Checking Out Provocative Books: Theft’s Easier Than a Ban

I was having a casual conversation with a public librarian when the conspiracy theory came up. The John Birch Society was his guess. They’re the ones who are stealing leftist political volumes off the shelves.

“They check them out and don’t return them,” he said. “It’s really a subtle form of censorship.”

Then another librarian, in another city, said that books on the occult--and this definition is loose--were especially hard to keep around. But are the thieves into the nether world themselves or are they “protecting” the rest of us from the evil that lurks, ready to pounce?

Your guess is as good as mine. There’s really no way to tell. Conspiracy or coincidence? Theft or forgetfulness?

It doesn’t matter all that much when you look at the bottom line: Books are disappearing from the shelves. And here’s an open secret that librarians are reluctant to share: It’s easier to steal than it is to ban.


“I’m hearing about this more in the past six months than I have in the past six years,” says Judith Krug, director of the American Library Assn.'s Office for Intellectual Freedom in Chicago.

“We can identify the fact. We inventory the books and we discover that certain books just aren’t there. We can’t indicate why. Most of the time, they just walk and you never know why. There’s a hell of a lot of problems out there.”

Out there means out here, too.

While local librarians, holding their breath, crossing their fingers and knocking wood, say thievery at Orange County libraries isn’t big time, loss rates can range from about 3% to 10%.

Discounting the usual sticky-fingered favorites (“how-to” manuals, pregnancy books, guidelines for taking tests), suspicions about other disappearing titles are rife.

There is no study they can point to, no statistics in reach, but librarians say that some controversial books can hardly be found. The listing on the computer simply says “lost.” Others, defaced with stickers, written on or otherwise destroyed, must be taken off the shelves. They, too, are “lost"--along with their provocative ideas.

It might be “The Joy of Sex,” or “Das Kapital,” or maybe Vladimir Nabokov’s perennially banned “Lolita.” Yet Bret Easton Ellis’ “American Psycho,” a woman hater’s dream, full of murder, mutilation and sexual abuse, is apparently out (barely) and circulating just fine, thank you very much.

Librarians say that attacks on the free flow of ideas, whether outright or by default, tend to come in waves. Nationally, the wave is cresting high.

“We are dealing with 1,000 of these issues annually,” says Krug, who for the past two decades has kept track of actual or threatened censorship across the country. “And we are dealing with only the tip of the iceberg, only the ones where there has been a formal challenge. Only about 15% of censorship challenges ever get that far.”

Krug says books having to do with the occult, with sex and what she calls health and family life--issues such as AIDS, child abuse and sex education--are the censors’ favorite targets now. The occult--or anything having to do with magic, wizardry and the supernatural--is the real comer here.

Several years ago, someone checked out all the children’s books in the Yorba Linda public library with the word devil in the title, even those that had nothing to do with the devil at all. None were returned.

“It was pretty amazing,” says Phyllis Mortenson, the library’s coordinator of children’s services at the time. “They just flipped through the card catalogue and checked them all out. . . .

“Later they said that they had been returned. And you can’t call a patron a liar. We can’t ask them why they did this, but we assume we know why. . . . Very quietly, I replaced anything that was in print. I have an idea that this type of thing is much more prevalent than we think it is.”

Joan Blumenstein, senior librarian for children’s services at the city of Orange public library, adds this: “You do tend to think, ‘Well, is this book going to last if I buy it?’ And, of course, you shouldn’t do that. It’s more insidious than anything else. . . . It’s a sort of self-censorship.”

Still, Blumenstein laments, Doris Orgel’s “The Devil in Vienna,” a moving story about Hitler’s advance through Austria, was “lost” pretty quickly at her branch.

Elementary and high school libraries are something else. Here, the line between censorship and responsibility can fuzz. How do you enrich a child’s education while appeasing parents who might see that as quite something else?

Is “From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler” deserving of the awards it’s won, or should it be banned--as some parents have suggested--because it could encourage children to follow the heroine’s lead and run away to live in the Metropolitan Museum in New York?

The absurdity of my last question defies a serious response.

“One of our elementary schools got a gift of ‘Sweet Valley High’ books, which are trashy romance novels for high school kids,” says Sandra Heidenrich, Saddleback Valley Unified School District’s media library specialist.

“They have some pretty sexy scenes. Somebody complained. Well, we looked at it and decided it was totally inappropriate for elementary school kids, so we took them off the shelves.”

School districts have what they call challenge forms for books. Parents may write a complaint up and watch it wend its way up through the chain of command. Administrators say the process itself tends to discourage parents from taking challenges very far. Mostly, teachers informally exempt students from this assignment or that.

Rare is the school district that relishes taking a censor head on.

Through it all, of course, books continue to disappear--from the public libraries, from schools and from stores. Nobody can say exactly why.

I remember reading about a guy in New York who had stolen so many books that he turned over one of his apartments entirely to his tomes. He didn’t read them, but he liked how they looked.

“I have actually talked to people who said that because they can’t find a book--say, it’s out of print--they will take it from the library, say it’s lost and then pay for it,” says Lynn Eisenhut, coordinator for children’s service at the Orange County Public Library. “That way they somehow soothe their conscience.”

Yes, it takes all kinds.

Just one more reason why we need all kinds of books--on the shelves, where everybody can choose what they want.