newspapers cc by binuri on flickr

Radical Librarians Collective (Part Two)

Part Two of a series of posts on the Radical Librarians’ Collective event that took place on 10th May 2014 at the London Action Resource Centre in Whitechapel, London.

I promised to write in more detail about the sessions I took part in. This post is about the first session on censorship in libraries, which I led, but which was very much a group discussion.

I wanted to discuss what’s gone wrong in terms of library and information workers failing to understand that banning content we disapprove of on political grounds is unacceptable, what we can do to challenge opinions about censorship on a general level and also in the workplace, and discuss other issues of censorship that we need to be aware of as library-related folk. I’m not sure to what extent this was achieved, but the session was certainly very interesting!

What censorship?

The idea for this session came from the recent discussions around the petition to ban The Sun newspaper from public libraries, specifically in the London Borough of Islington. The rationale behind the petition is on three counts:

  • The imagery in The Sun (specifically the Page 3 feature which publishes topless photos of glamour models) promotes sexism in society through the objectification of women.
  • The authors of the petition disapprove of the sexist content of the newspaper in general. 
  • Stocking the newspaper contravenes a number of Islington Council’s policies, including: the Code of Conduct under Equalities Issues 4.6 which states that employees must “never display in the workplace, nor allow others to display, sexist or racist material, or material which people could reasonably find offensive”; the Corporate Equality Scheme and Community Cohesion Strategy which states that  the Council are “committed to tackling discrimination and inequality in all the service areas for which we are responsible, including in our role as employers”; and the Dignity for All Policy, which states that “As 52% of Islington’s population is female, prejudice based on gender stereotyping means that gender discrimination can be very widespread. As a result, women, and sometimes men, can find themselves facing inequality when it comes to pay, access to services, responsibilities, levels of safety and other areas. Such discrimination can directly affect life choices.”

There has been some discussion of this online, and I’d recommend reading Ian Anstice’s comments on Public Libraries News and Ian Clark’s post on banning offensive material in public libraries. I’d also recommend reading this post in support of the idea of boycotting The Sun on the informed blog, but which I very much disagree with, and was my main motivation for discussing the issue at RLC.

But…librarians are against censorship…aren’t they?

I thought so, but apparently not all of them. Or rather, there’s a lack of clarity about what censorship is, and which way the balance of ‘professional’ duties around social justice and access to information should tip. We talked about how library workers have a responsibility to be ‘neutral’, how this is a bit of a misnomer and how professional ethics inherently represent a political stance, but that this isn’t well understood and discussion about it is often avoided.

I get the impression that most, if not all, of us in the session have a low opinion about the kind of content The Sun features, particularly in relation to its support of views that are, well, pretty racist, homophobic, transphobic, sexist, misogynistic and so on. It understand the temptation to prevent the awful rag from seeing the light of our libraries, but there’s a lot of content in most libraries that conveys similar messages, and we’re not talking about banning that content. There’s the question of how the material is used, too; if the material isn’t there for people to analyse and understand, how can it be criticised? (It’s also worth remembering that not all librarians are politically left-leaning, or even necessarily anti-racism/sexism/homophobia etc., although that’s a whole other issue.)

An issue raised when we were talking about librarians’ opinions on the matter was that if we as professionals are setting this standard, what kind of message does it send to volunteers who are running libraries? A lot of the volunteer groups stepping forward to run libraries when councils threaten to close them are special interest groups and religious organisations. The idea of these groups having control over access to information they deem unsuitable for public use is worrying.

Legal precedent against banning newspapers

One of the first things that was mentioned in the session was that in the UK there is legal precedent relating to local authorities trying to ban certain newspapers from being stocked in public libraries. R. v. Ealing London Borough Council, ex parte Times Newspapers Ltd. (1986) dealt with a case in which the London Boroughs of Camden, Hammersmith and Fulham, and Ealing imposed a ban on the newspapers and periodicals published by Times Newspapers Ltd. 

The councils had decided to stop providing newspapers owned by Rupert Murdoch, who at the time was supportive of the Conservative Party under Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. The rationale for banning the newspapers at the libraries was to show “sympathy with the views and activities of the trade unions and its members” during an industrial dispute relating to the relocation of a number of newspaper printing houses. The case report notes:

“Over 30 other local authorities in England, Scotland and Wales have taken similar action. The first three applicants have brought applications for judicial review, none of which have been heard so far, against eight of these. A few local authorities who imposed bans have withdrawn them. The remainder refuse to do so. In all the local authorities referred to, Socialist councillors have a majority, and therefore are said to be in control.”

The Divisional court held that:

“The decisions of the respondent local authorities to ban The Times and other publications of the applicants from their public libraries in support of print workers in industrial dispute with the applicants was an abuse of their power as library authorities under the Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964 and a breach of their duty under s.7(1) of the Act to provide a comprehensive and efficient library service.A library decision taken on purely political grounds is an unlawful abuse of power. In the present case, the ban was inspired by  political views. The respondents’ reason for imposing the ban was solely that it could be used as a weapon in aid of the dismissed print workers to damage the other side in their industrial dispute. Thus, the ban was for an ulterior object and in exercising their duties the respondents took account of an irrelevant consideration. No rational local authority could have thought that such a ban was open to it to impose in discharge of its duty to service libraries.”

The most interesting point from this case to me is the suggestion that “a library decision may be lawful within s.7 [of the Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964] if the dominant purpose bringing it about could not be said to be unlawful even though to some extent inspired by political motive”. So for example, does this mean that a library service could cease stocking certain newspapers because they don’t agree with the content of them, but use budget cuts as a justification for doing so? This may well be an abuse of power, but cannot be considered illegal. Hmm, maybe I shouldn’t be giving people ideas…

But what else?

Aside from the legal issues, we discussed how banning certain materials because the content is offensive and potentially harmful is, for want of a better word, problematic. The main issue for me is that the message that we’re sending when we choose not to stock items because the content is hateful is that we have no faith in our patrons, our learners, the public, to be able to think for themselves. We have no hope that the content they are exposed to will not have a negative effect on them, and that they can read that content, think about it, and realise the biases and attitudes inherent in it which make it hateful.

Of course my own research heavily influences my opinions around this; what I’d like to see is the increased emphasis of critical literacy skills in information literacy education. I do think that there’s weight in the argument that rather than failing to provide a variety of content because we’re afraid of what people might do with it, we should make resources available and have the faith in humanity that people can decide for themselves what they want to be exposed to. However, in the course of my research what’s become clear to me is that a lot of people don’t have the level of awareness about the way the media and politics work to understand the underlying issues such as how messages are presented, what is and isn’t reported, how issues are framed and so on. People’s opinions are formed as a result of what information they are exposed to and how they interpret it, and a lack of understanding can be harmful. I think libraries have a responsibility with regard to this; we should provide courses, workshops, training, whatever, on critical information literacy and media literacy. I’d like to hope that there’s a public interest for programmes like this in UK public libraries as well as academic environments.

The discussion about this led us on to talking about the constraints placed on staff in public libraries. As employees of local authorities, they are prevented from being overtly political, but there was also the sense that they are also prevented from doing anything remotely challenging. Political terrain is very dangerous ground in libraries, for example when it comes to making public information displays about European or UK elections, or book displays about contentious issues. There were also suggestions that as a result of deprofessionalisation, a lot of the remaining library staff now would not feel confident taking on work on such unsteady ground. I personally think there’s a serious issue with staff not having control over their own displays and the pressure to conform to a corporate ‘brand’ as part of councils with an increasing emphasis on what they view as customer service, and there are also issues about staff feeling that they wouldn’t have the support of their employer if they did attempt to inform the public about certain issues even though they are within the remit of public library services. Another major issues is the lack of professionally trained staff in public libraries, both as a result of redundancies in recent years, and a failure to recruit staff trained to postgraduate level in library and information studies to public libraries. It’s less and less seen as a requirement by employers (without good reason) and less and less seen as a viable career path for graduates (with good reason).

What are the concerns for the future?

We talked about internet filtering and how in attempting to protect users from harmful content we can often do more harm than good. Filters are ineffective and insensitive, often failing to block content that they intend to and blocking content they aren’t meant to. They act as a barrier for people researching sensitive topics, and the result is that a lot of people don’t go to the library staff to ask to have the ‘innocent’ but sensitive content (such as information about sexual health, female genital mutilation, sexuality etc.) unblocked. When people who are confident enough to go to the staff to ask for the block to be removed, this has to be done on a page by page basis by technical staff off-site, and is far from instantaneous.

Another question we considered was about changing stock selection policies and the increased involvement of library users in these decisions. If the focus of libraries is to provide what users say they want, and they explicitly state that they do not want money to be spent on certain newspapers, should we stop buying them? Conversely, if they say they want us to buy newspapers we don’t currently stock, should we start, regardless of how extreme or hateful the content?

What can we do?

Aside from trying to encourage public libraries to run workshops about media and/or critical information literacy, the idea of notice boards was discussed. Perhaps every so often making a display showing the different ways the different newspapers reported the same issue in the headlines, as an informative but ‘neutral’ presentation for visitors to see and interpret for themselves. As far as getting our colleagues to understand the problems with censorship, challenging them gently may be the best way, especially when their intentions are clearly well-meaning, but a little skew-whiff. This kind of discussion needs to go on not only in environments like RLC where a lot of people are on the same page, and not only on LIS courses where few people will ever be in positions where they’re affected by this kind of issue, but at ‘ground level’, where library workers are more likely to come into contact with colleagues or members of the public who like the idea of censorship, well-intentioned or otherwise.


Image: CC by binuri on flickr


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