Sunday, February 8, 2015

When Book-Snark Goes Too Far: Celebrating Book-Banning & Other Terrible Decisions

Photo from Tumblr, apparently taken inside Riverdale High School in Jefferson, Louisiana.
There is uproar in the ALA Think Tank today over a Tumblr post.  Mind you, there is uproar there pretty much every day -- #ALATT basically exists for that purpose, alas -- but it's usually not related to something an anonymous high school student posted on their blog.

A Louisiana student posted a photo of her high school librarian smiling and giving the thumbs-up next to a bright orange sign reading:


Please go to your public library
for poorly written books on
mentally and physically
abusive sexual relationships

Oh, boy.

When I first saw this photo, especially the face of the librarian who is clearly so enchanted by her masterpiece, I had a pretty good flood of emotions.  My mind instantly took me back to being a teenager and translated this sign into the language I would have read then:

Dear Teens, 
The types of books you like to read are stupid and worthless. The only books acceptable are the ones you don't like or don't want to read right now. If 'stupid and worthless' is your thing, either leave this safe space or just quit reading.
Your Library

Because, really, let's be honest:  that's the message there.  This sign isn't standing up for fine literature or taking a bold stance against the negative portrayal of women, sexuality, and consent to which readers are exposed.

The sign is simply shaming anyone who wants to read the book.  And while that's okay to do on Tumblr or in your living room or over the phone with some friend you made on Goodreads, it is never, ever, ever okay for a professional librarian to do in a public school.

Deciding on a collection development basis that it doesn't fit your library is absolutely fine.  I would probably make the same decision as a public high school librarian.  But to celebrate the fact that you've banned a book?  Keep it classy, Riverdale.

What that incredibly self-satisfied librarian should do regarding Fifty Shades of Grey is simply, well...her job.  Here are things she could do:

  • Not even mention the thing, because really, you think those students are rushing the desk every day for that book?
  • "I'm sorry, we don't have that book, but I can suggest some romance novels we do have that you might like..."
  • "I'm sorry, we don't have that book, but let me give you the hours for the public library..."
  • "I'm sorry, we don't have that book, but do you know how to place a hold at the public library on-line?  Here, let me show you.  If you have your card, we can even do it right now!"
  • Basically anything else not snarky and demeaning.

No matter how awful a book or its message is, your job as a librarian is to educate and empower.  You don't say, "Neener, neener, I'm withholding information from you and you can't stop me!" with a bright orange sign.  You don't make patrons feel like garbage because they are intellectually curious about a material.  (Did it not occur to this librarian that some students might be interested in the book precisely because of its negative aspects, because they are looking into media portrayals of domestic violence or because they are an emerging feminist and want to know what the heck people debating the book are talking about?)  You don't make the public library sound like a cesspool of inferior materials that could only benefit from your learned weeding touch.

If the demand really is that high?  Make a multipurpose handout of suggested alternatives, educate about (and respect) the public library, and casually put up a display of books dealing with the topic of healthy vs. unhealthy relationships.  And jump up and down over the fact that a teenager asked for a book in the first place.


  1. Amen to that last sentence! :O) Personally, the subject matter of "50 Shades" is not my cup of tea. But that does not mean I have the right to restrict others' access to a book they would like to read. If it were my children (who are 12, 16 and 18), I would talk with them about it and explain my point of view. With my daughter (age 12), I would strongly suggest she wait until she is older and offer her alternatives. With my boys, I would make sure they know BDSM (whatever variations thereof) is not the only type of sexual relationship that can be had. There are definitely more constructive ways of handling the situation, other than making such a sign and taking that picture I would like to wipe the smarmy, smug, self-impressed smile off her face.

    1. I was like 1000% sure I had replied to you, but I guess not -- sorry!

      What I was going to say was...I think you take pretty much the perfect approach to this as a parent. Obviously a school librarian doesn't have this luxury, but a parent gets to individualize to the child based on age, maturity, gender, etc. It's the way to go.

      When I was in fifth grade, my teacher had a special shelf of books you were allowed to choose from once you were ready for them in terms of maturity. Instead of making us read the school-assigned unit book that based solely on our age group, each of us with "shelf privileges" got to pick our own individual book and write our reflections on that. I still love her for empowering us like that, letting us figure out on our own which of the 25 or so books was best for us, and not treating us as products of our birth year.

  2. She never meant it to be snarky. It's about an abusive relationship and she doesn't want it in the library.

    1. As stated above, there are many ways to get that across. There was no need for a flippant tone, polarizing language, etc. Additionally, she has since stated that her decision was based just as much on her not liking the writing and editing of the book, which is a pretty weak argument for banning a book if we're going to be honest about things.

      The librarian in question, as I assume you're aware, has replied to the criticisms and the ongoing discussion about this event. (Not sure I want to call it an "event," but close enough.) I have one follow-up post set to automatically post later this week giving her side/statements and another I'm working on dealing with how the whole debate unfolded. She'll get her say for sure. And in fact, if you know her, please tell her to feel free to e-mail me at if she has any interest in an e-mail discussion about what it was like for her to have this whole thing happen. I'd be very happy to include her thoughts in that third (and hopefully final!) post.

      Thanks for commenting. And for the record, I wholly agree with her on one point: that book is a complete misogynistic rape-fiesta nightmare. I just wouldn't say it to a patron, even a teenager.