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Library director refuses to restrict access to yaoi manga

by  in Comic News Comment

Occasionally we see public clashes between the mandate of public libraries to serve everyone without restricting access to books and the desire of parents and caregivers to keep children from seeing sexually explicit material they aren’t ready for.

The most recent incident involves a 10-year-old girl who checked out a stack of manga that included the second volume of Makoto Tateno’s Hero Heel from the White Center Library, just south of Seattle. The book had a parental advisory mark on the front cover (applied by the publisher, not the library) and was rated 18+ (again, by the publisher) on the back cover, but there was no family member watching what the girl checked out; her grandmother dropped her off at the library and waited in the car until she came out with her books. Her uncle, Travis De Nevers, found the book after she brought it home and wrote to the library, saying:

How can it be that a young girl can check-out this book? Why would it even be located in a place where children would have easy access to it? It was by chance that I happened to pick up the book from a pile of her library books and noticed the label.

I do not want this to happen again to my niece or other children. I am asking that you review your check-out practices and make the changes necessary to prevent it. Please send me a response detailing your steps to correct this serious situation.

(Note: The linked post includes fuzzy but NSFW scans from the book.)

“I don’t think he was objecting to us having it so much as how we are protecting kids her age from encountering things that might be difficult,” Bill Ptacek, director of the King County Library System, said in an interview with Robot 6. “Our response was, we are not in the business of policing what anybody gets. We adhere strongly to the idea of free and open access; we do expect either parents or caregivers to be actively engaged and be sure they are comfortable [with their children’s choices].”

“Kids may be in a tough situation, and what they are trying to do is get information or come to grips with what they are dealing with, and it isn’t anybody’s business what they get in the library,” he added.

And in fact, the girl in question probably didn’t have “easy access” to the book, in the sense of just running across it by chance while browsing the shelves: According to the KCLS catalog, the White County Library doesn’t have a copy of Hero Heel 2 on its shelves, so the book had to be requested from a different branch. There’s nothing in the catalog listing for the book to indicate that it’s an 18+ title, so neither the girl nor the library system would necessarily know it’s a mature manga.

The King County Library System consists of 48 libraries with more than 100 million checkouts per year—a few years ago it had the highest circulation of any library system in the country. Last year, it won the Gale/Library Journal “Library of the Year” award. Ptacek, who’s been director for 23 years, said he receives about two of these challenges a year, but he can’t remember a time when the book was actually removed. Books are selected according to various criteria, including reviews. “We can defend or identify why we have something in the collection,” he said. “When somebody challenges something, it’s really difficult.”

One aspect of this that seemed a little odd at first is that the library shelved the book as nonfiction. I turned to my friend Robin Brenner, the teen librarian for the Brookline, Massachusetts, public library, for an explanation of this, and here’s what she said:

Officially in the Dewey Decimal system, comics are considered art rather than fiction. Library users are accustomed to the idea that fiction (and mysteries and science fiction, etc.) are placed in their own section, but officially all fiction should be in the 800s (literature). We libraries decided to make it easier for readers by pulling these types out to their own section of the stacks. In my library, we pull out graphic novels as a separate section by format (as we do with DVDs or audiobooks), but we are breaking the Dewey rules to do so, and I know of many libraries who (as King County does) keep all of their graphic novels in the nonfiction sections.

That’s an interesting philosophical point — Dewey regards comics as art rather than fiction. Ptacek said his libraries do pull out teen graphic novels into a separate collection but for some reason Hero Heel was not shelved that way, perhaps (ironically) because it is an adult title. So Hero Heel was assigned the call number 741.5952 and shelved in nonfiction. King County does not separate juvenile and adult nonfiction books, because, Ptacek said, both children and adults may need the full range: A child researching a report, say, might need information that is in an adult book, and adults may find children’s books to be good sources of information. “I think it is generally seen as an advantage to the public to keep those things together, and we have not had much of a problem,” he said. “It helps the patron encounter the full range of information we have on a topic.”

Sometimes these library issues turn into big political issues, as when the San Bernardino libraries removed multiple copies of Paul Gravett’s Manga: The First Sixty Years a few years back, thanks to a table-thumping politician. In this case, everyone stayed civil: De Nevers wrote to the library director expressing his concern, and the library director responded with a letter outlining the library’s policies.

Ptacek referred to the incident as “a good learning moment,” and De Nevers told the local TV news that he really wanted to issue a wake-up call to parents: “I would just like parents to know that there are sexually-explicit material at the library for your child to check out.”

And before anyone gets all judge-y about this family letting their child go to the library alone, I want to point out that that is absolutely standard practice in my community, and I don’t think it’s unusual elsewhere. Ten-year-olds may not be able to drive to the library, but they don’t need a parent holding them by the hand. Checking the stack of books they take out though? Not a bad idea.