New Jersey: Censorship in the Library?
It’s all about a huge drawing hanging in the second-floor reference room, raising so much ruckus that the head librarian has had to cover it up — so no one can see what it shows.
It’s covered with cloth and that’s the way many employees want to keep it.
Kara Walker, a renowned African-American artist [and a recipient of a recipient of the prestigious John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation’s genius grant] who examines race, gender, sexuality and violence, created the drawing. It depicts the horrors of reconstruction, 20th-century Jim Crowism and the hooded figures of the Ku Klux Klan.
But that’s not what has people upset.
One part of the drawing shows a white man holding the head of a naked black woman to his groin.
“I didn’t notice it at first,” said Kendell Willis, a library services employee. “Then I looked up and was blown away.”
“Exhibiting the work of a nationally and internationally recognized artist like Kara Walker should be a reason of pride for any cultural institution. But it is no surprise the piece would cause some controversy – a forceful body of work driven by intense concern for our communal handling of historical realities is bound to become subject to conversation. Censoring the work, however, is the worst answer to questions about an artwork: not only does censorship fail to resolve disagreements, it gives all the power to those who complain and raises, in the context of a public library, serious First Amendment concerns. Moreover, censoring this particular work means that, in the future, the library would need to cover everything anyone complains about, be it a nude or a historical subject. It would be a much better response to the controversy to use the occasion as a teaching moment – hold a program around the piece, offer a response book, offer a flyer with information about the artist and her work. Such a response would be far more in line with the purpose of the library.”
About Gary Price
Gary Price (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a librarian, writer, consultant, and frequent conference speaker based in the Washington D.C. metro area. Before launching INFOdocket, Price and Shirl Kennedy were the founders and senior editors at ResourceShelf and DocuTicker for 10 years. From 2006-2009 he was Director of Online Information Services at Ask.com, and is currently a contributing editor at Search Engine Land.