Massachusetts Library Stands by Tintin

January 3, 2014
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250px-TinTin_CongoYesterday, library officials with the Jones Library in Amherst, Massachusetts, refused to reshelve — and thus restrict access to — several Tintin titles after a group of parents filed a complaint about racist caricatures in the books.

Scott Merzbach covered the story for the Daily Hampshire Gazette:

Jeannette Wicks-Lim of Belchertown Road said she and other parents recently became aware of these early- to mid-20th-century works because they are popular with grade-school children.

The parents maintain that some of the “Tintin” novels portray characters in a negative light and reflect imperial attitudes evident at the time.

“The Tintin series has quite a reputation of racist imagery and story lines,” Wicks-Lim said.

The parents did not call for the outright removal of the books, but they did ask that the books be removed from the children’s section and placed in less accessible sections with parental warnings about content.

The book central to the challenge, Tintin in the Congo, is no stranger to controversy. It has faced significant backlash over its depiction of the Congolese and treatment of animals. A Belgian court decided that Hergé’s controversial second book in the Tintin series could not be removed from shelves in the country. The book faced charges that it broke several of Belgium’s laws against racism and incited racial hatred, but the court ruled that the book, was a product of its time and did not intend to incite racial hatred.

A youth services librarian at the Stockholm Library of Culture in Sweden, pulled the Tintin books from shelves because of dated and frequently unflattering depictions of various races. The ban was short lived, and the books were restored to shelves with apologies from the library director and the librarian, the latter of whom wanted to raise awareness of what he considered xenophobic content.

The parents met with the Jones Library trustees board yesterday to learn the fate of the books. The trustees decided to take no action, effectively leaving the books where they are. Merzbach reports:

Library Director Sharon Sharry argued that relocating the books would amount to censoring them, citing the American Library Association’s definition of censorship as a “change in the access status of material, based on the content of the work and made by a governing authority or its representatives.” This can include changing the age or grade levels that have access to the material.

“If the Jones Library does nothing else, we protect everyone’s constitutional right to read anything he or she wants,” Sharry said. “Our mission does not include censorship.”

In speaking to the parents who filed the complaint, Merzbach notes that they expressed concern over library staff not doing enough to examine books for what they consider inappropriate content. Library officials stood by their actions, citing the freedom to read:

Sharry, however, said she is concerned that moving the books would open the door to other parents or patrons demanding changes to materials that don’t jibe with their religious or political beliefs.

“It is not the job of the librarian to tell the community what it should or shouldn’t be reading,” Sharry said.

Sharry further reiterates that it is the responsibility of parents — not library staff — to know what their children are reading and whether it is appropriate. Sharry further expressed support for the parents who filed the complaint, one of whom would like to organize community discussions of racism:

“Let’s have some programs to talk about racism in society,” she said. “The library is the perfect place for that.”

The decision to keep the Tintin books shelved in the children’s section of the Jones Library without restriction or warning labels is an important victory not just for comics, but also for the freedom to read. The library trustees rightly sided with the freedom to read in retaining the books without restriction.

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