Few complain about censorship at Mass. libraries
The battle to take books off library shelves is still underway in places like Randolph County, N.C., where the school board recently banned a 1953 National Book Award winner for its depiction of rape and incest. Last year alone, librarians across the country reported 464 requests to ban or restrict access to books.
But none in Massachusetts.
A new survey of records at more than 1,000 school and public libraries in Massachusetts shows fewer than 20 libraries have faced even a single challenge to their collections since 2010, and only twice did librarians agree to put a book out of easy reach of children.
In fact, many of the librarians contacted by Massachusetts Institute of Technology researchers had to dig deep into their archives to find public requests for censorship: Malden librarians found a 1948 request from a teacher for librarians to stop lending comic books to her sixth-grade students.
“There were several librarians who responded to my request immediately, vigorously, and with high dudgeon,” said Chris Peterson, a researcher at the MIT Center for Civic Media and a board member of the National Coalition Against Censorship, who conducted the survey.
Librarians, he said, were “indignant to the very idea that they would ever allow a book to be banned or removed from their small but beloved local library.”
Mary Saunders, librarian of Gloucester High School, immediately replied that she was “happy to report” that “no materials have been challenged during my tenure as librarian,” a period of more than 10 years.
Likewise, South Dennis Public Library director Anne Speyer said no one has filed a complaint during her 11 years at the helm, while Clare English of the Sandisfield Free Public Library could go back even further: No complaints in 35 years.
Although Malden Public Library director Dora St. Martin did find four book challenges, none was more recent than 1974. Even a 1948 request from Sister Juliana at a Catholic school to ban comic books prompted a letter to the Cheverus School’s sister superior instructing her on the proper role of libraries.
“The library makes a practice of having all kinds of books available for all kinds of people,” read the letter signed only “librarian.” “We shall attempt to co-operate with the teacher in refusing this magazine to the members of her class, although . . . it seems odd that only one class in one school . . . should not be allowed access to” comic books.
Peterson launched the survey in March in partnership with MuckRock, a Boston group that specializes in investigating government documents. The researchers were surprised to see such a small number of censorship attempts in Massachusetts.
Though surveys by the American Library Association previously found only eight book challenges in Massachusetts since 2009 — and none out of the 464 cited in the 2012 survey — Peterson suspected that number was artificially low because it includes only incidents self-reported by librarians. By contrast, Peterson and MuckRock requested all written complaints on file in recent years from all libraries registered with the state.
Out of more than 1,000 libraries that have responded, only 18 had challenges on file since 2010. Combined, the six school and 12 public libraries faced 22 challenges over the three years, although some challenges covered multiple titles.
Most complaints centered on sexual content, provocative language, or extreme violence in books and sometimes videos. A Hamilton patron complained that the movie “American Psycho” — about a serial killer — lacks “any redeeming social value,” while a patron in Duxbury complained that a series of books about another serial killer, “Dexter,” have “no theme, just filthy language.”
Meanwhile, a Catholic reader in Westford found “The First Annual Grand Prairie Rabbit Festival,” a novel about a priest in Louisiana’s Cajun country, to be “disrespectful to the priesthood and very disrespectful to the heart of Catholicism, the Eucharist.”
Some people who complained seemed hesitant to come off as prudish.
The Boston Public Library’s sole complaint over the past three years concerned a book called “Thug-A-Licious: an urban erotic tale,” about a rapper-turned-NBA-rookie and his prolific procreation with multiple women. The patron, a counselor within Boston public schools, worried that the book was too sexually graphic for young readers.
“While several teachers cautioned that my letter might be seen as one seeking censorship,” she wrote in 2011, “I am asking only that such books be moved to the adult section, out of the reach of young children. If ‘Thug-A-Licious’ were a movie, it would certainly be rated X/NC-17.”
Still other complaints defied the stereotype of the conservative book banner. A Concord patron requested the removal of a book that promotes gay-to-straight therapy, while a Worcester parent complained about the lack of female heroes in a book series for preschoolers called “Super Hero Squad.”
“While the lack of female characters teaches her that her gender does not grow up to be heroes or strong,” the parent wrote, “it is also terribly concerning to imagine that all the boys who read these books learn a similarly sinister message.”
But, in all these cases, the materials remained on the shelves, often accompanied by an explanatory note to the person who complained.
“The removal of this book from the collection would be censorship,” wrote the board of Pepperell’s Lawrence Library in response to a July 2012 request to ban “Troop 142,” a graphic novel set in Boy Scout camp, “which we cannot support because this is a road with no end.”
The survey found only two instances of materials being removed or banned: in 2011, the Dighton-Rehoboth School Committee voted to bar “The Hunger Games” series from elementary school libraries, while the Essex Elementary School removed Girls’ Life magazine on the grounds that it contained themes more suitable for older girls.
On the whole, Peterson said he is satisfied with the results of the project.
“I’m very tempted to read these results as a vindication of Massachusetts’ legendary and well-deserved reputation of commitment to education, access to information, and freedom of thought,” he said.
But Barbara Jones of the American Library Association warned that the fight against censorship never ends, noting that the school board in Randolph County, N.C., reversed its ban of National Book Award winner “Invisible Man” only after a national outcry.
“We spend a lot of time defending books that aren’t in the canon, like ‘Fifty Shades of Grey,’ ” she said, “but we’re seeing real attacks on classics, core works like ‘Invisible Man,’ or ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ and ‘Huckleberry Finn.’ ”
Shawn Musgrave is projects editor at MuckRock, a Boston-based company that specializes in obtaining government documents through records requests. He can be reached at email@example.com.