Saturday, May 26, 2012

Intellectual Freedom and the Politics of Reading: Libraries as Sites of Conservative Activism, 1990-2010

I've just come across Loretta Mary Gaffney's thesis, Intellectual Freedom and the Politics of Reading: Libraries as Sites of Conservative Activism, 1990-2010. I thought I'd quote from it as a quick follow-up to my previous post about "mommy porn," and Smart Bitch Sarah's report from the fourteenth of May that,
as reported by Dianna Dilworth on GalleyCat: Brevard County Public Libraries in Florida have pulled their 19 copies of 50 Shades of Grey from the shelves.
HuffPo has a quote from Don Walker, a spokesman for the library, who said, "it's semi-porgnographic." The HuffPo article indicated that several other libraries in Florida had refused to purchase copies, but Brevard bought 19, then took them out of circulation, sending notices to the 200 or so people on a waiting list.
Library services director Cathy Schweinsberg told Florida Today: Nobody asked us to take it off the shelves. But we bought some copies before we realized what it was. We looked at it, because it’s been called ‘mommy porn’ and ‘soft porn.’ We don’t collect porn.”
They may not have been asked to take it off the shelves in this particular instance, but Gaffney's thesis describes the socio-political context in which many US libraries make their decisions:
During the 1990s and 2000s, conservative activists not only appropriated libraries as battlegrounds for causes like antigay activism, but also incorporated libraries and librarianship into the issue base of the pro family movement. A collection of loosely linked, well-organized grassroots campaigns around issues like opposition to abortion and gay marriage, the pro family movement was a resurgence of conservative activism in the late 20th and early 21st centuries that brought libraries into the culture wars crossfire. Pro family library challenges went beyond objections to particular materials in order to target library policies of open access, collection diversity, and patron privacy. Pro family activists also mounted an explicit critique of the American Library Association (ALA), opposing the ALA’s defenses of intellectual freedom for all ages and all types of media. These activists described their own struggle as a quest to wrest libraries away from the ALA and restore them to parental and taxpayer control.
Gaffney's thesis can be downloaded from the University of Illinois' digital environment for access to learning and scholarship (IDEALS). It focuses on young readers: "The reason their reading is monitored is, in part, because some adults believe the young are more vulnerable readers and will be irreparably harmed by 'dangerous' media without adult intervention" (5). Nonetheless, some of the metaphors invoked in debates about their reading are more widely applicable:
Catherine Sheldrick Ross’ analysis of turn-of-the-century library discourse on the “fiction question” reveals that there were two persistent metaphors used to describe reading: reading as eating, and reading as a ladder. The two metaphors helped librarians to establish their professional expertise as guiders and selectors of “healthy” reading, as well as to articulate a hierarchy or ladder of reading tastes. Sheldrick Ross’ study not only highlights a pivotal moment in the development of librarians’ emerging professional identity as reading experts, but also reveals that metaphors, far from being mere “stylistic flourishes,” are powerful ways of structuring our experience of the world as a way to “discover new meaning.” [...]

Sheldrick Ross’ study has two key insights that inform pro family models of reading. In the case of the “reading is eating” metaphor, particularly when it is combined with the ladder metaphor to establish a hierarchy of taste, it is far easier to tell a tale of passive readers than of active ones. And passive readers are more likely to need monitoring and guidance: if reading is eating, and eating can be nutritious, bad, or downright poisonous, then readers (particularly vulnerable and inexperienced ones) will need help to discern the good from the junk. It is easy to see why the “reading is eating” metaphor is so prominent in pro family discourse. The second insight from Sheldrick Ross’ study is how reading metaphors are used to dismiss and demean reading (and eating) for pleasure. Along this ladder of taste, the closer reading materials were to pleasure for its own sake, the lower they were on the ladder. A similar hierarchy structures how pro family critics understand youth reading as an overwhelmingly didactic exercise, either ignoring pleasure and aesthetics as part of the experience of reading, or viewing them with suspicion. (9-10)
It's not difficult to see how these metaphors would be applied to romances and romance readers and
In “Reading is Not Eating,” an extension of her groundbreaking research in Reading the Romance, Radway analyzes the “reading is eating” metaphor in order to reveal its role in broader social and cultural critiques of mass media. The eating metaphor not only creates a hierarchy of taste—with the “nutritious” reading at the top and the “garbage” that is bad for one at the bottom—but also structures our understanding of media consumption in such a way that the only response to “bad” reading is censorship: if readers consume or are consumed by mass media, then the only way to save them from degradation is to stop destructive forms of media from being produced in the first place. The passivity that the eating metaphor suggests makes it more likely that critics of mass culture will focus on “objectionable materials” instead of “…actually looking at specific encounters between
audiences and mass cultural products.”

Radway’s study of romance readers and her critique of the “reading is eating” metaphor have important connections to the politics of youth reading. As with female romance readers, the eating metaphor has been used to simultaneously dismiss the agency of young readers, make pleasure suspect, and cast the popular and mass media as the villain of the educational piece. (12)

The image was made available under a creative commons license by Mace Ojala (xmacex on Flickr).


  1. After reading these posts, I want to ask: what is the place of pleasure in criticism?

    It is as though "pleasure" has become "taboo." We speak of "guilty pleasures" or "pleasure reading," as though the pleasure reading isn't as nutrient rich as say a more laborious read like Proust. One thing that has always struck me about IASPR (and I imagine PCA as well), is how much pleasure is in the room.

    A side note here on pleasure, eating, and reading. Laura Esquivel's _Like Water for Chocolate_ could be a wonderful text to consider the politics and poetics of "eating" and/as "reading."

  2. Thanks for the nod to my dissertation! This looks like a fascinating blog. To be sure, there are many parallels between romance readers and youth, particularly the suspicion that accompanies their entertainment and pleasure. Your blog has inspired me to think about these parallels more deeply.

  3. Laura Vivanco,

    Nice job on getting the word out about that interesting dissertation. As to the Florida matter, I am now writing a long piece on exactly how the ACLU/NCAC has intentionally mislead the local community to force it to do as its "demand letter" directs. Basically, why have selection policies if anything goes? Why have material reconsideration policies if once selected nothing can be removed, as the ACLU/NCAC claims? Why have any policies at all if material is to be selected merely on national popularity?

    Now that big dissertation will say I'm getting involved because I'm pro-family. I've never viewed myself as pro-family and can't figure out how I could be considered that merely by reporting what I do. Yes, I'm one of the subjects of that dissertation. But allegedly being pro-family is not why I do what I do. It is a matter of justice, of fundamental fairness. Simply put, the ACLU/NCAC is flat out lying to the community, I think that is wrong to mislead people, and I will be advising the community of exactly how and where they are being misled, then I will provide reliable sources that will say the exact opposite of the false information the ACLU/NCAC is feeding Brevard County. The reliable sources will include the ALA's OIF and the US Supreme Court. That kind of reliable.

    Hi Ms. Gaffney,

    I'm Dan Kleinman of SafeLibraries, the organization you mention dozens of times in your 214 page dissertation. My! 214 pages! I feel sorry for you! ;) I added your work to my "Publications" tab on my SafeLibraries blog.

    Listen, Ms. Gaffney, I wish you would have spoken with me, you know, interviewed me, asked me questions, clarifications, etc., stuff like that. While I have not yet read all 214 pages, I think you missed the mark on SafeLibraries.

    Anyway, I'm here, and you can contact me now, for what it's worth. I'll be happy to speak with you. Any time, now or in the future. With a dissertation like that, I see a bright future for you in the library world, and especially the ALA 's Office for Intellectual Freedom where I am viewed as its top critic.

  4. "what is the place of pleasure in criticism?"

    Well, I labour under the delusion that literary criticism is supposed to be fun both to write and to read. It isn't always that way, of course, but I think that's the ideal.

    "We speak of "guilty pleasures" or "pleasure reading," as though the pleasure reading isn't as nutrient rich as say a more laborious read like Proust."

    I get the impression that literature is felt to be like vegetables (i.e. full of minerals and rarer vitamins which are required by the body in order to avoid deficiency diseases), whereas "pleasure reading" is starchy, sugary "comfort food" and "brain candy" which might be considered "empty calories."

    Not sure how that applies to Proust, though; I thought reading A la recherche du temps perdu was supposed to be like eating a madeleine?

    "Your blog has inspired me to think about these parallels more deeply"

    I'm glad it's been thought-provoking. Not being in the US, I don't know much about US libraries, but I've come across a couple of articles about US librarians' attitudes towards romance. In May 1980 Library Journal published an article by Rodolph Bold (Branch Librarian of the Ozone Park Branch of the Queens Borough Public Library, New York), who wrote of romances that:

    many public libraries refuse to purchase this type of book. Though professing to serve as many segments of the public as possible, they blithely exclude (censor?) Harlequins from the library shelves. Along with the Hardy boys and Tom Swift they are barred because they lack sufficient literary quality. But then do libraries that bar them become elitist, separatist, unresponsive? (1138)

    He argued in favour of stocking Harlequins on the condescending grounds that "We cannot exclude the possibility that osmosis may act on them [i.e. romance readers] while in the library and they may in a moment of weakness seek out literature of better quality" (1138-39).

    A much more recent publication, which I reported on at Teach Me Tonight is

    Adkins, Denise, Linda Esser & Diane Velasquez, 2006. 'Relations Between Librarians and Romance Readers: A Missouri Survey', Public Libraries, Volume 45, Number 4, July/August 2006.

    They found that librarians' attitudes towards romance had changed since Bold's day:

    Research into Missouri librarians' attitudes towards the romance genre showed that 'library directors and staff [...] appear less judgmental and more concerned about patron satisfaction', though some librarians remained dismissive of the genre. For example, one respondent reported that colleagues had joked about romance being shelved in the 'Red Dot District' (Adkins, Esser & Velasquez 2006: 61)

    "Nice job on getting the word out about that interesting dissertation."

    Thank you, and thank you too for your comment which illustrates how politicised librarianship seems to be in the US.

  5. I thought I'd pop back onto this thread to note that, on the 28th of May, Brevard County's Board of County Commissioners posted the following announcement from the Library Services Department:

    Brevard County libraries return "Fifty Shades of Grey" to its shelves

    BREVARD COUNTY, Fla -- The Brevard County Library System will return “Fifty Shades of Grey” to its library shelves.

    The decision is in response to public demand, but also comes after considerable review and consideration by the library system. In all, 19 books from the “Fifty Shades of Grey” trilogy that were previously available will once again be available through the library system, according to Library Services Director Cathy Schweinsberg.

    Earlier this month, a decision was made to pull “Fifty Shades of Grey” from our libraries as a result of published reviews and our own initial analysis of the book and its controversial content. Since then, we have begun a review of our selection criteria and that review continues even as the decision has been made to supply the book in response to requests by county residents.

    “We have always stood against censorship,” Schweinsberg said. “We have a long history of standing against censorship and that continues to be a priority for this library system.”

    The books are available effective immediately.