February 3rd, 2011

book - pile

Readers Advisory

So, how about this kerfuffle over the Bitch Magazine recommended reading list of YA literature? It's been all over the Internet for a couple of days now, and it probably deserves a more thoughtful post than I have time to write tonight. But this story hits me in so many places that I live: as a reader, as a writer, as a feminist, as a free speech advocate, as a librarian, as a long-time reader of and some-time subscriber to Bitch. In the end, I couldn't just let it go by.

The background: over on its blog, the magazine's librarian posts a list of "100 young adult novels that every feminist should add to the stack of books on their bedside table." As such lists always do -- as, in fact, I would argue they are meant to do -- it raised questions of what's on the list and what's off and why, and there was lively debate in the comments. So lively that the magazine actually decided to take three books off the list.

Cue the author outrage. For a number of reasons, but I think the big one was this, as articulated by Maureen Johnson in comments:

But I have been incredibly disheartened to see your process for removing books. It mirrors EXACTLY the process by which book banners remove books from schools and libraries--namely, one person makes a comment, no one actually checks, book gets yanked.

The parallel isn't exact, because the editors stated that they did read, or re-read, the books before deciding to remove them. But the comparison is still a fair one, particularly in the appearance of a single critic having the power to get a book off the shelf, or in this case a recommended reading list.

As I put my librarian hat on, I have to wonder if they really thought through the purpose of the list, or about what the selection criteria ought to be. Any librarian will tell you that, before you start collecting materials, you have to have a selection policy: a set of guidelines that you use to decide which books belong in your library. These policies exist for two reasons. First, they help you choose the books to buy. Equally important, they give you a baseline to help you respond to challenges when they arise. Then, when someone comes to you with a concern ("This book is too violent! This book is triggering! This book is not feminist enough!"), you're prepared with a defense, even if you ultimately decide that picking the book was a mistake. The quick capitulation (especially since the stated reason for removing the books was concern about triggers, which could easily have been rectified by adding warnings to the list) is what leads me to to believe that there probably was no formal selection criteria.

Some folks have criticized the original author of the list for posting it without having read all the listed books. I'm less sympathetic to this argument. No librarian has read every single book in their library, or even on the "recommended titles" display; it's simply not possible. To a certain extent, we have to rely on the judgement of others: reviews, back-of-the-book synopses, word of mouth. Yes, I have even been known to judge a book by its cover. But all this just strengthens the argument for selection criteria. When you can't answer a challenge with "I read the book, and therefore I can say it is appropriate for these reasons", you need to have something more specific, more detailed than "my friend read it and said it was good." Which is how the initial defenses for having added the books to the list in the first place read to me.

Librarians take risks in content choices every day. Sometimes, avoiding controversy is the best route to go for yourself, for your institution, or for the community you serve. But when the controversial path is chosen, I really think that we owe it to ourselves, to readers and to writers to stand by those choices, not to cave in to the first or the loudest complaint. We are the defenders of knowledge, and we are at our best when we act like it.

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