The (unofficial) blog of the BCLA Information Policy Committee
Censoring Sexuality: GLBTQ Resources in Public Libraries
April 30, 2012Posted by on
Censoring Sexuality: GLBTQ Resources in Public Libraries
by Chelsea Bailey
Image designed and photographed by the author of this wiki article (Bailey, 2012a).
State censorship and public challenges to materials which portray gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and questioning (GLBTQ) sexual orientations is a major concern for public libraries and librarians within Canada. GLBTQ youth rely on public libraries for information on alternative sexualities and yet materials on homosexuality are one of the most frequently challenged and censored collections in the Canadian public library system (Martin & Murdock, 2007; Curry, 1999; Schrader & Wells, 2007). While mainstream publishing companies began to embrace GLBTQ fiction and non-fiction during the 1990s, many Canadian public libraries remain reluctant to acquire and promote collections which showcase alternative sexual orientations (Downey, 2005). A public library’s lack of GLBTQ material is particularly damaging for youth as important questions during the formation of their personal identities may remain unanswered (Alexander & Miselis, 2007). It is essential public librarians meet all users’ information needs (de la Pena McCook, 2011). Thus, this wiki article is intended to assist upcoming and current Canadian public librarians in creating a diverse and inclusive library experience for all youth through providing an analysis of information policy related to censorship, GLBTQ youth library patrons, censorship and challenges to GLBTQ materials in contemporary Canadian public libraries, and information on how public librarians can address censorship and challenges at their libraries.
- Legal Framework (1.1 Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms & Intellectual Freedom; 1.2 Censorship)
- GLBTQ Youth (2.1 GLBTQ Youth and the Importance of Public Libraries)
- GLBTQ Censorship and Challenges at Canadian Public Libraries (3.1 Collection Development; 3.2 Cataloguing and Access; 3.3 Reference Interviews; 3.4 Filtering; 3.5 Challenges)
- How Can Public Librarians Respond? (4.1 Awareness; 4.2 Connections; 4.3 Policies)
There are numerous policies and concepts which have been used to challenge and censor GLBTQ materials in Canadian public libraries. Public libraries’ materials often experience challenges from the public and censorship by librarians and other library staff (Downey, 2005). It is important that public librarians are familiar with the 1982 Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, intellectual freedom, and censorship.
Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms & Intellectual Freedom
The 1982 Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees Canadian citizens the freedom of conscience and religion, the freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression, the freedom of peaceful assembly, and the freedom of association (Department of Justice Canada, 2012). A central element within the Charter is equality – the Charter stresses that that all Canadians are equal under the law and cannot be discriminated against via race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, sex, age, and mental and physical disabilities (Department of Justice Canada, 2012). The Charter guarantees representation and equality in court but this has not been replicated within the nation’s cultural institutions, such as public libraries (Curry, 2000).
The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms focuses on visual distinctions between people through emphasizing race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, sex, age, and disabilities (Department of Justice Canada, 2012). Sexual orientation is an invisible characteristic of all Canadians and yet it is central in identity formation (Alexander & Miselis, 2007). In light of this, librarians must take extra precautions to ensure public libraries serve the diverse needs of its users without discrimination.
Intellectual freedom, or the notion that all individuals should have access to expressed thoughts, intellectual content, and the right to express one’s own opinions, is an important element of democratic societies (Morgan, 2010). The Canadian Library Association (as cited in Bernstein, 1996) claims that libraries must ensure that all people in Canada have access to knowledge, creativity, and intellectual activity through providing users with a wide array of sources containing various viewpoints. It is the public librarians’ role to guarantee intellectual freedom within society (de la Pena McCook, 2011).
Censorship is a direct challenge to intellectual freedom (Feather, 2004). Instances of censorship occur when information and opinions are prevented from being disseminated due to the particular interests of an individual, group, or the state (Feather, 2004). Censorship is often rationalized as a method to protect national security, public order, morals, and youth (Petersen, 1999). However, censorship results in hindering the flow of information and causing certain lifestyles or actions to be seen as morally corrupt within a society (Petersen, 1999).
Censorship in contemporary Canada has become a decentralized activity (Whitaker, 1999). While once censorship was initiated by the state and government, individual people and groups within Canadian society now attempt to censor others over disagreements concerning published works and morality (Whitaker, 1999). Contemporary Canadian censorship is now largely initiated through grassroots, community-led movements (Whitaker, 1999). For example, the Canadian state may not request that public libraries remove GLBTQ materials but a group of conservative or religious parents may demand that a public librarian does not display or make available books which discuss alternative sexualities (Whitaker, 1999).
Self-censorship also hinders intellectual freedom. Self-censorship, or the act of a librarian and his or her library promoting materials in accordance with a desire to avoid challenges from the public, is detrimental in fulfilling the information needs of all Canadians (Bernstein, 1996). It is the threat of censorship which typically leads to instances of self-censorship (Petersen, 1999). Public librarians must be aware of all possibilities of censorship at their institutions in order to prepare for and limit its occurrences.
An understanding of the GLBTQ youth user group is required in order to understand GLBTQ censorship, and thus the censorship of sexuality, at contemporary Canadian public libraries. Youth who identify as homosexual, bisexual, transsexual, or questioning (GLBTQ) are a unique user group in Canadian public libraries (Martin & Murdock, 2007). GLBTQ youth, also known as LGBTQ youth, exist within all communities regardless of its size or location (Martin & Murdock, 2007). Many GLBTQ youth hide their sexual orientation while acquiring information and forming their personal identity (Martin & Murdock, 2007). GLBTQ youths’ information needs may range from a desire for entertaining fiction, factual information on sexual orientations, and access to the Internet (Martin & Murdock, 2007). However, it is important to recognize that information needs vary between patrons (Martin & Murdock, 2007).
Public librarians should be aware that GLBTQ youth often face discrimination. GLBTQ youth may experience discrimination from all levels of society – bullying can occur in their homes, schools, the media, and other institutions (Alexander & Miselis, 2007). In 2005, approximately 90 percent of GLBTQ youth in the United States of America experienced harassment (Martin & Murdock, 2007). While this statistic applies to America, the close similarities within North American culture enable the information to be generalized to Canada as well. Experiences of discrimination may contribute to increased rates of homelessness, substance abuse, failure to graduate high school, and self-abuse in the GLBTQ North American community (Alexander & Miselis, 2007). To compound matters, GLBTQ youth typically do not have openly homosexual, bisexual, or transsexual role models and thus look to fiction for inspiration (Alexander & Miselis, 2007). GLBTQ youth are an important user group of public libraries – their position within society must be understood for librarians to fulfill their information needs.
GLBTQ youth are an invisible user group in Canadian public libraries (Schrader & Wells, 2007). Youth typically do not vocalize requests for GLBTQ materials in order to avoid discrimination (Alexander & Miselis, 2007). Some youth believe that asking librarians for information related to GLBTQ issues is the equivalent of coming out, or openly asserting one’s sexual orientation (Alexander & Miselis, 2007). Thus, GLBTQ youth may remain silent in the library and peruse the stacks alone (Alexander & Miselis, 2007).
Despite their apparent invisibility, GLBTQ youth depend on Canadian public libraries for information related to their sexual orientations (Alexander & Miselis, 2007). GLBTQ youth may not feel comfortable obtaining books, magazines, or newsletters on alternative sexualities at school libraries where classmates may easily spot them reading (Martin & Murdock, 2007). Furthermore, GLBTQ youth often participate in online communities for social support and visit online resources for information on sexuality and intimate relations (Greenblatt, 2011). GLBTQ youth may not feel comfortable using Internet resources at their school libraries or at home as their teachers, classmates, or families may identify them with their online search queries (Greenblatt, 2011). Access to online resources is particularly important for youth in rural or highly conservative locations as GLBTQ support services may not exist within the community (Schrader, 2009). Serious consequences can occur through a lack of information for GLBTQ library users, including instances of suicide (Alexander & Miselis, 2007). Thus, Canadian public libraries should serve as a confidential and safe location for GLBTQ youth to fulfill information needs without discrimination and the fear of outing (Martin & Murdock, 2007).
GLBTQ materials in Canadian public libraries are frequently challenged and censored by members of society. Schrader, Bowman, and Samek (2011) report that the Canadian Library Association (CLA) Intellectual Freedom Committee dealt with 92 challenges, the majority on children’s resources, in 2010. There are many other instances of censorship at Canadian public libraries which go unreported by the CLA (Curry, 1999). Experiences of censorship and challenges to GLBTQ materials may be initiated through the self-censoring activities of a librarian or by forces outside of the library itself (Downey, 2005). Collection development, cataloguing, poor reference interviews, filtering, and public challenges to materials are all obstacles GLBTQ materials must confront in the Canadian public library system.
A lack of GLBTQ resources in public libraries may be attributed to the self-censoring activities of librarians (Schrader & Wells, 2007). Librarians may seek to supply the library with materials which will not incite public discord (Schrader & Wells, 2007). In 2000, over fifty percent of public librarians in British Columbia received complaints about GLBTQ materials (Curry, 2000). Thus, GLBTQ materials may not be selected for purchase due to the self-censoring methods of a librarian. The acquisition of GLBTQ materials in public libraries is also impacted by a librarian’s lack of information on their surrounding community (Gough & Greenblatt, 2011). Librarians may believe that their community contains few GLBTQ youth as they do not frequently ask librarians for assistance or borrow materials on GLBTQ issues in fear that the items will be discovered in their possession (Gough & Greenblatt, 2011). Budget cuts may cause public libraries to limit the amount of materials purchased for smaller user groups, which GLBTQ youth appear to be due to their invisibility (Curry, 1999). Furthermore, tax paying members of the public and library sponsors may complain that their money is being used to provide libraries with ‘indecent’ homosexual items (Curry, 2000).
The amount of GLBTQ materials in Canadian public libraries may also be impacted by society and western culture (Greyson, 2007). Many GLBTQ resources, such as comics and graphic novels, are difficult to find in library review literature (Greyson, 2007). For example, picture books with GLBTQ content receive thirty percent fewer reviews than picture books containing heterosexual content (Howard, 2005). Therefore, librarians may not be able to locate adequate information on GLBTQ items in order to approve of their addition to the collection (Howard, 2005).
Cataloguing and Access
Access to Canadian public libraries’ GLBTQ materials may also be limited due to improper cataloguing (Carmichael, 2002; Schrader & Wells, 2007). Subject cataloguing has traditionally been problematic for materials concerning alternative sexual orientations (Schrader & Wells, 2007). Until the 1980s, items on homosexuality were catalogued as a pathology and a sexual perversion (Schrader & Wells, 2007). The assignment of subject access points to GLBTQ library materials may be very general to the point that books are sometimes not identified as being about homosexuality at all (Schrader & Wells, 2007). Carmichael (2002) found that ‘homosexuality’ is the most commonly used subject heading for library items on alternative male sexualities. Yet, searching via the ‘homosexuality’ subject heading results in the retrieval of homophobic works as well (Carmichael, 2002). Poor cataloguing leads to the creation of records which do not adequately describe the library’s holdings and permit user access to all materials (Schrader & Wells, 2007). Thus, GLBTQ library patrons may be unable to locate the information they desire due to poor description and access.
The shelving, and thus classification, of GLBTQ resources creates an access barrier for those seeking information on alternative sexualities (Reiman & Greenblatt, 2011). Items with sexual content are often moved to a different section of the library following challenges (Reiman & Greenblatt, 2011). For example, a young adult book on homosexuality may be moved to the adult section to limit further public outcry after a challenge (Reiman & Greenblatt, 2011). An item’s removal from the stacks limits the ability for GLBTQ users to successfully browse (Carmichael, 2002). Problems with cataloguing – such as subject access points and shelving – may be attributed to a librarian’s attempt at self-censorship as bringing overt attention to a GLBTQ collection may incite public disgruntlement (Schrader & Wells, 2007).
Helpful reference interviews fulfill part of a public library’s goal to support intellectual freedom through making all resources and information available to patrons (Curry, 2005). However, public librarians may exercise biases and censorship while performing reference interviews (Curry, 2005). A study performed by Curry (2005) from 2001 to 2003 in Vancouver, British Columbia, found that public library patrons seeking GLBTQ materials experience censorship and discrimination during reference interviews.
Curry (2005) examined how librarians fulfill the information needs of users requesting GLBTQ materials through the recorded experiences of Angela, a teen searching for GLBTQ fiction. Curry (2005) found that fifty percent of librarians have a positive attitude, comfortably discuss GLBTQ materials, and ask if additional information is required following a reference interview. Experiences of censorship and discrimination may occur through librarians claiming that their library does not hold any GLBTQ materials or being unable to say the word ‘lesbian’ comfortably (Curry, 2005). Only forty percent of the public libraries visited during the study created a comfortable environment and provided enough information to warrant another visit by those seeking GLBTQ materials (Curry, 2005). GLBTQ users who experience negative reference interviews at public libraries have a decreased likelihood of returning to a library and thus the fulfillment of their information needs may become endangered (Curry, 2005).
Filtering, or the censoring of online materials which may be viewed at public libraries’ computer stations, is a concern for GLBTQ youth (Holt, 2011). GLBTQ youth may depend on Internet access for supportive social groups and information which cannot be located in the textual records of libraries (Holt, 2011). Filtering software – such as CyberPatrol, Symantic, SmartFilter, and Websense – limit the amount of information GLBTQ youth may encounter through not permitting users to view websites based on keywords, the configuration of letters in websites’ URLs, image recognition, and artificial intelligence (Holt, 2011; Schrader & Wells, 2007; Houghtan-Jan, 2010). Rideout, Richardson, and Resnick (as cited in Schrader & Wells, 2007) found that sixty percent of Internet websites containing GLBTQ sexual health information were blocked by filtering programs at public libraries in 2002. Thus, many GLBTQ issues are censored through public libraries’ filtering programs, causing GLBTQ youth to feel alienated and separate from acceptable social standards (Holt, 2011).
Challenges to specific items are the most obvious form of censorship in the contemporary Canadian public library system (Martin & Murdock, 2007). Challenges occur when individuals or groups argue that a particular item should not be within a library collection due to its illustrated or textual content (Berstein, 1996). Challenges can occur as a public attack, such as an individual reporting to a media outlet, a formal written complaint, or an oral complaint between a library user and the librarian or library staff member (Berstein, 1996). However, it is important to note that those who challenge library materials have typically not read or viewed the item in its entirety and do not see the disputed content within its full context (Berstein, 1996).
The most challenged materials in Canadian public libraries are about sex and homosexual relations (Curry, 1999; Schrader & Wells, 2007). For example, a Canadian GLBTQ newspaper, Xtra! West, was one of two items which received more than one challenge during 2010 (Schrader, Bowman, & Samek, 2011). Furthermore, over fifty percent of librarians in British Columbia have experienced challenges towards Xtra! West and other GLBTQ periodicals due to the representation of alternative sexualities (Curry, 2000). Other GLBTQ materials, such as children’s books which describe families with homosexual parents or young adult novels with homosexual protagonists, have experienced numerous challenges in Canadian public libraries (Reiman & Greenblatt, 2011; Howard, 2005).
Surrey Public Library’s display for Freedom to Read Week, 2012. GBLTQ resources could be added to the display to enable the exploration of GLBTQ censorship. The image was photographed by the author of this wiki article (Bailey, 2012b).
The first step to improving public library services for GLBTQ youth, and thus limiting censorship and challenges, is awareness (Ritchie & McNeill, 2011). It is important that librarians remain aware of the characteristics and information needs of GLBTQ youth (Ritchie & McNeill, 2011). GLBTQ youth are a diverse group and are not one dimensional – youth who identify as homosexual, bisexual, transsexual, or questioning have multiple information needs and cannot be characterized as one monolithic group (Ritchie & McNeill, 2011). Thus, providing access to diverse electronic and print materials is essential while serving GLBTQ youth in Canadian public libraries (Ritchie & McNeill, 2011).
Librarians in Canadian public libraries should be aware of their own personal biases when selecting materials for acquisition, cataloguing, and providing reference interviews (Martin & Murdock, 2007). Self-censorship may be lessened if public librarians are cognizant of how their actions impact GLBTQ youth (Martin & Murdock, 2007). Librarians should question their own behaviours in order to ensure that they are supporting the CLA’s Bill of Rights which stresses intellectual freedom and access to all types of knowledge (as cited in Curry, 1999). GLBTQ materials should not be hidden on the shelves but incorporated into the everyday life of public libraries, including exhibits, displays, and reading advisory services (Martin & Murdock, 2007). The public library’s main website could include lists on recent GLBTQ acquisitions and information related to GLBTQ issues (Schrader & Wells, 2007).
Public librarians should know the impact of Internet filters and how to remove them at their institutions (Holt, 2011). Librarians should be aware that the public library’s filtering programs greatly hinder GLBTQ youth who rely on the Internet as a source of information and social support (Holt, 2011). Public libraries’ filtering programs should reflect the information policies of the library, be monitored for accuracy by library staff, and be disabled by librarians when the need arises (Holt, 2011).
It is important that public librarians connect with their users and surrounding community organizations (de la Pena McCook, 2011). Librarians must be aware of the information needs of their patrons in order to sufficiently serve them (de la Pena McCook, 2011). GLBTQ youth often do not ask librarians for assistance nor check out library books as they prefer to read anonymously in the stacks (Alexander & Miselis, 2007). However, librarians could gain information on the needs of GLBTQ youth through anonymously surveying library users (Martin & Murdock, 2007). Librarians may also network with nearby GLBTQ community centres to receive recommendations for library acquisitions and support in exhibitions, displays, and book talks (Martin & Murdock, 2007). The Internet is a useful location for information in conservative or rural environments which lack GLBTQ support groups (Schrader & Wells, 2007). Useful websites for librarians include Library Journal, Lambda Literary, The Gay & Lesbian Review, and the Rainbow Book List (Ritchie & McNeill, 2011).
Policies are one of the most significant methods for librarians to limit rates of censorship and challenges at Canadian public libraries (Schrader, 2009). Library policies should be premised on rights held within the Canadian constitution and emphasize equality and intellectual freedom (Schrader, 2009). Librarians should view policies as a form of protection for diverse materials within their library’s collections and services (Schrader, 2009). Policies should reflect the possible evolution of demographics in a library’s surrounding community, selection criteria and development, access to the Internet, and how to respond to challenges (Schrader, 2009). A policy which is wide ranging and recognizes diversity and equality would permit the library to establish and retain a GLBTQ collection and Internet access with limited censorship and unfounded challenges (Schrader, 2009).
The Surrey Public Library Policy Manual stands as a model for appropriate policies concerning intellectual freedom and collection (Surrey Public Library, 2009). Surrey Public Library (2009) states that their mission is to provide access to a diverse range of topics and ideas while supporting intellectual freedom. Surrey Public Library (2009) also references the 1982 Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and states that their collection is developed in order to represent local and international views on issues. Thus, Surrey Public Library’s (2009) policies would support their organization in the occurrence of a challenge or claim for censorship.
Steps if Challenged
It is essential that librarians have policies and plans to follow when one of the GLBTQ resources held by their public library is challenged by a member of the community (Martin & Murdock, 2007). All library staff should be trained on how to address challenges before one occurs (Martin & Murdock,2007). Thus, the following are important steps which should act as a guideline for public librarians confronted with challenges and censorship concerns on GLBTQ resources.
Have up-to-date collection development and book challenge policies (Alexander & Miselis, 2007).
Librarians should have formal written policies stating that materials representing diverse viewpoints are collected to serve the information needs of all community members (Becker, 2010). There should also be policies which define intellectual freedom and how to address book challenges (Becker, 2010). Policies which are frequently reviewed and updated illustrate that the public library is accountable for its actions and provides a standardized method to address public concerns (Becker, 2010). Sometimes the mere presentation of a written policy will quiet a user who wishes to challenge a library item (Becker, 2010).
Have positive reviews of GLBTQ resources from accredited sources (Alexander & Miselis, 2007).
It is important to show library users why an item was selected and that others within the profession find merit in a particular resource (Alexander & Miselis, 2007). Positive published reviews of GLBTQ items can act as evidence of a librarian’s quest to find suitable materials for the library (Alexander & Miselis, 2007).
Have the library user fill a written complaint (Becker, 2010).
Filing a written complaint should only be done if the user does not agree with material in the collection after a discussion with staff and presentation of collection and freedom of information policies (Becker, 2010). The user may write a written complaint documenting what segment of the resource causes it to be unsuitable for the library, how much of the book they read, and their name and address (Martin & Murdock, 2007). The written form will be reviewed by the library’s governing body (Becker, 2010). The library’s governing body’s decision must be supplied to the library user (Becker, 2010).
Attend a challenge hearing (Becker, 2010).
If the library user remains unsatisfied with the library’s governing body’s decision a public hearing may take place (Becker, 2010). Librarians should contact the media and members within society to locate individuals who will be willing to attend and discuss the importance of intellectual freedom during the hearing (Becker, 2010). The library’s governing body will announce its final decision during their next meeting after the hearing (Becker, 2010).
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Becker, B. (2010). Preparing for and responding to challenges. In office for Intellectual Freedom of the American Library Association (Ed.), Intellectual freedom manual. Eighth edition (pp. 375-385). Chicago: American Library Association.
Bernstein, S. (1996). When the censor comes: A guide for teachers, librarians, booksellers, and others who disseminate the printed word. Toronto: Book and Periodical Council.
Carmichael, J. V. (2002). Effects of the gay publishing boom on classes of titles retrieved under the subject headings “homosexuality,” “gay men,” and “gays” in the OCLC WorldCat database. Journal of Homosexuality, 42(3), 65-88. Retrieved 20 February 2012 from: http://www.tandf.co.uk/journals/wjhm
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All images were taken personally by the author of this wiki article.
Bailey, C. (2012a). GLBTQ censorship. Taken 3 April 2012.
Bailey, C. (2012b). Surrey Public Library: Freedom to Read Week, 2012. Taken 29 February 2012.
The photos have been compressed through the use of Picnik, an online application:
Picnik. (2012). Home. Retrieved 3 April 2012 from: http://www.picnik.com/app#/home/welcome