Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Here's a Question:

Does the digital era flip our definition of censorship?

Still Bleeding... by Hardmerolgirl

For most in the YA book community, when we talk about censorship, we talk about books in children's libraries that have been challenged by parents on the grounds of age-inappropriate material. 

The American Library Association (ALA) holds the following position: "Librarians and governing bodies should maintain that parents—and only parents—have the right and the responsibility to restrict the access of their children—and only their children—to library resources.” Censorship by librarians of constitutionally protected speech, whether for protection or for any other reason, violates the First Amendment."

But clarifying the definition of censorship can be difficult, as Lester Asheim--Dean of the University of Chicago Graduate Library School, and former director of the ALA's International Relations Office--pointed out. In his 2004 article, "Not Censorship But Selection," posted on the ALA's website, he says, "When librarians discuss the matter among themselves, they are quite satisfied with the distinction between censorship and selection, and are in smug agreement that the librarian practices the latter, not the former."

The jab at his colleagues aside, Asheim's piece is a worthy primer on why librarians act as curators and not censors. But first, he presents the counterpoint. How do we differentiate between what librarians do, and what pressure groups demand that they do...cull books from the archives? 

Asheim first presents the accusation (and here, I would recommend simply reading the wonderful essay from which I have excerpted): 

"A just/discriminating censorship is impossible."
-S. Sontag via The Atlantic
"The public librarian often has the plausible excuse that as the funds of a library are limited, he must pick and choose, and naturally the more "wholesome" books are to be preferred. He insists that he is exercising not censorship but the prerogative of free selection. Nevertheless, the character of this choice is often suspicious. (Morris L. Ernst and William Seagle, To the Pure . . . A Study of Obscenity and the Censor.)"

At end, says the accusation, the librarian sits in a room and decides that some books shouldn't be on the shelves. And as result, a patron is denied the ability to read that book.

"Can we actually claim—seriously—that the reasons, the motives, the causes are different, and that this difference is sufficient to justify the distinction between the rejection which we will call selection and the rejection which we will call censorship?"

"Libros IV" by Manuel Valdes via Robaroundbooks
Well, certainly, many people do believe in the distinction.  

First and foremost, librarians must select because of money and space restraints.  

Simply put, they can't buy and shelve everything. So the job has to be done. But Asheim is uncomfortable with the distinctions that have been expressed thus far. For instance:

1. Librarians are individuals, and not institutions. They have a "limited span of control," and so they are not saying, "no one can read this book," but only, "I will not select this book." 

This, Asheim refutes by noting that pressure groups have limited spans of control as well. And that libraries and small communities are no more absolved of censorship than large institutions or governments. 

2. Librarians select on the basis of excellence.
They simply choose to forgo works of hate-speech (deciphering the intention of the author thereby), pornography, or treason. 

The problem with this reason is the subjectivity of excellence, (and perhaps the relevance of it). There are certainly great works of literature that could (and have been) called pornographic or racist. And conversely, there are many poorly written books that hold high literary standing.

For Asheim, "The major characteristic which makes for the all-important difference seems to me to be this: that the selector's approach is positive, while that of the censor is negative...For to the selector, the important thing is to find reasons to keep the book. Given such a guiding principle, the selector looks for values, for strengths, for virtues which will over shadow minor objections. For the censor, on the other hand, the important thing is to find reasons to reject the book; his guiding principle leads him to seek out the objectionable features, the weaknesses, the possibilities for misinterpretation." 

In 2004 Asheim came to this conclusion, but already, the underpinnings of the argument (the physical bookshelf), was coming apart. The conversation has already shifted to the digital space. In this digital era, where self-published ebooks are distributed in exactly the same manner as all others, and where cloud-storage allows massive archives to exist, then the role of the selector and censor seem to converge.

Curation is no longer the positive act of selection and purchase, but the negative act of blocking access in the digital library. This is already the case with web access, for example.
Book Glut, "Bookride"

Should we, then, call it censorship for any "negative" act of removal? What about porn (he says, while clutching his pearls)? What about books self-published by a bunch of loony racists?  

Can the public archive do damage by granting access to the harmful just as it could by blocking access to the helpful?

In his new book, Inventing the Enemy, Umberto Eco begins his essay on censorship with a description of the Italian Fascist era, when the Ministry of Popular Culture would send sheets of paper (velina) telling newspapers what they could and could not print.

This is an apposite image of silencing others, through institutional force. But Eco moves on to discuss what he sees as a modern form of censorship. He says, “If the old-style of velina used to say, ‘To avoid causing behavior considered to be deviant, don’t talk about it,’ the velina culture of today says, ‘To avoid talking about deviant behavior, talk a great deal about other things.’”

This is what Eco calls the censorship of noise, the effect of a wild imbalance in the signal-to-noise ratio, a 24-hour news cycle that manages to miss nearly every substantive development in our world.

"Noise" by antz81

“Noise becomes a cover,” says Eco, news media becomes filled with, “items about calves born with two heads and bags snatched by petty thieves…which now serve to fill up three-quarters of an hour of information, to ensure we don’t notice other news stories they ought to have covered…”

It's easy to imagine the internet as a vast ocean of noise, certainly. Ebooks, like websites, proliferating in every direction. Noise crowding out voices.

In the future, will we value our libraries enough to cultivate them? And if so, will we need to change our notion of censorship to do it? 

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