When I first started working at my suburban Philadelphia library I was surprised to learn that there are library patrons who actually correct ― in ink ― the spelling and grammatical errors they find in library books. At first, I thought this was a good thing. The way I saw it, these unsung heroes, by maintaining standards of literacy in an age of creeping Twitter-speak, were performing a valuable public service.
I began to re-think this when it came to my attention that we also have patrons who have taken it upon themselves to edit out, with a felt-tipped pen, any cursing, profanity or sexually explicit behavior they encounter in our books.
I am now, like most librarians, an absolutist when it comes to defacing library property. You can do whatever you like to your personal copy of a book. You can annotate it, highlight it, cross out the parts you don’t like or cut it up for art.
But leave library books alone.
And yet, there are librarians who deface library books themselves! A recent post on my favorite library-related Facebook page described an elementary school librarian who drew boxer briefs on the naked little boy in Maurice Sendak’s The Night Kitchen; because her school serves a conservative neighborhood, she was worried that parents might be upset if a child brought the book home.
Their responses to this post made it clear that my fellow librarians were not down with this:
That’s censorship, plain and simple. And it’s wrong.
People have been doing this since this book came out in 1970. I really thought we had gotten past this by now.
If Maurice Sendak had wanted boxers on the kid, he would have drawn them on himself. Nobody has any business bowdlerizing someone else’s work.
She’s defacing a work of art. If it’s not okay to paint clothing on a nude at a museum, why is it okay to do this?
As a parent, I would be extremely disappointed to get a book that had been defaced like this.
This is not only unacceptable and ridiculous, it‘s a gross ethical violation. Somebody please stop her.
And yet, other comments made it clear that librarians defacing library property is nothing new:
I once worked with a school library technician who took it upon herself to draw shirts on all the bare-chested people in National Geographic.
I’m a cataloger for a large school district and one of our high school librarians does this kind of thing all the time. We all just roll our eyes.
I’m a school librarian. My predecessor had a cache of “banned books” hidden away in a locked cabinet, including a book that contained a photo of a woman breast-feeding. When I took over, I re-shelved them all.
When I was in elementary school there was a book about Adam and Eve in our school library. The librarian had fashioned little “bathing suits” for them out of stickers. Kids were always trying to peel off the stickers to see what was underneath.
We considered the question of whether librarians are there to enforce community standards:
In her defense, the FCC demands that certain words be “bleeped” before a show can air. So you could argue that there’s a legal precedent for community standards being applied.
But she defaced the book before anyone complained! It wasn’t done in response to community concern.
Censorship is a slippery slope. What else offends (or scares) this librarian? And who put her in charge of community morals?
They do this kind of thing to foreign newspapers in Saudi Arabia. Not a good model to imitate.
The clear consensus was that good librarians don’t deface or censor books:
If somebody did this in my library, I’d buy a new copy and discard the damaged one.
I’m a school librarian at a Catholic school. We have The Night Kitchen, uncensored, in our collection. We also have science books about the human body, that have scientific drawings (at a kid’s level) of labia, penises, etc.
Kids need to learn about sexual anatomy. It’s “private,” yes, but it’s nothing to be ashamed of.
I’ve had parents complain about this book. It’s still on our shelves. Don’t like it? Don’t read it.
My favorite response? The librarian who cited Kurt Cobain:
When asked to alter the cover art of Nirvana’s Nevermind, which showed a naked three-year old (with penis clearly visible) swimming toward a dollar bill, ‘lead singer Cobain agreed to only one compromise: a strategically placed sticker that would read: “If you’re offended by this, you must be a closet pedophile.’ The original album art went out untouched.”
Still, as happy as I am to replace the stereotype of the uptight cardigan-wearing librarian with that of an edgy, Cobain-quoting librarian, the final word has to go to New Jersey librarian Cynthia Robbins:
I read this book over and over again to my daughter without any bad result. It was her favorite. Adults pass on their own bad feelings when they censor like this. Censorship is fear. As librarians, we are supposed to be fearless.
I agree. Although I am, by nature, quiet and mild-mannered, I want to be fearless when it comes to standing up for the books in our collection. Let’s face it ― if you can’t deal with defending Maurice Sendak’s right to draw a little boy without his clothes on, you’re probably in the wrong profession.
And if you’re a parent who doesn’t want her kid to see a fictional five-year old’s penis? You can buy yourself a copy and deface it to your heart’s content.
Of course, when your kid checks the book out of the school library, he’s in for a surprise.