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Intellectual Freedom and Holocaust Denial

Should books promoting Holocaust denial be included in a public library's collection? An article about a panel at the ALA conference in Washington DC from Jewish Insider covered the controversy.

Nancy Pearl, a librarian so popular she has her own action figure, stated:

"What did I not want to add in the collection? Personally, I did not want to add Holocaust-denying books. That was offensive to me. Did I think we needed them? Sad to say, yes," said Pearl, a nationally known librarian, according to a livestream of the panel viewed by Jewish Insider. "But we talk about - we're anti, we shouldn't ban books. It's much more nuanced and it's much more difficult than one often tends to think that it is."

In response:

"Kelsey Bogan, a Pennsylvania-based high school librarian, tweeted from the conference, setting off a flood of angry responses from conferencegoers and others who work in the field."

The tweet reads:

At an ALA session about "Uniting Against book Bans" today there was a sentiment made by panelists that we even must include Holocaust denial books. Holocaust denial is harmful misinformation. I'm urging @UABookBans @Nancy_Pearl @JasonReynolds83 to please reconsider this stance

Some of the responses on Bogan's thread:

@TLT16 tweeted:

Wait, were they advocating that we including verifiably factual incorrect information? Do we not care about accuracy anymore? Because that has always been one of the important standards.

Bogan tweeted:

Well im not sure that was their intended message but it is what they said. I think they were trying to convey that whole outdated concept of how "all sides" need to be represented, but even that (which I still disagree w) shld be opinion stuff, not actual misinfo stuff m, surely

cybrarerin tweeted:

There is no 'all sides' to the Holocaust and I fucking hate that we have to fucking clarify that.

@bcb567 tweeted:

People don't have the skills to evaluate info, to determine if it is fact or opinion. They believe what they read in bks. To hold bks that present opinions as facts is disingenuous. By all means have a para in a bk that states an opinion but it should be clear this is what it is.

@dharmascholar tweeted:

Nope nope nope. That's a terrible precedent to allow harmful misinformation to be in the shelves as if it were credible

@JoanneRubenste4 tweeted:

Who said their should be holocaust denial books? That is antithetical to the mission of providing accurate information.

@StacyMDillon tweeted:

There is no neutrality when it comes to hate. And not facts? I don't want to call it misinformation anymore. That sounds too soft. Fake news has a weird connotation. This is one of the many reasons I am reconsidering membership. I dipped and came back.

@bookstax tweeted:

Like for a regular library's collection they said that? Unless you have a legit research need for that garbage, you absolutely don't need to consider that topic at all. That is jacked af.

Before responding to the tweets above, I'd like to share a page from the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum on Holocaust denial, and a quote from the page:

Despite the fact that the tens of thousands of prisoners who survived Auschwitz were witnesses to the crimes committed there; despite the fact that they left behind thousands of depositions, accounts, and memoirs; despite the fact that considerable quantities of documents, photographs, and material objects remain from the camp—despite all of this, there are people and organizations who deny that hundreds of thousands of people were murdered in this camp, that gas chambers operated there, or that the crematoria could burn several thousand corpses per day. In other words, they deny that Auschwitz was the scene of genocide.

I am a proponent of intellectual freedom, which is "the right of every individual to both seek and receive information from all points of view without restriction. It provides for free access to all expressions of ideas through which any and all sides of a question, cause or movement may be explored." I disagree with Bogan and many of the responses I saw to her tweet.

Bogan called Holocaust denial "harmful misinformation." Harmful misinformation is not a reason to not include a book in the library. For example, just about every book from a political figure or talking head that's currently sitting on a public library's bookshelf: Newt Gingrich, Barack Obama, Ted Cruz, Michelle Obama, Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, Sarah Palin, Bill Clinton, Glenn Beck, Al Franken, Bill O'Reilly, Kellyanne Conway, Candace Owens, and Rachel Maddow. This is merely the beginnings of a list of books a patron can find in the library with harmful information in them.

Non-fiction does not mean factual. I would refer you to the non-fiction sections of your public library with materials about gnomes, healing crystals, astrology, Atlantis, werewolves, The Bible, The Koran, and The Gospel of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Non-fiction is, "any document or media content that attempts, in good faith, to provide accurate information regarding a real-world topic. Nonfictional content may be presented either objectively or subjectively." Frankly, I think non-fiction is even less factual than that, non-fiction basically seems to be things and events that people profess to be true.

Intellectual freedom means having information available from all sides. Of course the Holocaust happened, but finding out why people don't believe it did is important. I've never read a Holocaust denial book, though I will now, but I have read a book that is currently wrapped in controversy: The 1619 Project. I am such a fan of 1619 and thought it made so much sense that when I heard there was a counter-argument laid out in a book called 1620: A Critical Response to the 1619 Project I wanted to read it immediately to see what it said and see where it was coming from. I read it. 1620 was unimpressive. Poor arguments. Poor accusations. A quote from the first couple of pages of the book made the biases of the author, Peter Wood, very clear: "The 1619 Project aligns with the views of those on the progressive left who hate America..." The book went downhill from there. Its major points seem to be that there wasn't that much slavery in America, slavery wasn't all that bad a deal for the slaves, and slaves could eventually work themselves out of slavery and own their own slaves. Wood then takes potshots at Nikole Hannah-Jones and The NY Times.

1620 was awful, and if I hadn't read it I would not have known in what specific ways it was awful. I would not have known the thoughts behind the arguments against 1619. I'm glad I read 1620 and I'm glad I didn't have to pay good money to read it. I'm very glad it was available at my public library. I am very thankful for intellectual freedom.

Getting back to the responses to Bogan's Twitter thread, I'm worried that a librarian stated "people don't have thee skills to evaluate info." Not only is it a rather low opinion of people, but part of our jobs as public library librarians is to promote information literacy, "To be information literate, a person must be able to recognize when information is needed and have the ability to locate, evaluate, and use effectively the needed information." Information literacy and information literacy instruction are core components of the mission of the public library.

Librarians try to supply authoritative information that is "accurate and credible," this is true. It is accurate and credible that there are Holocaust deniers, and as librarians we should find the authoritative sources that state this.

Finally? Library neutrality. There is no neutrality when it comes to hate - Truth! - but neutrality in libraries is a red herring. Neutrality in public libraries should not be a thing. Intellectual freedom in public libraries should very much be a thing. I'm not suggesting that the entirety of a public library budget should be spent on Holocaust denial books. I am suggesting that an authoritative book or two on the subject would go a long way to providing intellectual freedom.


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