TOC Previous Next A+A-Print


Question 154: May a librarian select morally objectionable and propagandistic books?

Three weeks ago I started my new job as the acquisitions and cataloging librarian for this small city’s public library. Cataloging presents no moral problem, and I am experienced in doing it. But as acquisitions librarian, I shall decide which new books to order—except those for the reference section and the young people’s room, whose librarians do their own ordering. Here I have a moral problem.

Surveying the present collection, I have found a great deal of soft pornography and a preponderance of nonfiction favoring secularist views. There are serious gaps in the collection of classical works of fiction and drama. Nonfiction sympathetic to traditional religious views is quite sparse. I want to make changes for the better.

Formally, my authority is only limited by the library board, the head librarian, and the annual budget.

The library board, appointed by the mayor with the approval of the city council, has ultimate authority over our entire operation. But I understand that, rather than involving themselves in the librarians’ professional work, board members have confined themselves to naming the head librarian, reading the staff’s annual report and discussing it with them, making decisions about physical plant and employees’ wages and benefits, and recommending a budget to the mayor and council. I shall have to write up an account of how I am handling acquisitions for the annual report to the board. However, I do not expect binding directives from the board but informal suggestions at most.

If she wished, the head librarian could tell me to order particular items or she could review my decisions and veto them. But she has explained that, in her judgment, professionals should be as self-directing as possible. She manages the other librarians’ work by providing only general direction, encouraging everyone to share ideas, mediating such conflicts as arise, and “retaining on staff only people who work well together.”

Portions of the acquisitions budget are designated for the reference section and young people’s room, and for replacing missing, mutilated, and worn-out volumes. But currently that leaves enough for me to add about twenty-five hundred new books a year to our collection—a good number for the community we serve. Consequently, though the other librarians sometimes will suggest books and I will get many requests from patrons, I actually will have considerable freedom in choosing almost fifty new books a week.

Most librarians in my place would order just about every book on the best-seller lists, but I am reluctant to do that, because many of these books are morally objectionable. Much of the fiction published today, even by the most reputable houses, is soft pornography; most new novels and collections of short stories include passages of needlessly graphic sex and/or violence. I object to such material as sexually arousing or morbidly exciting, and degrading to people, usually to women. Also, a significant segment of the nonfiction, even that published by university presses, is propaganda—for abortion, euthanasia, alternative lifestyles, and other causes—posing as journalism or scholarship.

Nevertheless, it already is clear that most of the books requested by patrons and suggested by other librarians will be best sellers or works opposed to traditional positions on controversial issues. It is not feasible for me regularly to ignore these requests and suggestions. For one thing, it would not seem fair to many patrons, since citizens pay for the library with their taxes and expect it to have many of the books they want. Also, if too many patrons and my colleagues become dissatisfied and begin complaining, I am sure the head librarian eventually will let me go. Personally, I could accept that, for even though I took this job partly because I like the city and thought the work would be a new challenge, I am sure I could find another cataloging job somewhere. However, I also wanted the chance to select better books than many of the ones I was cataloging where I used to work—a concern that probably would not be shared by anyone who replaced me here.

I have two questions. First, what moral limits must one observe in selecting books for a public library? Second, are there any other considerations I ought to take into account? Don’t hesitate to offer suggestions about how to do my job, since the troubling part of it is entirely new to me. But bear in mind that other librarians will do all the ordering for the reference section and young people’s room. The reference section here includes the newspapers and adult magazines, and the young people’s room includes all materials for boys and girls under fifteen. I shall not be ordering any periodicals, but shall be ordering books for adolescents roughly fifteen and older as well as for adults.


This question calls for the derivation of norms for the questioner’s selection of books. A public library should serve a certain element of the common good: the availability to all members of the community of many books they can use in pursuing or promoting various authentic goods for themselves and others. This principle implies a negative norm regarding acquisitions: No book should be selected unless it is likely to serve a legitimate purpose for an adequate number of community members. Probably this norm seldom excludes acquisition of a best seller. However, several affirmative norms can be articulated: Choose fiction of good literary quality; seek to balance holdings not only on particular controversial issues but on fundamental philosophical and religious questions; take into account the vulnerability of adolescents and young adults in selecting books of special interest to them; and try to serve the needs of many less sophisticated members of the community.

The reply could be along the following lines:

Insofar as acquisitions librarians are public servants, the principle for their work is a certain aspect of the common good of the communities they serve, namely, the availability to everyone of many books useful for wholesome recreation and entertainment, authentic esthetic experience, and gaining knowledge and the ability to use it. It would be wrong for someone responsible for acquisitions to select a book he or she thought would fail to give one or more of those benefits to an adequate number of potential patrons.

This norm plainly excludes both pornographic material, which harms everyone and benefits no one, and anything so incompetently researched and/or badly written that nobody would profit by reading it. But it also excludes books useful to too few people. Other things being equal, an acquisitions librarian using public funds clearly ought to prefer a book that would benefit many patrons to one that would benefit few, even in the long run. So, as a necessary condition for ordering any book, he or she should anticipate that a certain number of people will be interested in it—how many will depend on the library’s budget, its patrons’ interests, and the number and variety of good books available. Librarians can be tempted to select books useful to very few or even none of the library’s patrons, not only to serve their own interests and those of their friends and loved ones, or the unusual interests of particular patrons, but simply so that the library will have books considered of unusual merit—in other words, to engage in the hobby of book collecting at public expense, while depriving patrons of a portion of the service to which they are entitled.

Will the norm ever absolutely exclude selecting a best seller? Perhaps, but I expect that very seldom will be the case. It is hard to think of a best-selling book so bad it cannot be of legitimate interest to some people, who might at least criticize it as an example of cultural depravity, bad argument, or the like.

I agree that many best-selling works of fiction are morally objectionable inasmuch as they include needlessly graphic sex and violence. But best sellers usually are written well enough to offer something more than titillation, and mature persons who have developed the virtue of modesty, by quickly skimming the objectionable passages, can read them without sinning.

I also agree that a significant segment of nonfiction is propaganda. But, again, most nonfiction best sellers can be read with profit by some people. Anyone seriously interested in a controversial topic needs to examine the opposing views and the arguments for them, including the alleged facts on which those arguments depend. In this way, thoughtful people can exercise critical judgment, develop a well-grounded position, become able to explain and defend it, and respond effectively to other, unsound or less sound views. Indeed, people who do not examine and understand the propaganda for erroneous positions are likely to be seduced into absorbing false claims and unsound arguments from mass public opinion, where they float about disconnected from their sources and not easily identifiable.

Among newly published works of fiction, you obviously should select books of solid literary quality, even if they also have some morally objectionable passages. If you order one copy of many best-selling novels, the library will not be ignoring popular demand, while patrons already keen to read them will keep these single copies in constant use for a long time, so that they will be unavailable to more casual readers, including most adolescents and young adults. Moreover, older fiction, much of it rich both in literary and moral qualities, sometimes is available in inexpensive editions. You can acquire, and make available as new, some books of this sort that are both readable and missing from the library’s collection. They probably will not be so heavily used in the short run as the current best sellers, but they may get more use in the long run.

Someone might object that such a policy would not serve the public adequately. Ordering only a single copy of a best-selling book hardly responds to popular demand; many patrons must wait a long time for the book and so are deprived of it precisely when they want it. But though the policy is not fully responsive to popular demand, it can serve the public’s needs. Very popular books generally are inexpensive or soon become available in cheap editions, so that most people who want them can acquire them. The library more appropriately serves the public by providing works of lasting interest, which may never become available in cheap editions but in the long run will be useful to a large number of people.

In selecting nonfiction on controversial issues, reject shallow treatments and prefer those that are more solidly researched and well argued. Since there generally is a great deal of duplication and overlap in this sort of literature, it should suffice to acquire a few comprehensive works each year representing each position on a particular topic; when a controversy continues, prefer works that move the debate forward in some significant way. Though books opposing traditional views generally are more effectively promoted and widely publicized, you are in a position to provide balance by identifying and acquiring books that best represent and support the tradition, many of which, again, will not be current publications. In choosing books on controversial topics, take into account how you will catalogue them, so that balance will be achieved insofar as possible not only on the whole but in the diverse classifications into which works on various aspects of a controversy will fall. In this way, readers looking for a book on one side of a certain aspect of a controversy—say, on the medical or legal or philosophical aspect of abortion—often will encounter on the same shelf a work on the other side.

With nonfiction, as with fiction, look for gaps in the library’s collection that can be filled with sound and readable older works available in inexpensive editions or through used book dealers. Since secularist prejudices often shape public libraries’ holdings, you are likely to find little good material representing traditional views, not only on particular controversial issues but on the broader questions of perennial interest. Besides theological and philosophical books accessible to nonprofessionals, sound works in history and biography are especially important in making the theistic tradition available for serious consideration as an alternative to contemporary, antireligious thought. In looking for such materials, be scrupulously fair in acquiring sound and readable books by non-Catholic authors as well as Catholics. For this purpose, you might ask local non-Catholic religious leaders for advice.

Your patrons of high school and college age are especially vulnerable to morally objectionable passages in fiction and to propaganda in nonfiction. Be very careful in choosing among books likely to appeal especially to them. Most books you decide not to acquire despite popular demand for them should be ones that are either morally objectionable or propagandistic, and that have special appeal to youthful readers. You also should familiarize yourself with what young people are encountering in their studies, so that you can build on whatever wholesome interests they may be developing and provide balance where possible to the secularistic indoctrination they may be receiving.

Many people in the community who seldom read a book will appreciate your work and support you if they know you are trying to supply the books they want—about auto repair, growing roses, travel, health problems, cooking, taxes, refinishing furniture, caring for babies, and so on. Instead of talking only with the comparatively small group of rather sophisticated people who request particular books or otherwise bring themselves to your attention, strive to communicate with a broader spectrum of library patrons and even with those who have seldom or never taken advantage of this community resource. Encourage members of this wider public to request the books they want, and keep a record of every such request you satisfy. Expanding the library’s usefulness in this way not only will be fairer to the public it serves but will strengthen your position against those who might object to other aspects of your acquisitions policy.

As each new book is received, you might post a brief, annotated notice about it on a “New Books” bulletin board near the circulation desk or main entrance. Similarly, you might be able to provide a local newspaper and/or broadcasting station with a weekly “New Books” column and/or program. Through the same media, you could invite advice and suggestions, not just about particular books to acquire but about areas of interest people think have been neglected. You might even be able to arrange a more or less formal community survey to learn about needs the library could serve better.

In writing your part of the annual report to the library board, you no doubt will wish to forestall problems by explaining what you are trying to accomplish. Without lying, put your explanation in terms likely to be acceptable. For example, make the point that you are trying to ensure that the library’s holdings will meet the needs of a broader spectrum of community members and more fairly represent diverse points of view on controversial issues. Say that, while selecting fewer works of current fiction, you are ordering many highly readable older works, and trying to ensure that all books selected are of good literary quality. Have in mind examples of your selections that illustrate each point you make or respond to each criticism you anticipate. Though you may not have space enough to include the examples in your report, you will be able to use them in conversations with fellow librarians and other interested parties.