When it comes to choosing books, librarians follow a series of self-established guidelines. Most libraries seem to have similar philosophies about collection materials, though the criteria may vary slightly from place to place. In general, libraries attempt to maintain a diverse collection of media that are free from bias and stereotype and intended to reflect the multiple facets of life around the world. Libraries generally accept recommendations from readers as well. They research recommended materials to determine whether acquiring the media in question would enrich the library’s collection.
Because they are public institutions, libraries are not permitted to discriminate. That means anyone can check out any materials they choose, regardless of age, sex, or race. Most libraries do request that guardians monitor the selections of minors, however.
Censorship of ideas is nothing new, but US laws dictating freedom of information are comparatively new on the scene. In 1982, the Supreme Court found in Board of Education, Island Trees School District v. Pico that school officials did not have the right to remove library material because they disagreed with the ideas it espoused. (School libraries continue to receive more requests to ban materials than public libraries.) To justify banishment from a school library, the material must be “pervasively vulgar.”
US libraries receive hundreds of requests each year to remove books from their shelves. Patrons most commonly challenge books on the grounds that they contain sexually explicit content, offensive language, and/or inappropriate subjects for minors. Public libraries regard themselves as open forums for ideas and so are generally loathe to censor their offerings. Just as challenging a book is the right of any citizen, it is the right of each individual library to decide whether to comply with these requests. On the occasions that such cases have been decided by courts, judges generally rule in favor of the library because of the freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment.
Freedom of expression aside, libraries must not maintain materials that are unquestionably obscene. But just what defines obscenity? The US Supreme Court decision in Miller v. California in 1973 established that materials must “appeal to prurient interests when taken as a whole; involve patently offensive sexual conducts; and contain no literary, artistic, political, or scientific value” to be deemed obscene. Of course, even this three-point test is subjective, and in the case of banned books the burden of proof lies with the protesting party, not the library, to demonstrate that the material is inappropriate.
For more information, please visit the American Library Association.