Grey matter in public libraries

The Gray Lady is running an article on-line today about public libraries that are choosing not to stock copies of Fifty Shades of Grey, the steamy new bestseller.  Apparently, a more appropriate title for the trilogy might be Filthy Shades of Grey, and some libraries are choosing not to stock it because they deem it pornographic or because the don’t think it is the place of public libraries to distribute erotic fiction.

The Times sees this as a censorship issue.  As we know, book banners are always morally suspect individuals, right up there with people who don’t support campaign finance restrictions or people who make fun of vegetarians.   They quote the National Coalition Against Censorship’s formal response to this issue, who say:

The very act of rejecting erotica as a category suitable for public libraries sends an unmistakable message of condemnation that is moralistic in tone, and totally inappropriate in a public institution dedicated to serving the needs and interests of all members of the community.

It is often amusing how people who love to take the moral high ground are often so oblivious to moral reasoning that might undermine their position.  One might start with a challenge to the notion that public institutions cannot be moralistic.  I bet the people at the National Coalition wouldn’t be offended if the library were distributing free pamphlets on the dangers of global warming and how to reduce energy consumption, though certainly such an action is at least as moralistic as telling people they have to buy their porn from Barnes and Noble.  One could also challenge the notion that erotic fiction helps serve the “needs” of people in the community.  I’ve never read Filthy Shades, but I’m wondering what kind of human need it satisfies and, more important, why public dollars should serve such a need.  And does anyone seriously think that the interests of “all the members of the community” should be served by the public library?  Does not such a view completely undermine any rationale that public libraries might have?

Indeed, we can think of the very creation of a public library as a moralistic exercise.  Books are both excludable and rivalrous, meaning they fail the classic definition of a public good.  Therefore, using public funds to provide a library can only be justified as some sort of positive externality.  The (admittedly tenuous) claim is that extorting tax dollars  to provide free reading materials to the few serves a larger public interest by building a more literate citizenry.  Or, perhaps, public libraries and things like public swimming pools and parks reduce crime.  I’m skeptical of these arguments, though I can think of far worse things for government to be involved in.  Providing free access to educational materials and a quiet place where they can read them strikes me as a decent thing to do on humanitarian and egalitarian grounds.  Giving children access to books that their families either cannot afford or will not buy is a similarly judicious use of public funds, I believe.

But such an argument implies a large measure of restraint and a clear sense of mission—a highly moralistic perspective in other words.  But most libraries these days are run as out of control entitlement programs.   Patrons demand the libraries buy the popular materials and librarians bow to the pressure out a misguided sense of mission.  Again, do we use public funds to buy smut just because people want smut?

Libraries should be very careful and restrained about what materials they distribute because any ethical rationale for their existence requires it.   Whether the material is erotic or non-erotic is largely beside the point.  Libraries shouldn’t be distributing popular pulp fiction (or DVDs, for that matter) unless they have a financing mechanism to fund that distribution that doesn’t require public funds.  Implementing small fees on popular items and new releases would also be a way to alleviate the need for public funds.  But libraries are taking the exact opposite approach—buying numerous copies of popular books at the expense of less popular but higher quality materials.

I am a lover of libraries.  I can’t think of any place I’d rather spend a vacation than sitting in a comfortable chair in a nice, quiet library with a good book.  That’s my Disney Land.  This is why I’m relatively eager to work out a rationale for using public funds to provide libraries, even if the logic is somewhat tortured and offends my more doctrinaire libertarian friends.  I like it that families with limited means have a place to go to get books for their children to read.  I like it that people with hard, chaotic lives have a safe place where they can go to access the internet or quietly read a good book or magazine.  I like it that students and ordinary people who don’t have access to a college library can have a place where they can go to do research and maybe be guided by a librarian.  I like it when a community takes a positive, moralistic stand and says “this is good stuff; come and read”  (though deciding who gets to say what is worthwhile and what is not will always be problematic).

What I don’t appreciate, though, is my tax dollars being used to buy 50 copies of the latest Grisham novel or other pulp fiction, whether it is trashy or not.  That’s why we have

4 thoughts on “Grey matter in public libraries

  1. Outstanding commentary. Libraries can’t possibly stock every book, so they must apply some standards to determine which to buy. Not all books are equal in quality.

    Also, we have a great tradition of local libraries being the source of much private philanthropy in the past, from Carnegie forward. Let’s build and operate them with private money.

  2. Excellent article. The sad thing is that public libraries are no longer the place you imagine – they are noisy, people drop their kids off there as if it were daycare, and, of course, the bad has driven out the good. Just go to any library book sale and you will see classical literature and serious history available for a pittance to make space for those 50 copies of a Grisham novel. And I like Grisham novels, but you can get them pretty cheap these days second hand.

    Libraries became “information centers” in the early 70s when I was in library school. This diminishes the role of the librarian who can be faulted for NOT providing some kind of “information.” In addition, collection development is usually done these days by large book distributors who determine what a library should hold. Your local librarian doesn’t have alot of say.

  3. Excellent essay.

    I stumbled upon this so called censorship story after hearing about this book from my mother-in-law’s mentioning of it at Mother’s Day dinner! I would have missed the story altogether except that she described the book as “porn for middle-aged women”, and so my radar was active when this story popped up.

    In any case, from your quote of the National Coalition Against Censorship we have this gem, “totally inappropriate in a public institution dedicated to serving the needs and interests of all members of the community.”. First, if we are in fact a nation, and community, of diverse interests then the only way to accomplish this stated goal is to serve to the least common denominator (see your complaint about Grisham & pulp fiction). Second, demanding that the library offer a particular book in spite of the objections of some community members is, in fact, taking a moral position. Lastly, I would argue that this sort of community conflict is the natural result of publicly established and funded institutions.

    Certainly folks can argue having or not having the book on the merits, the local community should decide, by keeping or firing the librarian I suppose, which course it prefers.

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