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Public libraries new target of right wing's book censorship campaign

A fresh wave of book-censorship efforts is spilling into US public libraries in the aftermath of the November election. Since the election, when a majority of American voters backed a political shift to the right, there has been a fivefold increase in library censorship complaints, according to the American Library Association's Office for Intellectual Freedom. More than before, says office director Judith Krug, the complaints zero in on public rather than school libraries.

"For a long time the public library was considered 'safe,' but it's had a fall from grace and I'm not sure exactly why," she says. "Maybe it's just because people are rediscovering and using their public libraries more."

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Most of the current would-be censors, just as those in the past, focus on sexually explicit references in specific books and their potential effect on a reader's traditional moral values. Many of those currently pressuring librarians to pull certain volumes from the shelves have identified themselves as fundamentalist ministers, members of the Moral Majority, or anti-abortion activists.

While not criticizing the latest efforts by conservatives to get certain books off library shelves, Moral Majority political activities coordinator Karl Moor stresses that these reflect no organized national policy of his group. In the next year or two, however, according to Mr. Moor, Moral Majority will decide whether it will take a strong stand on pornography, including a specific list of offensive books and films.

"We're talking about an easily classifiable body of literature and materials that virtually everybody sees as offensive," he explains. "It would be a reasonable approach within the limits of the First Amendment as best understood. . . . There won't be any book burning.We'd start at the bottom with the pornographer. Probably the last place we'd head is the public library."

While Mrs. Krug admits some concern that conservative censors may see the recent election results as a mandate for their views, she stresses that censorship attempts tend to come from members of single-interest groups representing the full political spectrum. "There are no good guys and bad guys when it comes to censorship," Mrs. Krug says.

Books targeted for removal from library stacks run the full gamut from "Holocaust" ("a Zionist plot," say some) and the works of Shakespeare (bad language) to books by contemporary authors Harold Robbins and Judy Blume. Interestingly enough, one target in a religious book center in Tacoma, Wash., is a marriage manual written by two Moral Majority board members. "Too descriptive" is the charge.

Some censorship complaints tend toward the dramatic. A few who want to police the shelves, for instance, check out the offending books with fanfare at the front desk with a loud vow never to return them. One family in University City, Mo., tore up its library cards in public protest against the inclusion of Judy Blume's "Forever" on open shelves.

But most often the protests take the form of quiet pressuring of librarians to pull the book from the shelves. To the dismay of the American Library Association (ALA), it is sometimes an effective tactic. If not, censors often try to persuade the politically powerful of their views or run for office themselves to gain the necessary muscle.

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In Davis County, Utah, for instance, librarian Jeanne Layton was fired for refusing to remove Don DeLillo's "Americana" from the shelves. One library board member, angry with her stance, managed to get two of his supporters appointed to the board to get the necessary majority to take her job away. The librarian, who was backing the decisions of two review committees to keep the book, decided to appeal the dismissal and has since won reinstatement and a major award in her field for her "personal courage" in supporting the First Amendment and the ALA bill of rights.

Similarly in Abingdon, Va., when a fundamentalist minister failed to personally persuade the local library staff to remove all copies of Harold Robbins and Sidney Sheldon's books on his request, he threatened a public referendum on the issue and turned to pleading his case before the county board of supervisors. Though more than a dozen community organizations support the Washington County library's stand against the censorship effort, the case is considered far from dead. Local librarian Kathy Russell, who notes that the minister has refused to file a formal complaint and to accept an invitation to state his case before the library board, observes: "It's really turned into a political battle."

The ALA's Mrs. Krug confirms that most citizens who want to censor specific books usually manage to bypass the formal complaint procedure which most libraries offer.

"I feel it's imperative that libraries have such procedures and that they force complainants to use them," she says.

Mrs. Krug, who says she considers the policy-setting library board the "court of high appeal" in censorship cases, stresses that most libraries are "very open" to citizen input in selecting books. She points out that any book clearly libelous, treasonous, obscene, or pornographic is against the laws of the land for any public library to carry. The ALA's stand against censorship, she says, is based on the view that the library's job is to serve the entire community -- "not just the most powerful or the most vocal." She suggests that parents who don't want their children to read certain books should either so instruct them or accompany them to the library.

Still, she says, libraries, too, occasionally make mistakes and that often the public spotlight on any censorship issue yields the best results for all.

One solution short of removing the book that many libraries have turned to is to restrict access to certain books. In Oak Lawn, Ill., when several hundred citizens recently campaigned to ban an illustrated sex education book titled "Show Me," the librarian decided to make it available from the circulation desk only on adult request.

Mrs. Krug, who disapproves of such a solution but terms it a "half step" improvement over removing a book, estimates that the ALA gets involved in only about 10 percent of all the censorship efforts going on in libraries around the country.

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