October 04, 2012

Bias in Censorship

In looking through and for information regarding censorship this week, I found an interesting  definition of "censor" given by the American Heritage Medical Dictionary: "The hypothetical agent in the unconscious mind that is responsible for suppressing unconscious thoughts and wishes."  This definition falls more into what we might normally call either self-censorship or perhaps (unconscious) bias.  

This bias is something to keep in mind in the library.  Part of our duties as library professionals is to be aware of our biases; we examine our purchasing to make sure our own thoughts and feelings aren't swaying the collection.  For example, a Libertarian librarian would want to make sure that political party was not overly represented in the collection, but that all other parties also had items for (and against) them.
Choosing-- or not-- books for the collection is perhaps the most visible or important part of knowing one's own bias.  But bias can affect other ways we offer patrons materials-- bias may affect which books are put on display and which stay on the shelves; which books are offered to a patron researching a topic and which don't have their call numbers written down.  Some bias shows up in even subtler ways: a book featuring a main character who is 10 would normally be shelved in the Juvenile Fiction area.  If that 10-year-old character has to deal with a difficult or controversial topic (such as the pregnancy of a friend, homosexuality of self or parent, depression, suicide, drug use, bullying at school...) many people might be tempted to put that book in the Young Adult section because of its "older themes."  Not even picture books are immune from this: many libraries shelve And Tango Makes Three away from the general Picture Book section: in Nonfiction, in an art section, in a Parent Center, etc.  In the not-too-distant past, even picture books about divorce were shelved away from little hands.  

Bias can be even subtler.  If a librarian were to raise her eyebrows when a patron asked for a title, that patron may not ask for titles much in the future.  Ribbing a friend over her reading choice may discourage her from taking her book in public anymore.  

When it comes to bias, conscious or not, no comment can be made flippantly.  No gesture or facial expression can be made flippantly.  As library professionals, we must be aware of this.  Every sentence, every hand motion must be run through a filter.  We would never want to discourage anyone from reading what they thought was right for them. 

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