, which has given her several awards. The ACLU, according to George Grant's 1989 study, believes that children should have the same rights as adults, that pornography should be protected by the Constitution, that the First Amendment's free speech clause implies a right to receive information, and that the smallest limitation of any speech or expression will automatically lead to totalitarian repression.

Ms. Krug is also director of the Freedom to Read Foundation, which she herself describes as a "militant and activist" group. Its attorneys stand ready to sue in library censorship cases. (Freedom to Read joined the ALA in seeking to overturn the U.S. Justice Department's Child Protection and Enforcement Act in 1991.) Freedom to Read Foundation's most recent Statement of Support reads as follows: "Laws such as obscenity statutes can be significantly dangerous to individuals and institutions." This a complete reversal of their 1953 position statement, which they published jointly with the ALA. Proposition 4 of this said: "The present laws dealing with obscenity should be strictly enforced."

On close inspection, the names of the board of directors and significant contributors to Freedom to Read reveal a checkered group. There are lawyers, of course. But there are also people from companies with a financial incentive to publish profitable, but questionable materials. One member of the Freedom to Read's board of trustees is the film critic for Penthouse magazine. Freedom to Read has published her pamphlet, Vanity of the Bonfires, in which she argues that pornography is harmless, and should be protected by the First Amendment. The Freedom to Read Foundation has joined the ACLU in its campaign for the abolition of obscenity laws.

You will recall that our county library director defended the library's giving a 12-year-old boy the tape by 2 Live Crew on grounds that the Library Bill of Rights mandates that all children must have access to everything in the library collections. At a 1967 Conference on the Teenager, Dr. Ervin Gaines heard Edgar Freidenberg, author of Coming of Age in America, accuse libraries of treating teenagers like second-class citizens. During a subsequent national meeting of the ALA, Dr. Gaines made a resolution that the word "age" be added to Article 5 of the Library Bill of Rights. He and others seem to have agreed with Freidenberg that "adults have no right to determine for youth, access to ideas." By 1972, the ALA had adopted his resolution. Strangely, not just teenagers are mentioned, but any child of any age who may now have access to a library's entire collection. Article 5 now reads: "A person's right to use the library should not be denied or abridged because of origin, age, background, or views."

During the political and social unrest of the 1960s, the riots and the burnings, Congress lowered the age of adulthood (and voting rights) from 21 to 18, and this led college students to press for more personal freedoms on campus, denying that colleges had the right, any longer, to act "in loco parentis." In 1972, in an unprecedented rejection of community responsibility, the ALA decided to proclaim that its 55,000 libraries must cease acting "in loco parentis," that is, in place of the parent. (Never mind that they had been doing so for not quite 100 years.)

The Intellectual Freedom Manual contains no convincing pedagogical reason for suddenly exposing children to materials clearly meant for adults. Nor does it give a convincing reason for upsetting the communitarian habits of most of the country's older librarians.

Indeed, libraries were allegedly slow to give up separate card files. Librarians who, all of their lives, had asked parental permission for children to have certain materials continued to do so. But, the Intellectual Freedom Council and the ALA Council were not amused. They drafted an Interpretation of Free Access to Minors, which was circulated to all libraries in the U.S.A. This statement called librarians who continued to act in what they felt were the children's interests, or who continued separate card files for children, "unprofessional" and "in violation" of Article 5 of the Library Bill of Rights. This directive has the appearance of a legally binding document. Yet, I have Judith Krug's word that it is not. "It's a philosophic statement," she admitted, "but 55,000 librarians adhere to it." (One wonders how many librarians, seeking to obey, believed they were legally bound to do so.) Following the Statement of Interpretation, the ALA warned libraries not to "water down" their collection because of the fact that children now had access to everything.

The ALA long ago won its battle. Today, librarians may not act "in loco parentis" without harm to their careers. And this policy has even hardened into state law in Maryland, where parents, by law, may not be informed of what their children borrowed from the library.

Now, what about the bugaboo of censorship? Way back in 1948, the ALA added the following Article to the Library Bill of Rights: "Libraries should challenge censorship in the fulfillment of their responsibility to provide information and enlightenment."

Unfortunately, for the last 25 years, the tail has wagged the dog. Since 1967, the Office of Intellectual Freedom has made censorship its most important issue, and has broadened the definition of censorship far beyond its original meaning of prior restraint. "There is no good censorship," says one of the Statements of Interpretation, those ALA proclamations that tell librarians how they should think. Each year, the ALA awards a $500 prize to a librarian who has been a "Freedom Fighter" against "censorship" (as defined by the ALA). Every year, libraries celebrate Banned Books Week with posters. Did you see this year's very good looking poster? Very attractive. It shows the names of three authors: Nathanial Hawthorne, Mark Twain and Stephen King and asks, "who's afraid of these people?" And the caption answers: "People who ban books. That's who!" Besides the awkwardness of equating Stephen King with Hawthorne and Twain, the use of King's name seems to me especially insensitive, for less than two years have passed since two killings were done by children who copied murders they had read about in King's books. One was the murder of a 4-year-old boy by a 13-year-old; the other, the shooting of an English teacher in her classroom by a 17-year-old. If the communities in Kentucky and New York state where these murders were committed reacted against the King books, one could certainly sympathize. (In many libraries, his horror-fiction is featured in large quantities in the teen-age section of the library.)

The ALA fears censorship with an almost paranoid obsession. Nancy Bolt and Gordon Conable stoke the fires of this paranoia in the Intellectual Freedom Manual with their list of potential censors, which includes not only everyone in the community but everyone in the library, as well. Nobody escapes.

The list includes: "Parents, either singly or in groups...Religious groups...Protected minority groups...Patriotic groups" and, for good measure, "emotionally unstable individuals." The enemies list includes library trustees, in whom governing power over a library resides. Why are trustees, library management, and even staff, under suspicion? Here is Ms. Bolt and Mr. Conable's answer: Because they may be "parents, church-goers and members of political organizations."! In other words, these people might commit the heresy of not following the ALA party line. No independent thinkers allowed here!

The placing of church-goers under suspicion is especially ironic. During the first quarter of this century, John Cotton Dana, sometime president of the ALA and one of its best-known names in the history of the public library, cultivated a warm relationship with churches, for they were an enormous help to him in establishing libraries across America.

And what about parents? Responsible parents have invested enormous amounts of time and treasure in their children, and they need help from the community in raising them to be responsible adults. I'm sure you've heard the old African proverb: "It takes a whole village to raise one child." Our parents could once count on the library to be part of our village. How sad that we can do that no more! In fact, Peggy Noonan has pointed out that contemporary American parents are forced to spend inordinate amounts of time protecting their children from our culture.

That the ALA confuses censorship of political speech with the setting of moral standards for the purchase and access of materials is a zealotry which holds ideological orthodoxy more precious than the welfare of our children. It should be no mystery as to why responsible parents are shocked to find materials in the youth section of the library which are contemptuous of authority (including the parents' own), which teach sexual mores that deny their values, contain offensive language, and celebrate cruelty as entertainment. Yet Ms. Bolt and Mr. Conable, speaking for the ALA, find these parents dangerous! As we have said, the library is now an institution "bereft of all social ties and responsibilities" to the community, and this includes parents.

Ms. Bolt and Mr. Conable's chapter goes on to demolish traditional library selection policies, seeing them as a form of censorship. They ridicule criteria such as "quality" and "popularity," surrounding the words with quotation marks to make them seem spurious. Indeed, in a classic example of a relativist statement, they define quality as a purely subjective criterion. This definition equates ignorant opinion with expert knowledge and gives the same value to, for example, "As Nasty As They Wanna Be" as to a recording of Scott Joplin or Luciano Pavarotti. Bolt and Conable also assail the practice of choosing material on the basis of reviews.

Was the library selection policy always like this? No way! Take a good look at what the library schools were teaching in 1956. The Public Library Service published these book selection rules; of eight rules they list, here are two: "I. Materials acquired by the library should meet high standards of quality in content, expression and format. [There are no quotation marks around the word quality.] II. In considering the inherent quality of the material, the selection committee must evaluate critically the sincerity and responsibility of opinion."

It's very clear that 2 Live Crew's "As Nasty As They Wanna Be" would never have made it into the library in 1956, nor would Madonna's Sex book, nor Advocate magazine. But the responsible judgment that would keep these out would today be called "censorship" by the ALA.

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