On Monday night, Sept. 27th, I had the privilege of introducing the Banned Books Week program the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh co-sponsors annually with the Western Pennsylvania chapter of the ACLU. This national event was the idea of the late Judith Fingeret Krug, a Pittsburgh native who served for many years as the director of the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, as well as the executive director of the Freedom to Read Foundation.
As I never let an opportunity pass without explaining what it is that librarians do, I spoke briefly about the librarian’s role in the development of library collections. Librarians choose the collections for libraries. It is not a simple process of reading reviews, then picking one from column A and three from column B. It is a thoughtful exercise based on several factors, and most public libraries do it in a very similar fashion.
The Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh has a collection development policy, which is an open document posted on our website that provides the overarching parameters for selection, namely: “Our collections support the educational, leisure reading and general reference needs of the community.” The policy also provides a description of our community, historical information about the collection, the diversity of available content and formats, and the criteria we use to select fiction, non-fiction, reference, journals, e-resources and audio-visual formats, etc.
Our website also affirms that the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh subscribes to the American Library Association’s Library Bill of Rights. The new 8th edition of the ALA Intellectual Freedom Manual refers to intellectual freedom as an “enduring and all-embracing concept.” It also states:
The First and Fourth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution are integral to American librarianship. They are the basis of the concept librarians call intellectual freedom…which accords to all library users the right to seek and receive information on all subjects from all points of view, without restriction and without having the subject of one’s interest examined or scrutinized by others.
In other words, our librarians learn about, and consider deeply, the collections that they have at hand. In what subject areas are the collections strong? In what areas are they weak? Are classic texts available, or are they missing? What are customers asking for? Are there enough copies to meet the demand for popular items? Do we need to present another point of view on a subject?
Are the materials well-written and produced? Are they also well-made and durable? Are they available in a variety of formats? Can another library supply the item more readily? Will the item be used or just sit there on the shelf? Will the item be provocative or controversial? Will the book clubs love it? Will it be just the book needed to change somebody’s life, that provides humor, perspective, understanding, sympathy, empathy? Will the materials educate, elucidate, edify, enrich, or otherwise entertain?
So many questions to ask! And then comes the hard part: when I was a teen librarian many years ago, I read an article called “Battling the Censor Within,” which described yet another obstacle to collection development. Library workers must ask themselves, does the material under consideration, in language or perspective, challenge our own personal beliefs, political correctness, or popular opinion?
Librarians must remain neutral. I think that, aside from the helping relationships we develop with our customers, it is the most important thing that we do. We choose. We choose smartly. We choose for you.