Fair and balanced

February 29, 2008 at 7:35 am 6 comments

I’m coming to this a teensy bit late because I missed last week’s class (bad homo! Bad!), but I just wanted to comment briefly on the idea of the balanced collection. One of my classmates had this to say about LGBTQ collections:

It would be very easy for a librarian to lose sight of his/her own biases and fill a YA collection with books/items that are pro-LGBTQ. However, a librarian also needs to remember to support the interests and needs of those who might not share those views. No collection should be biased toward any one group, but should champion the needs and interests of even the smallest segment of a library’s patron community…

Interesting. What if we replace LGBTQ there with some other word? Let’s try, just for fun:

“It would be very easy for a librarian to lose sight of his/her own biases and fill a YA collection with books/items that are pro-black.”

“It would be very easy for a librarian to lose sight of his/her own biases and fill a YA collection with books/items that are pro-woman.”

“It would be very easy for a librarian to lose sight of his/her own biases and fill a YA collection with books/items that are pro-Muslim.”

Now, it’s clear that there are people in America who are racist, and misogynist, and xenophobic. It’s entirely possible that we as librarians will end up with members of our communities who will be some or all of these things. My question is whether we should be “balancing” our collections for their sake.

I cringe when I hear someone talking about a “balanced” LGBTQ collection, because I’m a dyke. Most of my close friends are queer. What is a “balanced” collection? Does it include books about the ex-gay movement? The Transsexual Empire? I agree that teens, like adults, should have access to the widest range of information possible, but does having a “balanced” collection mean that the librarian gets to hide and claim neutrality?

There’s a great editorial (for once!) in today’s Crimson arguing that a recent hate crime (sadly, one of far too many in the past few weeks) against a gay 14 year old reflects the failure of American education to combat homophobia and prejudice. Here’s my favorite part:

Homosexuality is an issue that is notably absent from the “diversity is beautiful” curricula of elementary and middle schools. We are proud to say that the American educational system and our society at large have progressed to an extent that racial slurs are no longer tolerated in most schools. However, American educational attitudes toward homosexuality remain lamentably ambivalent.

The educational system, of course, includes school libraries. And Sunlink’s excellent weeding guides clearly reflect the progress of our educational attitudes in several areas. Let’s look at my three examples.

Black history: “Take a hard look at any older title that implies current thoughts and attitudes. Weed it if it is offensive or incorrect .” The list of suggested weeds includes several titles referring to “the negro.”

Women’s issues: “Topics that still justify a gender approach (careers, life-style choices, etc.) should be evaluated to be sure that the content would be seen as encouraging to today’s girls and not condescending. A valid message from 20 years ago could be more demoralizing than positive when read today. Gender specific topics (sex education, pregnancy, breast cancer, etc.) that are out-dated are also dangerous to have on the shelves and must be removed.”

Religions: “Your students may turn to your collection to try to understand current conflicts and issues. Weed any old and misleading titles and offer them attractive works with a contemporary perspective.” One of the suggested weeds is Strange Sects and Curious Cults, from 1961.

I had a much harder time finding any weeding tips for books about homosexuality. There’s no mention in Dating & Courtship or Moral Education. The only two sentences I found were in Civil Rights: “The changing focus of civil rights over the years has seen new concerns based on issues such as disabilities, sexual (harassment and orientation), and various ethnic groups. Your collection should have such representation.”

So I have to ask: why are we comfortable weeding outdated perspectives from such other major areas of our collection–black history, women’s studies, and religions–but still so concerned about a “balanced collection” when it comes to LGBTQ titles?


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Teens and Social Media Oh, snap.

6 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Becky  |  February 29, 2008 at 10:19 am

    This is a question that I have, too. In class, we had a short discussion about including “re-training” books (which are published by some religious sect which thinks it is possible to train people out of being gay) in the library. I’ve been thinking about it all week. Of course, I would have a very hard time spending money on a book like that, based both on my personal opinions about both homosexuality and far-right religions. But as a YA librarian, I’m supposed to have re-training books because, if not, I’m making the choice FOR my customers. (Well, or at least forcing them to go elsewhere to learn about their choices. And, OK, I truly don’t see re-training as a valid “choice,” but I’m sure that many families do.) And, to your point, if the KKK published a book about how to terrorize your Black neighbors, I wouldn’t even have to THINK about weather or not to buy it.

  • 2. pandanose  |  February 29, 2008 at 3:16 pm

    I mean, I think you and I are mostly of the same mind on this issue. So where do you draw the line between letting your patrons choose, and stocking your library with hate speech? Are you required to have Aryan Nation publications? Because, you know, you wouldn’t want your collection to seem too pro-black.

    It just seems really dishonest–and potentially dangerous–to say to a young adult, “This vast range of materials on this subject all have equal merit. We have them all so that you can choose freely from them.” Because I seriously don’t believe that they all have equal merit. How do you look a trans* student in the eye and tell them that The Transsexual Empire is part of your balanced collection?

  • 3. SnowdropExplodes  |  March 2, 2008 at 2:49 pm

    It seems to me that a “balanced” collection would not necessarily include works by the protagonists of both sides, but could include works that discuss all sides of the debate without endorsing either.

    I may be talking nonsense here, but I do think that people should be able to find out about the various views on an issue. However, that is not the same as having to provide them with direct access to the original sources – for example, it isn’t always necessary to read Capital in order to be able to understand about Marxism – there are plenty of commentaries on Marx’s work that can give an overview without necessarily endorsing Marx’s conclusions. (NB I actually am a Marxist, so I’m not equating Marx with the KKK here in terms of objectionable status, just making an illustration of an idea).

    Incidentally, my local library last year had a special season of events and promotions relating to LGBTQ issues, that was distinctly not “balanced” in the way you describe. I don’t know – maybe the rules are different here in the UK.

  • 4. pandanose  |  March 2, 2008 at 2:56 pm

    I like your definition of “balanced.” In the context of the passage I quoted, though, “balanced” seems to be in contrast with “pro-LGBT,” which is where I take issue.

    And this isn’t about libraries in general as much as about young adult collections. I tend to think LGBTQ issues are unique here, since queer youth are such a high risk group.

  • 5. Linda  |  March 3, 2008 at 10:16 am

    Really interesting discussion. We talked in class about books that provide different sides of an issue right next to each other in the same volume – say the opposing viewpoints titles – that give readers the chance to look at an issue from two different sides or perspectives.

    What I keep coming back to – in class and in my own mind – is that teens aren’t reading in a vacuum. And, that we as librarians and educators and parents and community members we have an obligation to talk to teens about these various issues and help them understand the ins and out and the rights and wrongs.

    There is definitely no way that as a librarian I should/would allow teens to bully, demean, be racist, or plain mean to someone because of the person that he or she is. One of the things teens always knew about me when I worked in libraries was that the one thing I would not abide ever was nasty behavior to each other. If one teen said something derogatory or mean to another teen in the library, heads would shoot up and the teens would say, “Ooooo Linda’s not going to like that.”

    Making sure that LGBTQ teens feel safe within their communities goes way beyond the collections that we have. We definitely have to promote environments where these teens know they can come and no one will get in their face. They need to know they can be who they are and won’t be judged. That’s an environment that we set up that is partly based on collections but also based on the people and behaviors that are accepted.

    Back to the collection question. We fortunately in our world have come to a point where we understand that using racist language, being demeaning to women, etc. is not acceptable. I am of an age where I remember both the beginning of that understanding of the way we speak about others of different races and I well know how the roles of women have changed in our society. Because we have changed in this way we have to have materials that reflect the changes. We weed out what is no longer accurate and acceptable to anyone. We keep what is accurate and accepted by community standards. (Sorry to use that phrase.)

    So, when it comes to topics like LGBTQ if we have an environment that is open to teens, if we have collections that support teens who want and need to read LGBTQ materials, if we have programs that provide support to LGBTQ teens than we are providing the service we need to provide.

    Ultimately, for me, the topic of balanced means that as librarians we have to put up or shut up – to be blunt about it. We talk about having materials that meet the needs of the entire community, but sometimes we just don’t do that. So, if we keep in mind that our collections need to have materials that discuss what people who are pro-choice and pro-life each think. If we have materials that discuss what pro-gun and anti-gun people think. If we have materials that discussion creationism and evolution. We are serving our communities and our teens.

    For LGBTQ the two sides are harder to deal with because for many of us it comes down to the same kinds of issues we fought many years ago when it came to race and gender. A balanced collection in this area then looks at the issues people talk about when talking about LGBTQ rights. What are people saying on both sides? How can we help teens understand the debate?


  • 6. pandanose  |  March 3, 2008 at 1:34 pm

    I guess what I took issue with was the idea that “balanced” was somehow in opposition to “pro-LGBTQ.” I agree that teens should have access to information about both sides of the marriage debate, for example, or varying perspectives on homosexuality in general (nature v. nurture, studies on “the gay gene,” historial analysis, etc).

    The thing I keep coming back to, though, is the fact that a lot of “anti-LGBTQ” arguments really boil down to “You should not exist, but since you do exist, you should not be afforded the same rights or human dignity as the rest of us.” And for a teen just coming to terms with his or her sexuality, that’s hard to hear. Hell, it’s hard to hear even when you’re an adult who’s totally comfortable with your sexuality!


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