Banning offensive materials in public libraries

Over the Easter week-end, a petition emerged calling for The Sun newspaper to be removed from Islington Council’s public libraries. The petition states:

“We would like public libraries to replace the Sun newspaper with a publication that does not promote misogynistic images of women or promote and eroticise violent crimes against women. This is not censorship, councils choose which publications they buy based on the needs of the local community, libraries choose not to buy The Daily Star or The Daily Sport which were cited along with The Sun in the Leveson enquiry as “relentlessly objectifying women” and “Portraying them as a sum of sexualised body parts” and we believe they should choose not to buy The Sun for the same reasons.”

It goes on to list the ways in which the availability of the newspaper in the council’s libraries contravenes its own policies with regards to discrimination and in terms of making available sexist materials. At the time of writing it had received 495 signatures and seems to be garnering some support on Twitter.

I have no time for The Sun (or indeed any of the newspapers in the Murdoch stable). It is a cynical, exploitative newspaper that, without a trace of irony, expresses a superficial sense of patriotism whilst simultaneously expressing beliefs that are alien to our history and culture (‘our’ being the people, they certainly represent beliefs that reflect the history and culture of the establishment). And, of course, it promotes views that are xenophobic, misogynistic and discriminatory.  Consequently, I sympathise with the motivations behind the petition, but I find it troublesome on any number of levels.

I do not believe that any lawful material should be banned from public libraries, no matter how abhorrent I may think it is. Because once we let that genie out of that bottle there is no telling where it will end. Removing copies of The Sun because it is misogynistic may result in certain groups seeking the removal of other books or newspapers that promote a viewpoint that an individual or group may find abhorrent (indeed, a quick search online finds that there are those who would seek to remove The Koran from library shelves). Once a concession is made to one group, it would be increasingly difficult to fend off calls from other pressure groups to remove materials. Libraries should be concerned with free access to all information, regardless of its value (which is a subjective concept at any rate), not providing access to materials according to the demands of individual pressure groups. Which leads me to another, wider concern about the impact of such library campaigns.

We’re currently witnessing a growth in so-called ‘community libraries’ – libraries that local communities are being forced to provide in response to threats of closure.  They are often delivered by those without previous experience of running a library and, in many cases, without substantial local authority oversight. One of the many concerns about the spread of these types of library services is how the kind of campaigns mounted against The Sun will be handled. Will those from the local community running such libraries bow to vociferous pressure from within their local community to remove materials that the minority might value? Or will they stand firm and refuse to remove materials from library shelves simply because sections of the community demand it? I’m not convinced that they will resist.

The size of a local authority is both a blessing and a curse. In such circumstances, its size can be an advantage in resisting such efforts. For a small library in a local community, run by the local community facing demands from within the community to remove certain materials, I’m not sure they will be so resilient. “Faceless bureaucrats” have a distinct advantage over volunteers in a “community library” – they are faceless. They can, by and large, brush off any local campaigns. Well known figures within the community who help deliver library services are not so fortunate. As I told The Guardian back in 2012 with respect to libraries removing books from shelves due to external pressures:

“…the issue of censorship and banned books are very strong arguments for a professionally run service. If community libraries are to spread, it is very likely that stories of censorship and withdrawn books will increase.”

Of course, those who believe that The Sun should be removed from public libraries have every right to organise, petition and argue their case. What concerns me is that as libraries run by volunteers becomes the norm, such campaigns will become ever more widespread and a growing problem for the public library service in the UK. It is only a matter of time, as such libraries become more prevalent, that one such campaign will be successful. In the fight against injustice and discrimination, we should be careful what we wish for.

  • RubyMalvolio

    Well said Ian. Libraries should be free to stock any legal material the users want. Its the start of a very dodgy slippery slope when some get to decide what we all can view based on what they find offensive.

    • Ian

      Hi. Agree, ultimately it comes down to the user, we should not (in my view) dictate what they should or should not have access to.

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