Editorial: On Censorship

I'm not always the biggest fan of soapboxes. I mean, they're great if they're filled with Irish Spring or something, as hygiene is a goal we should all strive for. Sometimes though soapboxes are turned upside down and stood on to orate on a particular topic, letting passersby know what you're thinking about said topic. Often in these instances an event happens as a catalyst for dumping out the soap and speaking, leaving scores of individuals torn. One prominent thought often comes to mind: "how do I feel about this?" In this case, the event in question is library censorship. More specifically, censorship of Alan Moore's The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Volume IV: The Black Dossier in a Kentucky library. The Lexington Herald-Leader has a lengthy article about two librarians in the Jessamine County Public Library and their attempts to make the world a better place for our kids (from their perspective). Hold onto your hats kids, as I'm about to empty my own soapbox and we're about to discuss a volatile topic. I should give you a heads up that this is an extremely lengthy column, so get hunkered down for some debate. Sharon Cook worked at the Jessamine County Public Library in, you guessed it, Jessamine County. I write "worked" for two reasons. One is that she's been fired for actions about to be described and two is that she's not a certified librarian. For those of you that don't know you do have to go to school to be an actual "librarian;" otherwise you're just an employee like everyone else. In this case, Cook realized that a copy of Moore's The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Volume IV: The Black Dossier was readily available in the Graphic Novel section of the library. Which is full of covers featuring X-Men, Spider-Man, Batman, etc.; covers that could appeal to a younger audience. This is fine in and of itself, except that this section is apparently next to the Young Fiction section. Cook's problem? Well, anyone that's read Moore's work knows that he's a big fan of writing about very adult themes, including violence and sex. The book in question boasts plenty of the latter in the form of explicit sexual behaviors. Cue the first outrage. Despite the seemingly superfluous sexual depictions the book was actually voted one of Time's Top 10 Graphic Novels of 2007. (Moore is no stranger to the Time top lists as Watchmen has been ranked the greatest graphic novel of all time). Naturally, Cook thought of the children and asked to have the book removed. When that didn't work, she checked it out herself. When the book was due, she rechecked it out. Essentially, the book was checked out in perpetuity until an 11-year-old girl woke up one morning and realized she wanted to read some Alan Moore. The library computer then put the book on hold, meaning Cook could no longer keep renewing it. What did Cook do? She told her colleagues, one of which (Beth Boisvert) took the book off hold, meaning that Cook could keep checking it out. Cue the second outrage. As you can imagine Cook and Boisvert were promptly fired for their library transgressions, as we live in the 21st century where book burnings and censorship are seemingly things of the past. And in a small town in Kentucky I'm sure you know how well this went over. Not quite burn down the castle angry, but public hearings angry. Cook and Boisvert even showed up with a PowerPoint presentation outlining their case and why they shouldn't have been fired and that the book should be removed from the library as they thought it was there by mistake. Turns out that a patron actually requested the book, meaning the library was just meeting the demands of its customers. Now, from the library's perspective having the book is perfectly ok. A policy is in place where children under the age of 17 must have parental consent to have a library card, which would imply parental awareness that some things they read may be adult in nature. They also point out that no child under 11 should be in the library unsupervised, suggesting that the 11-year-old who requested the book most likely did so with her parent's knowledge. (I do realize that there are some ne'er-do-wells that will defy their parents and view stuff they're not supposed to). Further, Jessamine Library has adopted the American Library Association's policy manual and code of ethics as its own. As an extension it adopts the following: "Expurgation of any parts of books or other library resources by the library, its agent, or its parent institution is a violation of the Library Bill of Rights because it denies access to the complete work, and, therefore, to the entire spectrum of ideas that the work was intended to express. We distinguish between our personal convictions and professional duties and do not allow our personal beliefs to interfere with fair representations of the aims of our institutions or the provision of access to their information resources." In an open letter to the Jessamine Journal, Jessamine Library director Critchfield wrote: "As customers of a public library there is a First Amendment expectation to respect the rights of all persons — what one person might view as questionable might be quite important and relevant to another." Whew. Now, librarians are exempt from being reprimanded in these cases. But (as I mentioned earlier) neither Cook now Boisvert are actual librarians. Early efforts to "spill tea on it" at the behest of another employee failed, leading the book to be reviewed by a committee to decide whether it should remain in circulation or not. Cook was part of the committee, and people were "praying over" Cook while she read to prevent the book's images from entering her head. Needless to say the book appeared back on shelves, prompting Cook to go all broken arrow on the library and check it out. And here we are now. Cook and Boisvert personally attempted to withhold the book from the public in the "best interest" of kids. Which is basically censorship. Honestly, they have no right to do so and the library was completely within it's jurisdiction to terminate these two employees. It's so easy to forget with abortion, healthcare, war, economy, etc. that censorship used to be a big deal as well. Especially in comic books. Way back in the day of Dr. Wertham and his book Seduction of the Innocent comic books were actually burned in many southern towns. Why? Because of their perceived ill-influences on kids. Aren't we past that? I understand the desire on the part of adults to want to protect kids. What are we protecting them from though? You don't think that if the book was removed that kids wouldn't see this stuff elsewhere? Even further it's the parents decision regarding what kids watch/read. Taking such a critically-acclaimed book and re-checking it out is almost bush league in it's immaturity. Cook and Boisvert had no right whatsoever to impose their views onto those of the library patrons. The library is supposed to be a bastion of knowledge, unfettered by politics and religion. Sure, you can read on either topic while in the library, but the information presented should be what the patrons want to read. That's why there are library networks in place, where if your library doesn't have a book you want to read it can often be transferred from another nearby library. What if one library wants Alan Moore and the other doesn't? That's extremely unfair to the people that may be interested in reading Moore's work but can't because the library tells them no. I have a feeling that this is a story that may gain more traction as the days wear on. Boisvert has applied and been approved for unemployment benefits, however Cook hasn't been so lucky. I'm sure there will be much more outrage and opinion on this whole thing before it goes away, and the pair of library employees may have opened up a Pandora's Box of sorts when it comes to library censorship. Graphic novels and comic books are capable of having the same amount of gravitas and intensity as timeless literary classics, but because there's pictures involved they have to be removed. What about the Stephen King book that describes sex, or maybe all the Danielle Steele romance novels that are rife with sexual scenes? Even timeless classics such as Ulysses, Lady Chatterly's Lover, Madame Bovary and Tropic of Cancer feature objectionable material by Cook and Boisvert's standards. It's somewhat disturbing that some people are still content with purposefully preventing individuals from mentally ingesting fantastic works of literature and art. It's not like Moore's book is a movie...they're static pictures! When a book has been critically acclaimed you have to stop and ask yourself "am I withholding this book because it's really that bad, or because I personally object to the content?" And I'm not saying that acclaim justifies whatever an author wants to write. All I'm saying is that in those cases what the author wrote/illustrated fits perfectly within the greater context of society, history, literature or whatever, it transcends moral decency in a sense. Sure you can refuse to read it, but that doesn't detract from the impact or the message the author is trying to convey and the decision to read it should be left up to the reader. As of writing, the book is still available to be checked out at the library in question. I'd encourage people everywhere to check out or request The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Volume IV: The Black Dossier from their local library. Let's show the folks that we don't want the library telling us what to read.