Library Censorship

Considerations of the health of minors becomes a conservative weapon of choice.

Library Censorship
Photo by Ving N / Unsplash

What happens when a community discovers that one book available to second-graders is filled with profanity and graphic depictions of sex, including sexual assault? What about a book that encourages pedophilia?

Just such an issue emerged in Orange County, California, and it highlights a national discussion on book banning, technology, and the concept of appropriate response.

As reported by Terri Sforza in The Orange County Registrar, two books were found available through the library’s digital app that contained extremely offensive and non-age-appropriate content. One, A Polar Bear in Love, includes lines like: “One look and my heart was no longer my own… A figure with contours so smooth I want to touch them. A pure white beautiful body … When you grow up, let’s get married” (as cited in Sforza, 2023). The other, The Music of What Happens, contains “mentions of penetration, wet dreams and rape” (Sforza, 2023).

There is a deeper conversation about the nature of both works that can explore them through context and intended audience. Doing so would be a vital part of the process for determining if they remain part of a library’s collection. To my mind, a book that deals with intense adult situations is clearly valuable to an older audience who might, themselves, have encountered such problems in realm life. The book that received less inflamed responses (A Polar Bear in Love) is by far the more concerning work, marketed as it directly to children, and with a deeply troubling theme.

In either case, however, as Sforza (2023) writes, “Nobody wants sexually explicit or obscenity-laced language on a second-grader’s iPad.”

The American Library Association (ALA) has long championed the freedom to access information, regardless of the content of that information, as exemplified in The Freedom to Read Statement first issued in 1953 (2006). More specifically, the ALA states that any attempt to restrict materials “based solely on the chronological age, educational level, literacy skills, or legal emancipation of users,” violates the Library Bill of Rights, and that “only parents-have the right and responsibility to restrict access of their children-and only their children-to library resources” (American Library Association, 2004).

The clear goal of the ALA is the emancipation of information: ensuring that censorship of information is denied any foothold. And this is where the problem intensifies. Because the response to these two books is intertwined with politically motivated actions against libraries that have been taking place across the country (Blair et al., 2022).

In response to the discovery of these two books on the library’s app, the county’s conservative interim superintended ordered the entire app removed (Sforza, 2023). Supposedly, this is to design better safeguards to ensure that age-appropriate materials are being disseminated correctly, but the issue of what sort of precedent this sets is deeply concerning.

Orange County Board Member Kris Erickson used a simple analogy to illustrate their point, “when you walk into a physical library and find an inappropriate book in the children’s section, you take it off the shelf and hand it to the librarian to put in the proper place … You don’t shut down the whole library” (Sforza, 2023).

And yet, in this particular case, the guiding principle of the ALA regarding the right of the parent to choose material appropriate to their child begins to break down. As an app ostensibly cleared for use by children, that is supposed to automatically ensure access to age-appropriate materials, it is reasonable to assume that parents might allow their children to access the app with less supervision, especially under conditions like those faced during COVID-19, where indoor learning created serious concerns for families. In this case, while the parent has the decision to just not use the app at all, that would conflict with the ALAs goal of ensuring open access to information for everyone. Open access, and the right of a parent to decide what material their child sees, in this case, come into conflict.

The obvious immediate answer is to remove the books in question, highlight the problems to the publisher and distributor, and move on. Perhaps with the addition of a feature that makes it easier for parents to see what books a child is checking out on the app. This ignores a far deeper and more pervasive difficulty regarding the use of technology by young children at all, but would be a relatively effective measure for this one local occurrence.

Instead, however, Orange County is pushing forward an agenda remarkably similar to others that have been forwarded by largely conservative operators across the United States: one of unilateral banning of all content that a minority (for political or religious reasons) view inappropriate (EveryLibrary, 2023). While the ALA stands by the right of parents to make choices about the media their child sees, that clearly does not extend to allowing limits on what other parents show their children.

This exposes the danger of allowing the codification of any laws surrounding the restriction of information, as the precedent set by such laws is one actively sought by special interest groups that have a vested cause quite beyond any single, particular issue of indecent media. The bulk of these information-banning efforts come from small, yet vocal, subsets of the United States population (EveryLibrary, n.d.). These groups are focused on removing content around historically underrepresented groups, like those who identify along the LGBTQ+ spectrum.

Ultimately, while the discussion surrounding access to Internet information for children is one that clearly needs to be considered deeply, efforts by these special interest groups only serve to muddy the waters. Instead of productive discussions that engage communities in ways that might lead to better circumstances overall, such attempts at politically backed legal maneuvers seem to make local issues even harder to tackle-and, at least in the case of Orange County, actually go against a sizeable portion of the local community’s desires and needs.

Hi there! I’m Odin Halvorson, a librarian, independent scholar, film fanatic, fiction author, and tech enthusiast. If you like my work and want to support me, please consider becoming a paid subscriber for as little as $2.50 a month!

American Library Association. (2006, July 26). [Text]. The freedom to read statement.

American Library Association. (2004). [PDF] Access for children and young adults to nonprint materials.

Blair, M., Bromberg, P., & Chrastka, J. (2022). Weathering the attacks on state library database contracts. EveryLibrary Institute.

EveryLibrary. (2023, January 15). Monitoring state legislation that criminalizes libraries, schools, and museums 2023.

EveryLibrary Institute. (n.d.). Voter perceptions of book bans in the united states.

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