Unintended Consequences, How Librarians Landed in the Hot Seat, and What to Do About It
by Dave Shumaker
“Selection … begins with a presumption in favor of liberty of thought; censorship, with a presumption of thought control. … [S]election is democratic, while censorship is authoritarian.”
“Wherever they burn books, they will also, in the end, burn human beings.”
News Item: Faced with criticism over selection and hiring decisions, a library director in Iowa resigns after 6 months on the job. Her interim successor resigns a couple of months later. (Hernandez, 2022)
News Item: “Proud Boys” shout “interruptions, jeers and comments to speakers” during a school board debate over the book Gender Queer in Downers Grove, Illinois. (Schuba and Issa, 2021)
News Item: Librarians in Cheyenne, Wyoming, are the subject of a criminal complaint involving sexually themed materials in the library collection. (Gruver, 2021)
The New York Times reports that librarians “have been labeled pedophiles on social media, called out by local politicians and reported to law enforcement officials. Some librarians have quit after being harassed online. Others have been fired for refusing to remove books from circulation.” (Harris and Alter, 2022)
What’s going on here?
Over the past few years, librarians have spent a great deal of time and energy addressing pervasive digital disinformation and misinformation: falsehoods that are not only believed, but also spread, by large numbers of people through digital media. Librarians have rightly seen the ubiquity of bad information as a direct threat to their dual missions of providing trustworthy, accurate information while also educating members of their community to make sound judgments about what to believe and what not to believe.
Meanwhile, as the news items at the beginning of this article indicate, there has arisen an unprecedented wave of
efforts to censor library materials. This new challenge presents an even greater threat to librarians. Not only does it attack their traditional role and mission, but it also attacks their very existence.
The challenges of censorship and disinformation share important characteristics, but they differ in critically important ways too. In this article, I briefly explore the role of technology in the censorship wave, analyze some ways in which the censorship wave differs from the disinformation infodemic, and suggest some actions librarians can take.
UNINTENDED CONSEQUENCES AND THE ROLE OF TECHNOLOGY
Every technological innovation has negative, unintended consequences. In the early 20th century, the automobile led to a massive road-building surge—and helped cause the decline of many town centers as commerce moved to the highway on the towns’ outskirts. It also led to a vast increase in the burning of fossil fuels. In the 1950s, the atomic energy industry promised practically limitless, clean, cheap energy to power a new generation of electrical labor-saving devices. Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, Fukushima, and the need to safeguard toxic nuclear waste for centuries weren’t mentioned as part of the deal.
And so it has been with the internet and the World Wide Web. What began in the 1960s as efforts to link research lab computers—and in the 1990s, led to an innovative way to share papers in theoretical physics—led, by the 2000s, to vast arrays of content on seemingly every conceivable topic, from every conceivable point of view, then to massive web search engines and web-based social media services. Web search engines promised access to all of the world’s knowledge, while social media services promised to usher in a new era of understanding by promoting interpersonal communications. Better yet, these new services were provided “for free.”
We didn’t expect to end up in a time when the web would be polluted by junk and weaponized against the free flow of trustworthy information. So, how did this unintended consequence come about? One of the underlying causes is the problem of engagement.
The Nature of Engagement
The idea that content should be engaging is neither new nor inherently problematic. The concept of engagement has been around since at least the 1980s. (Bengani et al., 2022) It makes sense that information should be engaging (i.e., interesting and useful). Anyone who shares information seeks to present it in a way that audience members will respond to—that is, engage with.
Moreover, engagement implies an emotional as well as an intellectual response. This has always been true. What’s new is that web technologies offer content creators and advertisers the ability to monitor engagement in a detailed and comprehensive way that was never before possible. As a result, engagement has become king for content creators. Whether their primary goal is to advance an agenda, promote an ideology, or make money from advertising—or some combination of the three—engagement becomes the primary objective.
Recognizing this, content and service providers have worked hard to figure out how to increase both the size of the audience they attract and the amount of time individuals spend on their sites and platforms. They have deployed recommender algorithms that monitor an individual’s interests and preferences and, as a result, present more of what that user shows the greatest interest in. The idea is that for any individual user, engaging content should lead to more engaging content. The goal is to give us more of what we want.
While giving people what they want sounds great superficially, studies have found that it can create a variety of problems. It can lead to addictive behavior, and it can lead to “incentivizing divisive, extreme, or outrageous material.” (Bengani et al., 2022) Priyanjana Bengani’s article also cites findings that “divisive and extreme material is more likely to drive engagement,” while another article, by Luke Munn, characterizes contemporary recommender services as “angry by design.” (Munn, 2020) As a result, much of the web has become an information ecosystem that tends to increase anger and division, not understanding and enlightenment. Enter disinformation and censorship. Moreover, the importance of emotional engagement inhibits the rational analysis that information literacy depends on.
DISINFORMATION AND CENSORSHIP
Once, some thought that the internet would put libraries out of business by making access to quality information free and ubiquitous. That hasn’t happened. Instead, we find ourselves in a time when the internet poses very different challenges to the library and information professions. What is under attack are not only the professional values of librarians, but also librarians themselves.
Let’s pause for a moment to consider some similarities and differences between disinformation and censorship and the challenges they contain. Both degrade society’s information ecology, but in different ways. Disinformation seeks to poison the well of information. Dumping poison into the well not only misleads, but also contaminates all of the other information. Information-thirsty consumers are left not knowing what, if any, of the information they draw from the well is safe to consume. They come to distrust all information, and the basic trust needed for civil discourse and a democratic society is wiped out. In contrast, censorship seeks to dry up the well by reducing the availability of information the censor does not like. Often the censor dons the mantle of protector of society and reduces the diversity and overall supply of information by withdrawing some elements of it that are deemed harmful from circulation.
Disinformation and censorship differ in another way. Disinformation is falsification, although selectivity and distortion also can be involved. The falsification can be as mundane as the times, places, and requirements for voting—seeking thus to disenfranchise voters. It can involve deliberate or careless misinterpretation, or even falsification, of scientific research results, as in the promotion of ineffective and even harmful treatments for disease. It can involve assertions made without factual basis, as in false claims of election rigging. In contrast, selectivity and emotionally charged opinions lie at the center of censorship. Publications that the censor wishes to ban can’t be falsely cited and quoted—the evidence is plainly available—but they can be distorted through selectivity or portrayed using emotionally charged language (which contributes to engagement) to characterize them.
The nature of censorship’s threat to librarians is also different. Disinformation opposes librarians’ professional values, but does not directly attack librarians themselves. It generally ignores them. Against librarians’ commitment to truth and trusted information, it promotes “alternative facts” and the attitude that it’s acceptable to present deliberately self-serving false statements as if they were true. Against librarians’ focus on information literacy, or the self-aware analysis and evaluation of information, it presents a highly emotional, knee-jerk, shoot-from-the-hip attitude that encourages belief in whatever fits with one’s preconceptions.
Recent waves of censorship have posed a very different threat: They have attacked librarians themselves directly and sometimes personally. In their New York Times piece quoted earlier in this article, Elizabeth A. Harris and Alexandra Alter recount the experiences of Tonya Ryals, who quit her management position at Jonesboro Public Library in Arkansas, saying, “There were comments about library staff, calling us groomers and pedophiles and saying we needed to be fired, we need to be jailed, we needed to be locked up, that all the books needed to be burned.”
Social media influence can incite complaints to librarians about books their libraries don’t even own. (Vestal, 2022) The Spokesman-Review columnist Shawn Vestal discusses the experience of Kimber Glidden, director of the Boundary County Library in Idaho: “The unruly crowds at meetings and the tone of some criticisms have often been intense enough that she worries for her safety. People have screamed in her face as well as made veiled threats, she said. ‘There’s a pervasive anger and a willingness to threaten people.’ ”
The list could go on. Clearly, librarians are being threatened by the current crop of censors in unprecedented ways.
Why Is This Happening?
It’s tempting to explain this wave of censorship in terms of content. Many of the headlines focus on sexual content in young adult literature—particularly LGBTQ+ themes. But that’s not all. In Vinton, Iowa, the items attacked included books by Dr. Jill Biden and Kamala Harris. (Rascoe, 2022) A list of 850 titles distributed by Texas state legislator Matt Krause includes:
- The Confessions of Nat Turner by William Styron
- The Gale Encyclopedia of Medicine
- Native America and the Question of Genocide by Alex Alvarez
- Inventions and Inventors by Roger Smith
Not to mention:
- Five titles containing the phrase “Black lives matter”
- Two books by Ta-Nehisi Coates and two by Ibram X. Kendi
- Seemingly anything to do with abortion, including 35 titles containing the word “abortion,” John Irving’s The Cider House Rules, and Michael Crichton’s 1969 debut novel, A Case of Need (Krause, 2021)
But disapproval of content isn’t the whole story. Beneath it lies the issue of control, as librarian Lester Asheim noted almost 70 years ago. So, the censor doesn’t like certain content—well, everybody is entitled to their own opinion, as Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously remarked. But the censor isn’t content with exercising their right to express their own opinion. They seek to abridge others’ rights to access information and think for themselves. They seek to exercise thought control. They assert their right to substitute their own judgment not only for the professional judgments of librarians, but also for the autonomous judgment and rights of other citizens.
The motivation to control sometimes operates on a basic political level as well. There’s evidence that the censorship wave offers an appealing issue to politicians seeking to engage receptive members of the electorate. Vestal notes that one of the leaders of a drive to recall four public library board members in Boundary County, Idaho, has been an unsuccessful candidate for the state legislature and local school board. (Vestal, 2022) In an article about efforts of right-wing politicians in Texas to censor libraries, Texas Observer reporter Simone Carter notes, “Many critics have pointed out that both [Governor Greg] Abbott and [state representative Matt] Krause have elections coming up. Abbott will face Republican primary challengers this spring in his bid for reelection, while Krause has announced he’s running for Texas attorney general.” (Carter, 2021) (Krause later dropped out of that race.) Thus, thought control is connected to political control, and censorship has become just another issue on which politicians can use emotionally charged rhetoric to “engage” voters and gain votes.
Library professionals may well ask whether the self-appointed censors have availed themselves of established procedures to challenge library content. After all, the right to challenge and the duty of libraries to establish procedures for the consideration of such challenges are enshrined in ALA policy. The answer seems to be no, that the censors prefer sensationalism and politicization of library decision making.
The censorship wave has even led to a direct attack on the integrity of the library profession. Writing for The Federalist, Jonathan Lange accuses ALA of “a regular pattern of trumping up claims of censorship to advance a more despicable agenda.” After attacking the intentions of “leftist school administrators” and ALA’s Office of Intellectual Freedom, he winds up his indictment with this broadside: “The policies and guidance provided by the ALA is [sic] designed to undermine parental rights and to obstruct reasonable modifications for a safe library environment. The ALA has abused any public trust it once enjoyed. It has become the leading advocate for sexualizing children and politically indoctrinating them.” (Lange, 2021)
CONCLUSION: WHAT IS TO BE DONE?
So it is that thanks to the law of unintended consequences, we find ourselves in a time when internet-based technologies have been hijacked and converted into tools for constricting the free flow of information in society. Individuals and organizations wishing to impose their judgments on everyone have taken advantage of social media, along with other means of communication, to spread their messages. Their efforts have led not only to the censorship of library content, but also to attacks on librarians’ professionalism and on librarians themselves.
What is to be done? A good place to start is with Asheim’s recommendations. Writing in another time of rampant censorship, Asheim counseled that librarians recommit to their professional values—in particular, to those values that differentiate librarians’ selection of materials from censorship. These include:
- A positive approach that asks what the reasons are to include the work, rather than what the reasons are to reject it. Asheim notes that the librarian’s positive approach delivers value to the community, while the censor’s negative approach leads to a self-fulfilling prophecy: The censor will often find some pretext to exclude the work and thus deprive the community of its value.
- Judging works based on their contents and not on the background of their authors
- A presumption in favor of freedom of information and thought, not restricting information and controlling thought
It is only by adhering to their professional values, says Asheim, that librarians can earn the trust of their communities. (Asheim, 1953) Librarians can also use their position as expert users of information systems, including search engines and social media. Insist on transparency in search engine ranking and social media content delivery algorithms. Support efforts to persuade (or require?) digital information platforms to prioritize accurate and trustworthy information—the best, not the most emotionally charged. Emotional engagement should not crowd truth out of our information services.
More is needed. It’s often said that the best defense is a good offense. In other words, librarians can’t wait until after they’re faced with censorship to take action against it. We need to communicate our values. We need to find and collaborate with those members of our community who believe in freedom of information and oppose thought control. We must not wait until after the censors show up in our libraries or pack our local school board and town council meetings. We need to marshal our allies to show officials that caving in to the censors could be harmful to their political futures.
Censorship isn’t going away. But with principled and determined action, librarians can weaken it and preserve freedom of thought. When the next wave of censorship crests, as it will in 10, 40, or 70 more years, let’s leave a record of defending democratic values that our descendants can be proud of and learn from.