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A librarian looks at censorship

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When ideas conflict with community standards, those ideas are frequently censored. As recent events in Tampa, Fla., demonstrate, the resulting conflict between ideas and ideals can polarize an entire community.

The battle lines in Tampa were drawn around copies of children's books on sex. The books were turned over to a panel of professional librarians, who carefully examined them and approved them. They felt that the books did not appeal to prurient interests, and that they met nationally recognized professional standards.

But a petition drive forced the city council to decide the issue. The council chose to restrict access to the books, moving them to the adult section of the library.

The decision created a rift between city and county boards, both demanding control over library decisions, split the city into pro-censorship and anticensorship factions, and ultimately contributed to the resignation of the library's director.

A well-run and efficient library system became a political football, and efficiency and confidence were replaced by amateurism and uncertainty. Ironically, one effect of the crisis was to create an unprecedented demand for the disputed books. The library had to purchase extra copies.

Librarians, publishers, and educators, in a recent study entitled ''Limiting What Students Shall Read,'' report that the rate of censorship is increasing. In half of the 500 specific incidents of censorship for which the outcome was known , the material in question was ''altered, restricted, or removed.'' The report includes a list of over 230 books and films that some well-intentioned citizen has tried to ban or censor. The list contains such salacious and subversive publications as ''Huckleberry Finn,'' Shakespeare's ''Merchant of Venice,'' ''The American Heritage Dictionary,'' issues of Sports Illustrated, and E.B. White's ''Stuart Little.''

State and national-level challenges are most often made on ideological grounds, such as creationism, secular humanism, and pessimistic or anti-establishment views. Most local attempts at censorship, however, are aimed at sexuality, profanity, and obscenity. These are also the most difficult issues for teachers and librarians to defend; censors are usually making a highly emotional appeal, certain that their personal moral standards are appropriate for the entire community.

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