Clean Books

October 18, 2006 at 9:49 am 7 comments

The library community where I work is primarily a devout religious one. In turn I’m frequently asked for “clean” or “safe” books by the parents and children. Working in the children’s department one would think finding a clean and/or safe book is easy. Let me tell you it is not, there are levels of clean. The first level of cleanliness is the purest, straight and wholesome goodness of Dick and Jane and the Bobbsey Twins. Then there are just the plain dirty books, but dirty books are not usually in the children’s department. What constitutes if a book is on a certain level of purity are the elements the book contains. There are two major elements that makes a book clean and safe or dirty and dangerous. These elements are boy-girl interaction and magic.

To make a book clean and safe there should be little to no boy-girl interaction. This is the basic element for all clean and safe books. According to the community boys and girls can be friends or siblings, but if there is any love interest what so ever it is no longer a clean book. One might think children’s books usually do not have girl-boy romances in them, but they do. Early chapter books and easy readers always have a valentine story. I know it is seemingly innocent, but the community asking for these books do not feel that way. Once I started looking in the collection, recollecting the books I have read and asking around, there seemed to be lots of first crushes, kisses and boyfriend/girlfriend subplots in juvenile books. Back in April I booktalked There’s a Girl in my Hammerlock by Jerry Spinelli. I thought it was a great book about girls fighting against stereotypes and sibling rivalry. What I had forgotten about one of the subplots with main character having a huge crush on a boy, they go on a date and he kisses her. I felt wretched. The girl I had booktalked is part of the community that should only read clean and safe books. The girl in fact loved the book and wants to read all of Spinelli’s other books. I have learned that if there are any hugs or kisses in the book to tell them right off. It goes against the my librarian belief to give away the ending, but sometimes it’s the only way.

The other major element that causes a book to be unsafe is magic. Fantasy books are wonderful! I love fantasy and a little sci-fi as well. Ask me about my Harry Potter collection. Fantasy books, especially the ones on the juvenile and easy reader levels, rarely have boy-girl interaction, but they have magic of one kind or another that can harbor satanic and wican beliefs that are definitely unsafe to a young person. These are the books I read most often following closely by chickette lit, which sometimes mixes the boy-girl interaction and fantasy.

Drugs, alcohol and death are the typical elements that cause books to challenged and/or banned. They also contribute immensely to the sanctity of a book. If the book makes the reader question their own belief system or introduces an idea into their head that is against the communities ideals it is unsafe.

I try to recommend the safest and cleanest books I can without asking the customer in front of me to describe their level of cleanliness or devoutness. And yes, as a librarian, we should only booktalk the books we have read and loved, but really there are lots of books out there and I cannot read them all. I read lots of J and YA books, but most of them do not qualify as clean or safe. To end my first blog I wanted to mention that even though there is a tremendous stress on clean and safe books in this community, but no one complained about my Banned Book display and have had any challenges of the collection since I have been working here.


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  • 1. Bill Drew  |  October 18, 2006 at 3:39 pm

    I don’t know if I should applaude this post or throw up because of it. It gives me all sorts of mixed feelings. Giving the reader what they request is good but to define books as clean or dirty is sickening to me. Dick and Jane books are not “clean” at all. They reflect a world view that never really existed. To be of real value to a reader, books should challenge that reader’s beliefs and expand their horizons. I am afraid I could never work in your community. I praise you for giving the parents what they want but you should be challenging them when you can. I am glad to see they allowed you to have the Banned Books Exhibit. Your post got me thinking. Thank you for that.

  • 2. Peter Bromberg  |  October 18, 2006 at 4:02 pm

    Great post Tracy! There’s a lot of writing in the blogosphere that addresses the ideal of what libraries can and should be. (I’ve got a post like that in draft right now.) Ideals are great, but in the end we have to be reality-based and practical, and finding the intersection between our ideals and the needs of our communities can sometimes be challenging — particularly if a large part of our service population has a set of cultural values that differs from ours.

    As librarians many of us probably share Bill Drew’s negative reaction to classifying books as ‘dirty’ or ‘clean’. (And for the record, I don’t think YOU are making that classification; just describing your experience with your community.) I wouldn’t go so far as to say it sickens me though. I don’t relate to those who practice orthodox religions and all of the strict limitations that come with that deal, but that’s why I choose not to practice an orthodox religion.

    If someone doesn’t want their kid reading Dick and Jane because it’s in conflict with their religious beliefs, so be it. This is America, etc. etc. As librarians, it’s our job to provide non-judgmental service and help them locate material that fills their information need. Right?

    Kudos to you for posting about your experience working to meet the challenges that you face in providing service to a unique population.

  • 3. Angel, librarian and educator  |  October 18, 2006 at 4:19 pm

    I did find the post interesting because, to be honest, I don’t think I have read anything similar to it. While personally I would probably do my best not to work in such a community that worries about books being “clean” or not, I can certainly see that you have worked and given thought to having a balance between your personal feelings/preferences and those of your community. As Peter points out so well, “As librarians, it’s our job to provide non-judgmental service and help them locate material that fills their information need.” I do believe in challenging as much as possible, but maybe, we should temper it with a little practicality? I am not religious by any stretch btw, but did get raised to respect those who do. Anyhow, good food for thought.

    Best, and keep on blogging.

  • 4. Liz B  |  October 18, 2006 at 5:23 pm

    Great post! We talk about parents being the ones to decide what their child should & shouldn’t read, and that is exactly what you are doing. The library contains various books, some that do and don’t meet the criteria of these parents; and rather than adjust the collection to their needs, you find the books in the collection that meets their needs. The books are still there for people from other communities, or from people within that community who are not as strict. It’s not for us to decide what books another person’s child should or should not read.

    Readers Advisory can be tough; and that is what you’re doing, readers advisory under some specific rules that are a bit hard to follow as an outsider. For example, why is Anne of Green Gables OK despite the flirtation of Anne & Gilbert?

    As you know I worked at that branch for a year and a half with childrens and YA; if you want to compare notes/ tips (or even possible titles), just email me.

  • 5. Anonymous  |  October 19, 2006 at 10:23 am

    I think Tracy should blog under the name, “The Dirty Librarian.”

  • 6. Val  |  October 20, 2006 at 4:34 am

    Very thoughtful writing, thanks Tracy. Your work situation would challenge the concept of Reader Development. Best wishes in your interesting job!

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