Librarian fights book censorship

Fighting on the front lines for public access to offensive materials doesn?t seem like a routine job, but that?s exactly what librarian Ellen Johnson is prepared to do every day.

After teaching second grade during the 1960s in Austin, Texas, Johnson became very interested in children?s books. ?I had always liked books and reading and thought that becoming a librarian would be quite interesting,? she said. Johnson received graduate degree through Vanderbilt in 1981 to become a librarian, eventually securing a position at Torreyson Library in 1989.

Johnson works in information systems and the children?s library. ?I spend quite a lot of time on the reference desk where I answer questions and helping students and teach them to use various reference sources and the online research databases. I also oversee the children?s department upstairs. I decorated it to be more welcoming to students, faculty, staff and their children,? she said.

After becoming a librarian, Johnson became been very involved in the intellectual freedom movement. ?It?s an interest because of children?s books because they are the ones that are usually targeted for challenges,? Johnson said. When a book is challenged, usually a parent or relative of a child fights to keep offensive materials off of the public library shelves where children can have access to them.

Public libraries have the right to keep materials that offend some people on their shelves. Johnson says that just because a book has cursing or a sexual encounter, some people think it is obscene, when really it is classified as pornographic. ?Something obscene is against the law. Materials that are viewed as pornographic are not against the law. People get those confused. It?s in the eyes of the beholder,? she said.

Johnson is a member of the American Library Association, which takes a stand in saying, ?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.? The association finds that censorship by librarians of constitutionally protected speech, for any reason, violates the First Amendment.

During the last 10 years, Johnson has been the chair of the Arkansas Library Association?s Intellectual Freedom Committee for two three-year terms. ?These organizations are places that teachers and librarians can come if they have a challenge. They can be given some information about available resources that can help,? she said. As the chair, Johnson was responsible for assisting librarians/media specialists who had questions and challenges, conducted meetings of the intellectual freedom committee and made intellectual freedom talks to various groups.

Johnson said that it?s often children?s books that are challenged about their content. ?Libraries serve a wide range of interests, and the library needs to provide materials for more than one group of people. It?s hard for people trying to censor books to understand that in a public situation, you can?t serve one group only. It?s hard to keep that in mind,? she said.

To anticipate possible challenges, Johnson said, ?The best advice is for the librarian to have prepared in advance, for a challenge can come at anytime, in any place, about any book. If a policy is in place that has been approved by the library board, then everyone should be familiar with they policy and know what to do.?

In recent years, more and more books are being challenged. Many of the challenges come from books that students are studying in class, but have won a lot of awards, Johnson says. Even the Bible has come under attack for the sex and violence it contains. ?When Judy Blume first started writing, her books were not found to be offensive, but the longer her career persists, the more people find her books to be offensive,? Johnson said.

Books about Halloween and ghosts are also frequently challenged as well as books about talking animals. Johnson said, ?Usually, the attacks come from more conservative, fundamentalists in the country. Librarians aren?t the ones who censor books. It?s the schools and the school boards who do that.?

Johnson said how a censored book is treated depends on decisions made by the school board. ?Sometimes it is removed entirely, sometimes it is moved to another section of the library (as from the children’s section to the adult section) and sometimes it is kept in a place where it can only be obtained by request or by written parent permission,? Johnson said.

Johnson does see positives when books are challenged. ?Parents, citizens, school administrators, and others who are informed and supportive are very helpful in keeping a rational approach to a situation rather than allowing judgments to be formed that rely on hearsay or emotion. Situations are much more easily resolved when there is understanding and good support. I often find that there?s as much support for keeping a book as for challenging them,? she said.

-Jessica Saylor