Parents’ protest raises censorship questions

Nov. 12, 2012 @ 05:16 PM

We returned to North Carolina having accumulated 32 years collective experience as professional librarians in another state, mostly in public libraries. The censorship issues raised in the article “Book stirs parent protest” on page A1 on Oct. 27 are familiar to all in the profession who labor in publicly-funded libraries.
These libraries usually have written procedures in place to deal with similar challenges to books in their collection. These challenges are not taken lightly and usually are brought before whatever public body is responsible for library affairs. Typically, the complainant is asked to fill out a form. This form usually starts out by asking the complainant to write his/her name on the form.
Often, complainants are reluctant to do so, wishing like Scrooge, “to remain anonymous,” and there the matter ends. But if it continues, the persons are next asked to write down the title and author of the book in question, and then in their words, describe why they want the title removed from the collection. Then they are asked the question, “Have you read this book?” by checking either Yes or No in the boxes provided. Finally, they are asked to sign the form. Most of the complaints that get this far involve the children’s or young adult collections, and usually involve issues of religion or sexual content.
The complainants here are not objecting to the books because they or their children are being forced to read them; the “opt out” provision precludes this in the case with Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaiden’s Tale” as reported. Rather, in their view, not only they or their children voluntarily not going to read the book, but it should be involuntarily denied to all others as well. Such that “opt out” is not enough. This imposition of their values on the unwilling is of course, censorship. Public institutions need to be careful how they go here. Censorship is almost always in the eye of the beholder and a view suppressed by one group may well be followed by the suppression of another view, the first group indeed finds acceptable
There is a certain irony in this case and all others like it. Now every teenager in Guilford County knows there is a prurient title out there they might actually want to read. We predict circulation of “The Handmaiden’s Tale’ will rise dramatically. It is not an easy read, but it might lead some to explore other titles by a well-respected author who has things to say to young people, and indeed others.
Finally, it is presumed that the complainants have read the book – not the odd passage, but actually read it. And thus be willing to publicly respond in the affirmative to the question, “Have you read this book,” if asked.

Constance E. Lyons and Joseph E. Lyons live in High Point. Constance E. Lyons is former director of Children’s Services, Monmouth County Library System in New Jersey. Joseph E. Lyons is former director of the Bradley Beach and Sayreville Public libraries, Monmouth and Middlesex counties in New Jersey.