So what do libraries do when a book like Tintin in the Congo is deemed too offensive for normal perusal? According to a piece in today's Times, a sort of semi-banned purgatory.

While people object to books all the time - there are, apparently, cranks in the world with lots of time on their hands, as well as some controversial titles - only a few are found universally insulting enough to warrant the "Form 286" that brings it before the panel. if the panel rules against a book, it will in some cases be taken out of circulation and, in the case of Brooklyn, "tucked away in the Hunt Collection, which are kept in a vault-like room accessible only to staff members" and made available by appointment only.

If you worry that this sounds like shades of Fehrenheit 451 - or at least Banned Books Month - you're not alone: the ALA, after all, states on its site, "Policies should not unjustly exclude materials and resources even if they are offensive to the librarian or the user...Toleration is meaningless without tolerance for what some may consider detestable." But that's easier said than done, especially for those working with children's material: some public schools have rendered controversial titles to be "parent checkout book only" while one former librarian quoted in the piece claims that some of his colleagues would take such touchy titles out of circulation on vague pretexts. (Although this would be anathema, I should add, to the librarians I know, difficult as dealing with people can be.)

There are very few people who would argue that Tintin au Congo's relegation to the "Hunt Room" - especially in its original, unexpurgated form - is "unjust." By any standard, the portrayal of Africans is racist. And the truth is, a children's section should be a place of some safety. But it's a slippery slope; the article mentions that objections have been lodged to the presence of everything from Beloved to Eloise in Paris. And while obviously these complaints have been dismissed, censorship is always just that. The problem with the system is that you won't find such a book - indeed, know it exists - unless you look specifically. And a library should be about discovery, too, even if it is not always pleasant. Racism and ugliness existed, and exist, and hiding history somewhat arbitrarily is a form of white-washing. Tintin has come to people's attention because it's famous: how many other old books, as offensive, more offensive, remain on the shelves? No one thinks that this book should be where a child can stumble upon it (there's a difference between adult and kids' books) but even something so overtly ugly is an opportunity for questions, discussion, and facing the reality of cultural heritage. Maybe we have enough teachable moments in this world without needing to introduce more: but maybe that's a library's job.

A Library's Approach To Books That Offend [NY Times]