Intellectual Freedom and the Politics of Reading: Libraries as Sites of Conservative Activism, 1990-2010Posted in Romance Literature on May 29th, 2012 by Admin
I’ve just come across Loretta Mary Gaffney’s thesis, Intellectual Freedom and the Politics of Reading: Libraries as Sites of Conservative Activism, 1990-2010. I thought I’d quote from it as a quick follow-up to my previous post about “mommy porn,” and Smart Bitch Sarah’s report from the fourteenth of May that,
as reported by Dianna Dilworth on GalleyCat: Brevard County Public Libraries in Florida have pulled their 19 copies of 50 Shades of Grey from the shelves.
HuffPo has a quote from Don Walker, a spokesman for the library, who said, “it’s semi-porgnographic.” The HuffPo article indicated that several other libraries in Florida had refused to purchase copies, but Brevard bought 19, then took them out of circulation, sending notices to the 200 or so people on a waiting list.
Library services director Cathy Schweinsberg told Florida Today: Nobody asked us to take it off the shelves. But we bought some copies before we realized what it was. We looked at it, because it’s been called ‘mommy porn’ and ‘soft porn.’ We don’t collect porn.”
They may not have been asked to take it off the shelves in this particular instance, but Gaffney’s thesis describes the socio-political context in which many US libraries make their decisions:
During the 1990s and 2000s, conservative activists not only appropriated libraries as battlegrounds for causes like antigay activism, but also incorporated libraries and librarianship into the issue base of the pro family movement. A collection of loosely linked, well-organized grassroots campaigns around issues like opposition to abortion and gay marriage, the pro family movement was a resurgence of conservative activism in the late 20th and early 21st centuries that brought libraries into the culture wars crossfire. Pro family library challenges went beyond objections to particular materials in order to target library policies of open access, collection diversity, and patron privacy. Pro family activists also mounted an explicit critique of the American Library Association (ALA), opposing the ALA’s defenses of intellectual freedom for all ages and all types of media. These activists described their own struggle as a quest to wrest libraries away from the ALA and restore them to parental and taxpayer control.
Gaffney’s thesis can be downloaded from the University of Illinois’ digital environment for access to learning and scholarship (IDEALS). It focuses on young readers: “The reason their reading is monitored is, in part, because some adults believe the young are more vulnerable readers and will be irreparably harmed by ‘dangerous’ media without adult intervention” (5). Nonetheless, some of the metaphors invoked in debates about their reading are more widely applicable:
Catherine Sheldrick Ross’ analysis of turn-of-the-century library discourse on the “fiction question” reveals that there were two persistent metaphors used to describe reading: reading as eating, and reading as a ladder. The two metaphors helped librarians to establish their professional expertise as guiders and selectors of “healthy” reading, as well as to articulate a hierarchy or ladder of reading tastes. Sheldrick Ross’ study not only highlights a pivotal moment in the development of librarians’ emerging professional identity as reading experts, but also reveals that metaphors, far from being mere “stylistic flourishes,” are powerful ways of structuring our experience of the world as a way to “discover new meaning.” [...]
Sheldrick Ross’ study has two key insights that inform pro family models of reading. In the case of the “reading is eating” metaphor, particularly when it is combined with the ladder metaphor to establish a hierarchy of taste, it is far easier to tell a tale of passive readers than of active ones. And passive readers are more likely to need monitoring and guidance: if reading is eating, and eating can be nutritious, bad, or downright poisonous, then readers (particularly vulnerable and inexperienced ones) will need help to discern the good from the junk. It is easy to see why the “reading is eating” metaphor is so prominent in pro family discourse. The second insight from Sheldrick Ross’ study is how reading metaphors are used to dismiss and demean reading (and eating) for pleasure. Along this ladder of taste, the closer reading materials were to pleasure for its own sake, the lower they were on the ladder. A similar hierarchy structures how pro family critics understand youth reading as an overwhelmingly didactic exercise, either ignoring pleasure and aesthetics as part of the experience of reading, or viewing them with suspicion. (9-10)
It’s not difficult to see how these metaphors would be applied to romances and romance readers and
In “Reading is Not Eating,” an extension of her groundbreaking research in Reading the Romance, Radway analyzes the “reading is eating” metaphor in order to reveal its role in broader social and cultural critiques of mass media. The eating metaphor not only creates a hierarchy of taste—with the “nutritious” reading at the top and the “garbage” that is bad for one at the bottom—but also structures our understanding of media consumption in such a way that the only response to “bad” reading is censorship: if readers consume or are consumed by mass media, then the only way to save them from degradation is to stop destructive forms of media from being produced in the first place. The passivity that the eating metaphor suggests makes it more likely that critics of mass culture will focus on “objectionable materials” instead of “…actually looking at specific encounters between
audiences and mass cultural products.”
Radway’s study of romance readers and her critique of the “reading is eating” metaphor have important connections to the politics of youth reading. As with female romance readers, the eating metaphor has been used to simultaneously dismiss the agency of young readers, make pleasure suspect, and cast the popular and mass media as the villain of the educational piece. (12)