College & Research Libraries News

Virginia Tech sets policy on controversial materials

By Paul Metz and Bruce Obenhaus

Make sure your library has a written selection statement

Last year, a leader in the Virginia Tech gay student community offered to donate a year’s subscription to The Advocate to the university libraries. He expressed the hope that the libraries would ultimately choose to subscribe on a paid basis.

The principal bibliographer’s research indicated that The Advocate, the leading national magazine for the U.S. gay and lesbian community, had a circulation base of 250,000 and contained thoughtful analyses of issues of interest to a community whose emergence has been one of the outstanding features of recent social history. We also determined that despite this circulation base, there were only about 80 OCLC holdings for The Advocate. We construed this as a discouraging indication that many libraries were practicing self-censorship and deciding not to subscribe to a quality serial relevant to many of their patrons. For all these reasons, we gladly accepted the offer and have since converted to a paid subscription.

The decision to accept The Advocate raised our awareness of potential criticism of our collections and seemed to mark as good a time as any for our libraries to write a policy on the selection and treatment of controversial material. We did not really expect The Advocate to be challenged (nor has it been), but since any policy written in the midst of an active controversy will inevitably appear to be reactive and defensive, the very absence of controversy made it a good time for us to draft such a policy.

The recent publication of the fourth edition of the Intellectual Freedom Manual by ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom provides a standard by which we can now assess whether the policy we wrote is consistent with the philosophy of our professional association. To the extent that our policy does embody the principles endorsed by ALA, it may serve as a model, or at least a representative statement of some use to other libraries.

The full text of the Virginia Tech statement, which was approved by the University Library Committee and endorsed throughout the chain of the university governance structure, is reproduced in the accompanying sidebar. The following narrative attempts both to place our policy within the context of local history and practice at Virginia Tech and to compare the statement to the principles established by the ALA guidelines.

Discussion of the policy

The following comments are intended to provide local context or to elaborate on the policy as a possible embodiment of ALA’s goals.

1) The most important aspect of the policy is its existence. As the Manual points out, “Collection development and the selection of materials should be done according to professional standards and established selection and review procedures.” By supplementing Tech’s existing collection development policy statement and more procedúrally oriented Bibliographers’ Manual‚ the statement guarantees that almost any selection decision will take place within a complete policy structure and can be assessed by reference to existing policies and procedures.

2) The policy does not rest on the libraries’ ability to endorse the materials we collect. As the Manual states, “Libraries do not advocate the ideas found in their collections. The presence of a magazine or book in a library , does not indicate an endorsement of its contents by the library.”1

Paul Metz is principal bibliographer and Bruce Obenhaus is a reference librarian at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University

Our policy’s reference to pseudo-science is intended to disclaim endorsement by conveying our understanding that some of what we collect will be known to be false at the time by most relevant experts or will later be universally acknowledged as incorrect. Indeed, the only item we have been asked to remove in recent years was a pseudo-scientific technical paper whose author represented a religious sect (this request was denied at a lower administrative level and not appealed). We would consider our collections in science studies and social history incomplete without materials on Lamarckian interpretations of evolution, or indeed without creationist materials.

3) The policy puts our libraries’ acquisition of erotic materials in a broad context of other materials not of direct relevance to our curriculum. It is not always easy, in the midst of controversy, to defend one’s selection of erotic materials not directly related to the university’s mission. The policy serves to remind our public of the breadth of our charge. On a practical level, the analogy of erotic materials to fnateri-als in Portuguese or on nursing (not taught at Tech) or even on more mundane topics such as chess, racquetball, or car repair may serve to defuse criticism.

4) The policy does not allow for the labelling or age-based segregation of materials. As the ALA Policy Manual states “Libraries cannot act in loco parentis. Nevertheless, ALA acknowledges and supports the exercise by parents of their responsibility to guide their own children’s viewing…”2

Anyone may use the general collections of the Virginia Tech Libraries. Use of reserve materials or materials in the media center, however, requires that a university ID or borrower’s card be presented. Any adult living in Virginia, or any Virginia child whose parent signs a consent form representing the parent’s ultimate liability for fines and unreturned materials, is eligible for such a card. Our parental consent form has been modified to include that the libraries do not attempt to deny or restrict access to materials and that “guardians assume responsibility for the appropriateness and nature of materials minors check out.”

As educators in a democracy, we must have faith in our patrons to identify and select those materials most beneficial to their purposes.

From a parent’s perspective, the choices are fairly clear. A child’s access to the general collection for in-house use can be prevented only by parental rule. Circulation privileges, access to reserve, and access to the media center come as a “package deal,” and a parent signing a consent form gives permission for them all. It is not possible for a parent to restrict a child’s access to only a specified set of materials.

5) The policy does not allow restricted access as a means of censorship. This is in keeping with section 2.9 of the Intellectual Freedom

Manual‚ which points to the potential embarrassment or inhibition patrons feel in having to ask for materials. Yet the policy attempts to reflect the common sense the Manual expresses in the same section, when it acknowledges that “There may be, however, countervailing factors to establish policies to protect library materials—specifically, for reasons of physical preservation including protection from theft or mutilation.”3

The Manual goes on to note that “Any such policies must be carefully formulated and administered with extreme attention to the principles of intellectual freedom.” Prior to our policy of placing erotic materials on reserve, about 50 volumes of such materials had been held in special collections. They were very rarely used, reflecting no doubt patron reluctance to ask for them. To use materials on reserve, patrons need only submit a slip with the item’s call number. Paradoxically, to ask for erotic materials in the high traffic, busy environment of reserve is a more private act than to ask as the sole patron visiting the sole attendant on duty in special collections.

We have tried not to be overly protective in decisions about where to place materials. The Advocate is shelved with other materials and shows a high incidence of theft and mutilation. Many books like A Secret Garden or The Story of O have been bought for the general collection, but replacement copies have been sent to reserve after experience has shown we cannot keep them safe in the stacks. For certain other materials, such as The Joy of Lesbian Sex‚ it seems foolish not to assume that the probability, of theft is so high that we should not put the first copy on reserve and be done with it.

The general philosophy we have come to is that pragmatism can go a long way to defuse or deflect issues that are often injected with an overload of symbolic significance. Much as the identification of erotic materials with books on racquetball or chess serves to defuse a potentially controversial collection development issue, the location of highly sensitive materials on reserve is made less questionable by their sharing this designation with Billboard‚ Rolling Stone‚ and the used car price guides, which we have also determined cannot be kept secure in the general collection.

6) In retrospect, and in light of the thoughtful discussion available in the Intellectual Freedom Manual, our policy probably over-empha-sizes erotic materials and should place more stress on matters of religious belief or political ideology. If we were to rewrite the policy and to see it through the twists and turns of the governance process, we would include a greater defense of diversity in collections. ALA’s careful delineation of diversity as a goal, (in contrast to the more cautious, yet inevitably more controversial goal of “balance”) as laid out in section 2.6 of the Intellectual Freedom Manual, should be reflected in any future iteration of our policy.4


  1. Office for Intellectual Freedom of the American Library Association, Intellectual Freedom Manual fourth edition (Chicago: ALA, 1992), p. 39.
  2. American Library Association, ALA Policy Manual, pp. 136-159 of ALA Handbook of Organization 1991/92 (Chicago: ALA, 1991), p. 153.
  3. Intellectual Freedom Manual,p. 66.
  4. “Diversity in Collection Development,” in Intellectual Freedom Manual, pp. 49-57.
Copyright © American Library Association

Article Views (Last 12 Months)

No data available

Contact ACRL for article usage statistics from 2010-April 2017.

Article Views (By Year/Month)

January: 7
January: 9
February: 3
March: 12
April: 4
May: 5
June: 5
July: 6
August: 2
September: 1
October: 13
November: 9
December: 2
January: 8
February: 10
March: 7
April: 4
May: 3
June: 5
July: 4
August: 2
September: 5
October: 8
November: 15
December: 9
January: 0
February: 0
March: 0
April: 0
May: 0
June: 0
July: 0
August: 12
September: 14
October: 5
November: 4
December: 8