"With some texts - particularly texts that promote some form of hate or discrimination - remaining 'neutral' and saying nothing favors the text" - Linda Hoiseth

20th July 2020

Cataloging of books is multilayered, and hidden within those layers are privileges and prejudices that might be invisible at first instance. Look deeper and as a librarian you are faced with questions that are trickier than general cataloging of books. Should religious texts be classified as non-fiction, as they largely are all over the world? Can librarians critique the validity of texts or should they try to remain in sync with the rest of the library world? What about texts steeped in indoctrination with insidious impact on society? Linda Hoiseth, teacher-librarian at The American Embassy School, New Delhi expresses her views on these puzzling dilemmas. 

We understand major religious texts like the Bible, Torah, Quran etc are categorized as nonfiction. Which Hindu and Sikh religious texts would be similarly considered non-fiction? The Vedas? What about the epics like Mahabharata and Ramayana? Or the extract from Mahabharata that is The Bhagavad Gita? Or most importantly for our library, we are wondering about Manusmriti? What religious books can be classified as fiction? Would a book by Osho be fiction or non-fiction? If a Bible story is presented in a comic book does it become fiction? 

Any religious texts - including Hindu and Sikh - generally appear in the non-fiction section. But so do things that are considered myths or folklore - in a different section. How do we decide which texts are "true" or not? I might put them all in a section labeled religion or beliefs or something like that (or, if you prefer - more specifically Hinduism, Christianity, etc.) and let your patrons decide if they're true. 
In our library we pulled out myths, legends, fairy tales, etc. from non-fiction and created a section we call Traditional Tales, so you might consider that as well. If our first principle in cataloging is that the goal is always to make things easy for our patrons to find, the second principle might be to remember that Dewey and other cataloging systems are based on racist, sexist, Western-leaning ideas. So, that brings us back to the first principle - put things where they make sense for your patrons!

One way we understand the term fiction is that it is a made up story. Non-fiction is anything that isn't fiction. Non-fiction is not necessarily "the truth" or "real". It could be a work of philosophy by the Dalai Lama arguing for world peace. But in our library, many members approach non-fiction as "truth". If we take a religious work that argues for caste and classify it as non-fiction, would that serve our members well? If we were to classify this book as fiction then would we be out of sync with the rest of the library world?

The oversimplification of non-fiction to mean "true" (as opposed to "not fiction") is confusing for students all over the world! But we all fall into that trap because it's a simple explanation.  If you have texts that are expressing opinions that may be controversial or arguable, you could create a section for that. By labeling it “Opinions” or “Political Thought” or “Editorials” or “Essays”, or something similar, you would signal to your patrons that these things aren’t necessarily fact, even if they are classified as non-fiction.

Q How should a librarian view the question of copyright legally, professionally and ethically? Does the answer change depending on availability of reading material? In our library, we create read alouds from open source, copyright free books like Pratham's Eklavya's and Ektara's? But this covers the tiniest fraction of books in the world. Books in general are priced out of the reach of our members. In this time of pandemic when members are locked away from our physical library and when we are responding by creating a free online space for them, we feel the injustice of being shut out from reading aloud from those excellent books that are under copyright, How do we reconcile our responsibility to create access with the strictures imposed on us by copyright laws?

I have to start by saying that my knowledge of copyright is based on United States policies as they apply to school libraries. The fair use doctrine asks us to consider four factors: purpose and character of the use, nature of the copyrighted work, amount and sustainability of the portion used, and effect of the use on the potential market or value of the work. It is all very grey, and some librarians tend to follow the strictest possible interpretation. On the other hand, School Library Journal recently came out with an analysis that favors digital storytimes. I trust their argument, and believe that most libraries are well within their rights to offer digital read alouds of physical books they have in their collection.
Please note that my understanding of India copyright law is very limited, so I don’t know if Indian law supports that position. 

"Neutrality, however, is an unrealistic ideal that relies on the non-existent opinion-free librarian selecting non-existent bias-free materials (Alfino & Pierce, 2001; Budd, 2006; Burton, 2009; Samek, 2001; Wiegand, 2011)"

Q With regard to the above quote, should librarians play an active role in helping members evaluate reading material critically. Should librarians be apolitical? To give you a real life example, Mein Kampf is a popular book in India and sometimes requested in our library where it is available. How should it be displayed? Should it be half-hidden? How should a librarian respond to a member's request to find this book in the library?

This is something that all librarians struggle with. 
When thinking about whether or not to include a text in my library, I refer to the American Library Association’s Guidance on Selection Criteria. For this question, these criteria stand out to me: 

  • Present and potential relevance to community needs
  • Suitability of subject and style for intended audience
  • Importance as a document of the times
  • Relation to the existing collection and to other materials on the subject
  • Representation of diverse points of view
  • Representation of important movements, genres, or trends

Based on these criteria, I’ve decided to have a copy of Mein Kampf in a library that caters to high school students who study history, but I’m also careful to have an abundance of information that talks about the danger in those ideas. With some texts - particularly texts that promote some form of hate or discrimination -  remaining “neutral” and saying nothing in fact favors the text, so when a patron wants to borrow this book, I have a conversation with them about it. Librarians should definitely play an active role in helping members evaluate reading materials critically.

Q As India thinks through the role of the librarian, it is being forced to grapple with the great chasm between those who would qualify to become librarians and those who need to be invited to reading. In the United Stated people of colour have argued libraries become hierarchical spaces where the librarian is an outsider to the community of patrons in terms of class and race. Do you agree? One suggestion for erasing such hierarchy is by not requiring higher degrees and education, something which is not equally accessible to all.  Do you think someone can become a librarian without higher degrees and education? How well read does a librarian have to be? What is the most important qualification a librarian should possess?

I agree that the privilege of race and class in library structures is definitely a problem in some communities. There are many ways to acquire the knowledge and skills necessary to be a good librarian. One way is through a traditional university program. Another is through an internship/apprenticeship model. A third is through on-the-job training. Someone can be an excellent librarian without higher degrees.  
A librarian should be a person who uses their understanding of their patrons’ needs to curate and provide access to a relevant collection. “Well read” varies from community to community. A librarian with many degrees who is “well read” in only the classics might not be the best fit for a library that caters to emerging readers in a community that needs to be invited to reading. Someone who became a reader in that community might do a much better job.  

In the series of conversations with Linda Hoiseth:

Privilege and Libraries

विशेषाधिकार और लाइब्रेरी

Q& A with Linda Hoiseth (Part 1)

Linda Hoiseth is an International educator for over 25 years and has had stints in Japan, Poland, Peru, Kuwait, Malaysia and Qatar. She got her Master’s degree, Curriculum and Instruction from St. Cloud State University where she also received Certification as School Library Media Specialist. She currently works as teacher librarian at The American Embassy School, New Delhi.
The Community Library Project
Dharam Bhavan, C-13 Housing Society
South Extension Part -1
New Delhi - 110049
Illustrations provided by Priya Kurien.
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