Monday, September 08, 2008

Banned books

The whole carry-on about Sarah Palin and the local librarian reminds me of my experience with censorship in my long years atoning for the sins of a former life by serving as a library director.

The politicians never took any interest in the books in the library. They didn't read them. I don't believe they read the reports I sent them. They didn't even have library cards. Only the inmates of these small towns noticed we had books, some of which they objected to.

The complaints were bizarre. One man poked his head around the corner of my office and dropped a copy of The Return of the Native on my desk, remarking that it was the dirtiest book he had ever read. He must have led a sheltered life.

In order to forestall citizen's complaints, we had a Procedure. I found that a Procedure, in writing, was a good way to cope with complaints and other problems. We had Procedures for every eventuality--unruly customers, opening and closing the library, checking out books, dealing with emergencies, etc. They were kept in a notebook entitled Policies and Procedures.

So, as part of this Procedure, we had this form which we asked our patrons to fill out if they wanted something removed from the shelves. No-one who complained ever wanted to fill out the form, so the matter usually died there. Most of the books people objected to were not obscene or objectionable; someone just had an aversion to a particular book for reasons of their own. I think some of them just wanted to talk to somebody.

Librarians love to talk about Censorship, but censorship was not my main problem with books in the library. Our main problem was donations. Ideally, we didn't want any. We particularly didn't want any copies of encyclopedias more than three years old or with volumes missing. Filthy or moldy books, books with pages missing or covers torn off, books whose contents were escaping their bindings--you get the picture. Nix. No. Nada. Non quiero. We of course had a policy stating what sort of books we would accept, but no-one ever read it. People just brought in books, left them in the bookdrop, or deposited them at our door if we were closed. It was a bad idea making them take them home again, so we quietly disposed of them.

Donated periodicals were a lesser problem, as sometimes one of our issues was missing and we could fill in our collection. But National Geographic! It's an excellent publication beyond a doubt, but we had so many of them that we gave them to school kids to illustrate their reports.

Other problem donations were books people were eager to add to our collection: books about little-known religions; books denying that John Wilkes Booth assassinated Lincoln, hate-filled tomes blaming all the world's problems on the Jews, stuff like that. We had a Policy for these, thank God. It generally involved pitching them.

And there were the books donated under certain conditions: they must be kept in the reference collection, or the children's collection, or behind glass. We didn't want them either.


dick stanley said...

In Austin, we have Half-Price books outlets which buy books people no longer want. Probably cuts down on library donations. I'm amazed people are still flogging the Booth-didn't-do-it idea. It became popular twenty years after the civil war, when it wasn't heresy to write such things, but I thought it would have died out long ago.

miriam said...

Booth didn't do it, no bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, Elvis lives, Nixon murdered Kennedy--there is no end of crazy things people believe.

It's all very well for them to believe these things, but libraries don't have shelf room for this stuff.

airforcewife said...

I'll admit to dropping a donation book in the library drop box once. I had to do it - the book was brand new, and I bought it not understanding it was about a hermaphrodite nun.

No - really.

I was so embarrassed about that book, I just had to get rid of it. And I can't throw it away... So, I took the coward's way out.

Other than that, I don't part with my books no matter how old, boring, or crumbly they are.

miriam said...

I have so many books, I have to give them to somebody. At night my books mate with each other, and each morning I have a pile of little baby paperbacks. Also, people send me books to review.

The nice thing about going to the library is you don't have to keep books you've already read.

Diesel said...

Interesting to hear your perspective.

Anonymous said...

Good to know about that Miriam. I am a librarian my self and work for an educational institution in Papua New Guinea.

Its nice to know that there is a concerned librarian out there sharing their views.

Akaky said...

And then there was the time someone gave us a complete set of the National Geographic from 1948 to 1973. We appreciated the gift, but we were at a loss to know what to do with them, given that very few people in 1995 wanted to read National Geographics that old.

miriam said...

Akaky: We had a complete run of National Geographic from its inception, plus extra copies of lots of them.

The pictures of mountains, rivers, and stately monuments in old NGs are still relevant and can be cut out and used for a report. It saves them cutting pictures out of books.

Not that they don't cut them out anyway.