The Burden of Upholding the Freedom to Read

Jan 1, 2017 · 4 min read

This week, it was announced that Simon & Schuster had given Milo Yiannopoulos a book deal worth $250k. The librarian social media universe lit up to the news as (for anyone living under a rock for the last six months) Milo is a bully, a bigot, and troll-who-wants-to-say-he’s-a-provocateur whose opinion pieces on Breitbart got shared widely (presuming he is the actual author as it is alleged that his interns write many pieces in his name). He’s also one of the few people to be completely banned from Twitter (a truly heroic feat) for bullying and engaging in other trolling behavior.

In short: he’s not a guy you’d want in your book club.

In this social media maelstrom, there have been calls by librarians for libraries not to add this book to their collections. The logic goes that, in buying the book, it would be normalizing such behavior and giving it a platform. It’s a good and compelling position as such behavior is not something that a (relatively) civilized society should accept and individuals who engage in it should not be rewarded. I can sympathize with not rewarding creeps for acting like creeps.

However, it is remarkably short sighted positioning. While it would be a short term victory, it will cost us the “freedom to read” war in the long run. It opens up every library and every collection to a new level of scrutiny in which the common thread will be this Yiannopoulos book. It will make defending collection decisions that much more harder when the specter of a boycott (which is what it is) looms over the selection process. Furthermore, it flies in the face of the ALA’s Freedom to Read Statement as well as commitment to collection neutrality[1]. Even if you don’t care what the ALA says about such things, it is an affront to the most basic elements of intellectual freedom, information access, and the library as the community’s common space.

Personally, I have a theory when it comes to how librarians approach the freedom to read. Simply put, librarians want to always be the good guys when it comes to intellectual freedom issues. They want to be the one who swoops in and tells the school board, “You must let them read Huckleberry Finn! Let them see for themselves!” or take on a book challenge to have And Tango Makes Three moved out of the children’s section. Librarians want to be the righteous defenders, holding the higher moral ground in which to protect the rights of others to read, see, and listen. Why not? It’s good to be on the right side in the face of a human history of censorship.

But these intellectual freedom issues are not always simple and not always defending the classics or good people. It must take the bad with the good, the classic with the crass, the ugly with the beautiful. It’s about defending the repugnant, vile, dirty, and gross that grace the shelves as well. And this is the perfect case in which we have to hold our noses, buy it for our communities, and wait till the weeding report says we can discard it. It’s not great, but it is line with our principles.

Defending the freedom to read has its good moments, but those are tarnished when such defenses are applied unequally. For better or worse, this autobiography is coming out the publisher pipeline and there will be people in communities who will want to read it. I would be abdicating my professional duties if I do not give such a book the same defense as the banned classics. I don’t have to like it, but it is the right thing to do in support of my professional convictions. It’s the ugly side of a beautiful concept and it must be taken as whole, not in parts or what suits a person.

While I hold such beliefs, I am not without outrage towards the publisher for making such a deal. But rather than frame it as “why would you hire this person?” since it’s just going to elicit a boring boilerplate statement, my question would be “what are you doing to support author diversity, vis-à-vis concepts like We Need Diverse Books?” Because that $250k could have also been used as advances for one or more POC/LGBTQ/minority authors. The Milo book deal was a business decision based on current trends, but what is Simon & Schuster doing to develop talent in the aforementioned groups? Those are the authors that more likely to continue on our shelves for many years, not the passing moment of a D-level political pundit/celebrity. What are they doing to increase diversity in their author talent pools?

If you are attending ALA Midwinter 2017, they will be in booth 1726 so you can ask them in person.

[1] Collection neutrality is one of a few ways the library is neutral. The library is not neutral in many other ways including service to vulnerable populations, programming for special needs or minorities, and internet/information access.

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