This blog represents most of the newspaper columns (appearing in various Colorado Community Newspapers and Yourhub.com) written by me, James LaRue, during the time in which I was the director of the Douglas County Libraries in Douglas County, Colorado. (Some columns are missing, due to my own filing errors.) This blog covers the time period from April 11, 1990 to January 12, 2012.

Unless I say so, the views expressed here are mine and mine alone. They may be quoted elsewhere, so long as you give attribution. The dates are (at least according my records) the dates of publication in one of the above print newspapers.

The blog archive (web view) is in chronological order. The display of entries, below, seems to be in reverse order, new to old.

All of the mistakes are of course my own responsibility.

Wednesday, September 25, 1991

September 25, 1991 - Banned Books (Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles)

Every profession has an issue that it gets touchy about. For librarians, that issue is censorship.

Every year, usually around "Banned Books Week" (next week, as a matter of fact) librarians sound the censorship alert. Nearly everything of intellectual substance, literary merit, or social significance has been challenged or banned by somebody sometime. So once a year we round up all the naughty books -- things like "Catcher in the Rye," almost anything by Shakespeare, and more recently, the scandalous "American Heritage Dictionary" (turns out that it has some mighty bad words in it) -- and put them on display. They make our patrons chuckle, and give a little boost to our check-out statistics.

You can look them over this week at any of our branches, as a matter of fact -- if you dare!

The funniest censorship story I've heard lately concerns, of all things, a book called "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: ABC's for a Better Planet." Especially considering the probable audience of the books -- youngsters -- the ecologically-minded message was a good one.

But the American Farm Bureau Federation strenuously objected to the Turtles' "M" and "P" lessons. The Turtles urged people to eat less Meat (because cows are injected with allegedly carcinogenic hormones, because grain protein could feed millions of hungry people, instead of going to cows, which produce less protein, etc.). The Turtles also warn of the dangers of Pesticides, and specifically, that some food makes it to market that isn't exactly safe.

The American Farm Bureau Federation and FoodWatch organized a nationwide letter-writing campaign suggesting, I guess, that creeping vegetarianism and the desire for organically grown produce are economically threatening to the lone, lean, reaper of the national heartland, and just possibly anti-American besides.

Here's a quote from Kevin Morgan, of the Florida Farm Bureau, in the letter he sent to Random House: "I have notified our members of your publication and asked them to contact their local schools and book clubs and ask that they do not recommend or place this publication in their library. Our children deserve to hear the truth based on scientific research and not on propaganda."

I mean, the American Farm Bureau Federation against the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles? Awesome.

But Troll Book Club did stop distributing the Random House title, despite the fact that it was selling well. Or, more likely, it got pulled BECAUSE it was selling well.

As far as I'm concerned, the main lesson here is that the kids are right to trust cartoon characters over real people. I know I certainly intend to buy the book for the library -- if I can still find it.

It probably doesn't hurt to remind people that offbeat, interesting, and even great writing tends to be unpopular. One lesson of Banned Books Week is tolerance. Times change. Sometimes the writer, even the very offensive writer, is saying something important. The mature mind should consider before it labels.

Some librarians like to push another message during Banned Books Week. They ask: once people ban a book, what's to stop them from burning it?

You see, librarians are bitterly and intransigently opposed to censorship in any form. Of course, that doesn't explain why so few libraries carry "Penthouse Magazine." A few years back, a major controversy raged around the title, "Show Me," a sex- education book that included pictures of nude children. Librarians leapt to its defense. Try to find a library that has the book today, though.

Librarians are dedicated to equal access to information. But what about the librarian who took an interlibary loan request from a boy she knew to be mentally disturbed? He wanted something called "The Anarchist's Cookbook." It gave recipes for making potent explosives from ordinary household chemicals. The librarian threw the request away. A few months later, the boy was arrested for stockpiling explosives in his apartment, right in the middle of a crowded complex.

Librarians like to believe that we stand 100% behind what we call "Intellectual Freedom," the right of the public to read whatever it chooses. Like most articles of faith, this is comfortingly black and white. You're against censorship or you're for burning books.

But as you can tell from the stories above, what we say we believe and what we do aren't necessarily the same. There are gray areas.

The librarian's highest credo is the First Amendment, our Holy Freedom of Speech. But not a day goes by that it doesn't get compromised. Librarians are not perfectly calibrated book-selecting automatons. We buy good books and bad books. We agonize over the difference.

I take comfort from the fact that historically, it doesn't seem to do any good to ban a book. Time either buries it, or bears it up. Neither censors nor librarians can change that.

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