Twain Had It Right
If you haven’t seen this excerpt from recently assembled autobiography of Mark Twain, I implore you to read it now. It’s worth the click.
The restriction or removal of material does in fact present a slippery slope of what is “moral” (to use the example from the Twain anecdote) and that which is not. Moral relativism is the actor in that story in which the portrayal of the virtue of truth (and the vice of dishonesty) are unequally applied as criteria to the inclusion of materials in that library of the last century. Once you banish a book on the grounds that it features a liar, you need to banish all of the books that feature the same.
But I’m going to guess that this is nothing new, nothing surprising to the readers who find their way here. The ideals of librarianship, portrayed throughout the graduate school experience as well as to society at large, is that the library contains materials for all interests, for all ages, and for all curiosities. The reality is that we (the royal ‘we’ as a profession) are biased. We do it everyday with the resources we recommend, the search engines we use, the databases we go to, the books that we order, and the websites we read. These biases serve a very practical purpose: they prevent us from becoming frozen into inaction from attempting to be as neutral and unbiased as possible.
If a patron asked me to look something up online, I could run a search on Bing, Google, Ask, and Yahoo to find the greatest variety of answers. Instead, I just use one search engine (for myself, mainly Google). I could be missing results from another search engine, but that kind of reasoning greatly overcomplicates the situation and stymies the reference process. Of course, if I don’t like the results I get from Google, I can go to the other search engines. The truth is that the ideal (looking to provide the largest range of correct results by being ) does not meet up with the reality.
Likewise, with material selections, all librarians are limited by their budgets. They cannot possibly hope to get all of the materials on every viewpoint with their subject or collection scope. With this, they must pick and choose which materials join the collection and which do not. There will always be something left out; the goal is to be as inclusive as possible by hitting all of the major works or vantages. That’s why we have “go to” resources, material recommendations, and our own judgments when it comes to the library collection. Each of these represents a viewpoint of “the essentials” of a collection, something that raises certain materials above the others of its type. This is a bias, no matter how you frame it.
The critical thing here is to recognize our own personal biases and see them for what they are. It’s what Twain did with that librarian over a hundred years ago; he showed how the same set of criteria could disallow for another book (using the Bible, no less). There is no humanly way for us to reach our ideal of being completely unbiased and neutral; but we should never stop trying to do so.
I think it would make ole Samuel Clemens proud.