Can curatorial decisions about what belongs on library shelves, museum walls, or classrooms ever constitute censorship? It’s a blurry line that a children’s specialist in Ohio’s Greenville Public Library may have crossed when rejecting two donations of Rush Revere and the Brave Pilgrims, part of a series of children’s books by famous conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh.
The books are not exactly critical darlings — Kirkus Reviews called the book in question “exceptionally bad.” But they’re nonetheless quite popular, topping numerous bestseller lists and winning audience-selected prizes.
According to records obtained by NCAC, the library received two donations of the book in 2014 — one in May, the other in August. The records indicate that the book was processed into circulation as early as May, only to be listed as “unavailable.” The physical copy of Rush Revere was nowhere to be found. In August, the book was donated again by another patron, along with the second title in the series, Rush Revere and the True Patriots, with a request that they be put in circulation.
But both titles were refused; the patron was called and asked to pick up both books without an explanation. Among the reasons, which included space concerns and bad reviews, the library employee mentioned that some reviews of the Rush Revere and the Brave Pilgrims had chided it for racist caricatures.
The official did what NCAC recommends librarians and educators do more often: Consult critical reviews that assess the literary value of works, not value judgments about the ideas contained within them.
But she also did something that NCAC recommends library and school employees avoid— rejecting a book because of the political or social opinions expressed in it. This constitutes viewpoint discrimination; that is impermissible for a public library, which serves a diverse public with a wide variety of political views. There was clear demand from a number of library patrons for the book, so why not let the readers decide for themselves whether the books were racist?
It’s a thorny case that reveals the pitfalls of not having sound, comprehensive policies to guide book adoption and selection. Before these controversies erupted, the Greenville library didn’t have any principled approach to selecting books. Now the library has adopted a Collection Development Policy. While NCAC finds this policy quite comprehensive, it could use some clarification, particularly with regard to assessing vague principles as whether the library might “need” a particular title. NCAC expressed these concerns in a letter to the library and its Board of Trustees.
“As you work to implement these policies, we write to offer you additional guidance on making curatorial decisions with transparency, and in accordance with principles of intellectual freedom,” the letter states. “We hope our suggestions will help the library reaffirm its responsibility to let patrons explore, inquire, and probe freely.”
The letter goes on to point out that if such policies were in place at the time of the book’s donations, it may not have been rejected at all. “We trust that such factors as popularity, bestseller status, and patron request will be taken into account with greater urgency moving forward,” Svetlana Mintcheva, NCAC’s Director of Programs, writes. “Even more importantly, we urge you to clarify the language in the policy regarding accepting gifts and donations, which is vague and open to interpretation.”
NCAC hopes that, moving forward, the library will buttress its commitment to serving all of its patrons — including those who donate books by Rush Limbaugh — by implementing its policies with dedication and force.