Defaced to Defend Children from Filth

Defaced to Defend Children from Filth by Melissa Orth

In the summer of 2018, the adult services desk staff of Curtis Memorial Library in Brunswick, Maine, received what appeared to be an inter-library loan package delivered by USPS. Upon opening, adult services assistant, Jamie Dacyczyn, discovered the library’s copy of Why Grizzly Bears Should Wear Underpants, a collection of humorous cartoons published by The Oatmeal. It was wrapped in white surgical tape covered with the words: “18+”, “Not Appropriate for kids!”, “Filth!”, and “Found at a Youth (7-13) summer camp”.

On the cover of the book was a yellow lined sticky note stating:

Dear Curtis Memorial,

This book is very inappropriate and we were shocked to find it in the hands of a 12 year old camper. It is graphic and educates the readers that sex, morals, our bodies, and LGBT is a joke and it is perfectly acceptable to view the world this way and treat eachother [sic] as such. We understand it is perhaps not your fault but please read ahead of time what you are making available to children.

The note was unsigned. There was no return address on the package.

Jamie immediately took a photo of the book and texted it to me, the teen librarian. I met with her to discuss how to handle this apparent material challenge and act of vandalism. The tape bound the book shut, as if it were gift-wrapped. After carefully removing the tape and checking that none of the pages had been defaced, we determined it was still checked out (and now long overdue) to a teenager who used to be a regular patron of the library and with whose parents I was acquainted.

I telephoned the teen who had the book checked out, but when I called I reached their parent. I did not reveal the name of the book because confidentiality laws in the state of Maine prevented me from doing so, but I did tell the parent about the book coming back to the library in the mail, the note, and the tape. I was calling, primarily, to let the family know the book had been taken off the teen’s account and the fines had been cleared. I explained I was also calling to find out what summer camp the teen might have attended or was currently attending. The parent identified the summer camp as a combined 4-H/ University of Maine Coop Extension day camp focusing on nature and science the camp had ended. The parent didn’t have any additional information so we didn’t pursue contacting the camp.

In the end, all of us were and dismayed that anyone would deface library property. I was frustrated that someone would go through the effort of taping the book and writing a note, then mailing the item at their expense, yet they did not make themselves available to discuss the challenge.

We tried guessing what content the person found most offensive. Was it the cartoon of a political leaders cavorting with the devil? Repeated scenes of a farting dog/bear/cat? Perhaps it was the dated reference to a deceased evangelical minister spewing nonsense about homosexuality? Or maybe it was a frame devoted to sex and the power of penises and vaginas? Or all of the above? Before returning the comic to the teen comics cart, which is front and center in the TeenZone, I checked where other libraries in our system housed the book on their shelves: juvenile, teen, or adult? It was split fifty/fifty between teen collections and adult collections but most of the libraries that cataloged it in the adult collections did not have a teen collection. I double checked reviews and found nothing to convince us to move it from the teen collection, where it had found an audience.

We take materials challenges, no matter how apparently absurd, seriously. After reviewing the comic with the youth services coordinator, we determined it was not too damaged to be withdrawn, that it was certainly appropriate for the teen collection, and we returned the book to its place on the cart. Nothing in the library is restricted by age so the idea of reading everything ahead of time before making it available to the public (i.e. children - as the note stated) would be impossible and the implication that all items should be reviewed for content goes against our tenet to protect the freedom to read.

This was not the first challenge to teen materials we’ve faced, nor will it be the last. Thanks to a strong intellectual freedom policy, a request for reconsideration form, and staff training in how to respond to material challenges, the Curtis Memorial Library staff are fairly comfortable in responding to vocalized questioning of the appropriateness of library materials. Usually an offended person just wants to talk and to be heard. Vandalism is, unfortunately, not new to us either. In the past, I’ve come across blacked-out words, holes torn from pages, or even a page ripped out of teens books that, when compared to an undamaged copy, indicate the vandal wished to obliterate offensive language, usually swear words or references to sex. If possible, we replace damaged items with new copies for we don’t want censorship in the form of vandalism to control the collection. Whether a person complains about an item in person or by sending a taped comic in the mail, we don’t want to give them the power to prevent a teen from finding material they need or enjoy. Censorship is about silencing and libraries are not meant to be quiet places.

Updated: November 2019