Topeka Library Controversy

February 24, 2009 at 1:01 pm Leave a comment

Jessamyn is right, I think.   The Topeka Library is making headlines, which tell the story better than I could:

Library Journal“Topeka Library Board Restricts Access to Four Books on Sex”

The Topeka Capital-Journal“Library peers dismayed by board’s decision”

(I commented on Jessamyn’s post at, and realized I said enough to adapt it for a post of my own. Here it is.)

Jessamyn suggested that we hadn’t heard the last of this.  In the Capital-Journal article, an ACLU lawyer is quoted as recommending they file suit.  Another lawyer quoted in the article says that he hopes they don’t have to, since

the Topeka and Shawnee County Public Library should be using their resources for something worthwhile, not fighting a lawsuit they cannot possibly win.

Which suggests that the case for unconstitutionality is a strong one.  I’m not sure I understand why given that the books will still be available — i.e., they won’t be removed from the collection. Perhaps it is a matter of the stigma created when an adult has to ask a staff member to get one of these books for her — ‘Can I get the Joy of Gay Sex please?’  It becomes a matter of privacy.  The case could be made that an atmosphere of religious condemnation of such materials would be created by such restrictions, in effect infringing on the religious freedom of those who wish to check them out(?).  I’m not making that case — but it could be made.

What is much clearer to me is the case for impracticality:  the impossible situation the library staff is put in by the begged question of what other books rightfully belong in this newly created category of “dangerously sexual” books.  The example of anatomy texts may be a case of hyperbole, but that doesn’t invalidate the slippery slope argument. According to the director of the Topeka Library (as the LJ piece states),

the library has 600-plus books with subject headings relating to sex, sex instruction, sexual behavior, and fertility.

How is one to know what is harmful to minors and what is not? It sounds as though most of them should go behind the counter according to their standards. But who should decide? Librarians get stuck with the dirty work.

The board left the decision on how to restrict access to the books to the library staff.

…and to wonder why no one is worried about the romance novels!  (some of which are more explicitly prurient than R-rated movies).  Maybe they don’t have that kind of romance novel at the Topeka Library?

It is clearly a different matter (and simpler) when access is restricted due to the likelihood of theft, such as the LJ article says is often done with titles such as Playboy and Consumer Reports.  (It states that Playboy is kept behind the desk at Topeka, implying that it is for this reason.)  My public library does this with Rolling Stone.  (I’m pretty sure –but not completely– it’s not due to complaints about that Britney Spears cover.)  This decision is easier to make, since it can be based purely on experience.  “This title has been stolen in the past, therefore we will keep it behind the desk.”  There is no stigma attached to asking to see Rolling Stone or Consumer Reports, though there may be for Playboy.  But the library’s reason for keeping it behind the desk is what is at issue, and makes all the difference apparently.

In my opinion it is more harmful to create the atmosphere of moral condemnation of all things sexual that is a likely result of their action, than it is to allow minors (unadvertised!) access to well-reviewed, popular books about safe and loving sex in today’s world. (And I can’t help thinking that what they really objected to was the one on gay sex, and just threw the others in to be appear more consistent.)

The last line of the Topeka Capital-Journal article is, I think, not without relevance here (spoken in reference to the books in question):

“They are all checked out right now,” he said. “There are waiting lists on all of them. At this point in time, we just need to wait for them to be returned.”

If they even come back!


Entry filed under: access, aclu, books, censorship, kansas, sex.

The Public Library of the 21st Century: What Will Wichita Do? On the radar

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