Bad language

12 May 2011

In the comments of my last post on whether  libraries should take on some of the role local newspapers have traditionally played, David asked whether the quality of the service libraries offer is in danger from the partisan views of their librarians.

It's a fair question, but not really a new one.  The dangers of partisan influence on the provision of information have been well understood for centuries - whether it's the Westminster tradition of a public service that provides 'frank and fearless' advice to Ministers, or the Australian Library & Information Association's Statement on Free Access to Information. The International Federation of Library Associations & Institutions considers it such an important matter they have formed a standing Committee to consider freedom of access and expression.

Whilst acknowledging that it is difficult for any human to remain entirely objective, I would argue that, as in many contexts, the biggest danger of bias or suppression of information in libraries comes from outside sources.  The well-known recent example in the US of attempts to withdraw And Tango makes three from library shelves saw the American Library Association pitted yet again against parents and school boards seeking a monopoly on the concepts and stories their children experience.

This week came an even more obnoxious example, with the news that the Borough of Newham, one of London's most culturally diverse areas, have decided to remove all foreign-language newspapers from their public libraries.  The reason?

Sir Robin Wales, elected Mayor of Newham... said removing the papers would "encourage people to speak and learn English".

I cannot imagine any librarian worthy of the name deliberately removing material from a library on the basis that their patrons should be forced to read in another language.  This is the sort of thing that is only done by politicians - the sort of thing that happened in the Balkans in the 1990s, or is happening in Tibet under Chinese rule.  Arguing that there is a systematic bias in favour of 'black armband history' in Australia, or that American libraries have too much material that 'promotes' homosexuality is one thing.  These are arguments over what a particular society's cultural norms and sense of itself should be - what is commonly referred to as 'culture wars', but is really just politics without the obsession over liberal economics.

Deliberately reducing access to information and recreational reading material written in a language with which many of your citizens grew up and are most comfortable is not cultural warfare.  It is cultural genocide.