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Magazines > Information Today > March 2020

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Information Today
Vol. 37 No. 2 — March 2020
Who Censors the Censor? Librarians, That’s Who.
by Anthony Aycock

Click for larger view.When I was in high school, our student newspaper published an op-ed about why Disney’s movie The Little Mermaid should be banned. It’s a violent movie, the writer said, what with Ursula getting harpooned and all that. There’s magic and witchcraft and talking animals, which surely points to demonic activity.

The article was a satire. You could tell this by reading it: An 18-year-old’s irony isn’t subtle. Plus, the author admitted it was a joke after a bit of institutional kerfuffle. Basically, he baited the self-serious, and they bit harder than Sebastian escaping Chef Louis’ stewpot.

I find myself remembering this incident from 30 years ago now that The Walt Disney Co. has made most of its movies available on its new streaming service, Disney+. Having access to 90 years of Disney content excited people so much that the service crashed on its first day due to mind-boggling demand ( The technical problems are mostly resolved, but another issue remains: Disney’s racist past. Adults know that some older movies, such as The Jungle Book, Lady and the Tramp, Dumbo, and Song of the South (which is not available on Disney+), offer questionable depictions of minorities. Disney addressed this by adding warnings to certain film descriptions that the movie “is presented as originally created” and “may contain outdated cultural depictions.”

Some critics think this doesn’t go far enough. A week after Disney+ launched, The Real co-host Jeannie Mai advocated removing controversial scenes from the films. “I think that racism is taught,” Mai said, “and I think that Disney is responsible for educating us in so many ways so why can’t they educate us on the right thing to do by showing an edit?” Co-host Loni Love countered, “I think the teachable thing is ‘that’s the way it was back then.’” Panelist Tamera Mowry-Housley agreed, saying, “I think it’s the parent’s responsibility. Once the parent sees that disclaimer … you then can use it as a teachable moment, you can educate your child” (

Librarians have ringside seats to this brawl, whether we want them or not. This is a good thing. It’s time we took the lead in the national conversation about access. It’s time we censored the censors.


As you may have guessed, I am against censorship. In all forms. All the time. I am not against weeding, which has clear benefits (look at the Awful Library Books blog at; you’ll see what I mean). Weeding a collection means removing items that are damaged or in an outdated format. It means ditching threadbare books, DVDs that don’t play, and all cassette and VHS tapes, working or not. With nearly all court opinions and statutes available via databases such as Westlaw, LexisNexis, and Fastcase, most law libraries have discontinued and discarded a lot of their print collections, saving space and money. That’s weeding.

Censorship is about ideas. It means removing items whose content is deemed threatening. Would-be censors think that if people don’t read about certain acts—murder, drug use, cursing, witchcraft, casual sex, etc.—or see them in movies or video games, then those acts will never be committed. Censorship, in their minds, prevents the spread of vulgarity and obscenity. It’s a path to a purer society. This is magical thinking, of course. There is no clear link between media consumption and behavior. Most of what’s censored is not objectively harmful; the censors simply don’t like it. Censorship stifles intellectual freedom, the root of democracy. As ALA puts it, “We expect our people to be self-governors. But to do so responsibly, our citizenry must be well-informed” (

Moreover, standards of decency change over time, and one era’s vulgarity is a later era’s masterpiece. The shower stabbing in Psycho is eerie and thrilling, but what startled some 1960 viewers was the scene just before it, when Marion Crane shreds evidence about the $40,000 she stole and, not wanting to leave the incriminating scraps in the trash can, flushes them down the toilet. No mainstream movie had ever shown a toilet. It was “a sacred off-screen no man’s land Hollywood stars rarely seemed to visit” (


On the website Hack Library School (where was this when I was an M.L.I.S. candidate?), Jessica Colbert discusses weeding the collection of her school’s LGBT Resource Center and coming across a cringeworthy title: The Transsexual Empire: The Making of the She-Male. Although celebrated when it was published in 1979, the book is now considered transphobic. “All three of us working saw it,” Colbert writes, “and immediately had visceral reactions. ‘Throw it in the trash! Rip it up! Banish it!’” ( Later, she reassesses this response, pondering its conflict with her views on intellectual freedom.

Most librarians could tell similar tales. We know what to do with books that are outdated (I’m looking at you, 1970s medical texts), but what about the unsavory ones? I don’t mean the staples of banned books lists—the Harry Potters and Huck Finns. I mean the real unsavory ones. Books such as The Anarchist Cookbook, which has been linked to numerous terrorists, including the Oklahoma City bomber and the Columbine shooters ( The Turner Diaries, whose author, William Pierce, was considered “America’s foremost living Hitler admirer” ( The Satanic Bible (’nuff said). The Camp of the Saints, which an expert on extremism at the Southern Poverty Law Center calls “one of the top two books in white supremacist circles” ( Or less overt works of antagonism, including Audrey Shuey’s 1958 The Testing of Negro Intelligence, about which one reviewer wrote:

[Shuey] is not so simple as to believe that all whites are more intelligent than all Negroes but she does find that the Negro averages are everywhere less than the white averages and that the number of Negroes who exceed the white norm is slight; these are the figures and in her view they make out a case that has not been convincingly refuted (

Should this stuff be thrown out? Or kept and explained? It’s the same debate we’re seeing nationwide with Confederate monuments. Louise S. Musser, writing for Children’s Literature Association Quarterly, argues that “[i]f students are to fully understand the history of many of our current social problems, they need to be better aware of the accepted practices and attitudes which were common in this country.” Critical thinking skills are important, Musser says, and those skills cannot be developed while limiting students’ exposure to our troubling past In other words, keep the bad old stuff. But keep it somewhere else.

This is the mission of the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia ( Located in Ferris State University’s FLITE Library, the museum has more than 9,000 artifacts, some dating back to the 1870s—and all created for the purpose of ridiculing African Americans and/or promoting racial segregation ( Amid what Wikipedia calls the “mammy candles, Nellie fishing lures, picaninny ashtrays, sambo masks, and lawn jockeys” are a number of books, including The High School Minstrel Book (1938) and How Sleeps the Beast (1937), a pulp about the lynching of a black man. You can see others in the museum’s YouTube video ( or the virtual tour on its website.

Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia


Decisions about access can exist on a knife edge. All sorts of factors—patron demographics, collection philosophies, storage space, or even what’s in the news—go into determining whether an item stays or goes. Colbert acknowledges this delicacy when she writes on Hack Library School, “While I think it was right to weed [The Transsexual Empire] from this specific collection, this whole experience makes me wonder what I would have done for another collection, particularly a public library.”

One solution is ratings, like PG-13 or E for Everyone. Maybe a Parental Advisory label or a note in the catalog. Smaller libraries wouldn’t have the staffing to do this for a whole collection, although they could do it for well-known items. Or they could rely on companies such as Common Sense Media ( to provide this service.

Librarians seem conflicted with the idea of rating content. ALA’s position is clear: “[E]xplicit or implicit adoption, enforcement, or endorsement of any of these rating systems violates the Library Bill of Rights” by trampling on “the rights of individuals to form their own opinions about the information that they consume” ( Individual librarians may take a more measured approach. “I sometimes use Common Sense Media,” writes Sarah Ludwig for ALA TechSource, “to help me determine whether or not a book is going to work with my middle school students, a notoriously tricky age group.” But, she admits, “I bristle at the way Common Sense Media can strip a book down to its faults” ( Toni Bernardi, writing for ALSC Blog, furthers this criticism by saying that Common Sense Media’s reviews “cannot provide a balanced and truly insightful evaluation of a literary work.” She warns that “a parent in a hurry will find it all too easy to simply look at the rating as a guide to deciding if the book is one they consider appropriate” (

I may be oversimplifying, but isn’t that the point? Ratings are shorthand. They’re reminders to parents to do their due diligence. They are not meant to be the prosecution’s full case, merely one piece of evidence. A compelling piece, perhaps, but a piece nonetheless. Besides, have you ever read a “balanced and truly insightful evaluation of a literary work” and thought, “What rubbish”? Me too. No deep dive can substitute for a parent’s own judgment, and it was never meant to, just as listing the nutritional information on a food package doesn’t tell you whether or not to eat that food. You must make up your own mind. (With a little help. Which is what librarians are all about.)


Ratings, restrictions, and warnings are not ideal ways to present creative works. But they are better than censorship. They offer options. Families can boycott the films with controversial material. They can watch them and ignore the insensitive stuff. Or the parents can turn to their children and ask, “What was wrong with what we just saw?”

That’s the approach Patrick A. Coleman, a writer for Fatherly, intends to take. He applauds Disney+ for making that last option available. “[I]t gives me an opportunity to talk about fairness and honesty,” Coleman writes. “I can ask [my children] to consider if the depictions of people of color would make the people they depict happy or sad? I can ask if it feels like fun or bullying? I can ask if they believe it’s okay and talk about how the world has changed, and how it continues to struggle to change” (

In this era of rage tweets, who’s-on-first foreign policy, and doctored weather maps, we need all the discussion we can get.

Anthony Aycock is the author of The Accidental Law Librarian (Information Today, Inc., 2013). He is the director of the North Carolina Legislative Library and an assistant editor for Convention Scene ( He has a B.A. in English, an M.F.A. in creative writing, an M.L.I.S., and an M.A. in criminal justice. Send your comments about this article to or tweet us (@ITINewsBreaks).