Should we judge books by their covers?

handwritten, anonymous note complaining about library displayThis week a handwritten note appeared in our library’s display of new books. The note says, “I wish there were more non-sexualized images of women displayed here…”

I want to start by apologizing to the person who wrote this note. I regret that our display caused any discomfort. The last thing that we want to do is alienate those visiting our library or make anyone feel that they are being misrepresented. We pride ourselves on collecting books that celebrate the diversity of gender expression and lift up the communities we serve. I’m very grateful that one of our visitors cared about our mission and expressed concern about a possible issue.

I also want to make it clear that cover images do not play a role in decisions about which books get added to our collection and they were not a consideration when creating the display, which is meant to show off our new acquisitions. The question this note brings up, however, is whether or not we should judge books by their cover. Should we avoid buying books with covers that seem to go against the values of the GLBT Student Support Services Office? Should we avoid putting potentially offensive covers on display? Do we have to combat every potentially harmful image with one that expresses an opposite viewpoint?

To begin to answer those questions we must consider the purpose of book covers. Publishers use them primarily as marketing tools that represent the contents of books and appeal to their target audience. Authors rarely get a say in their cover art [read one author’s discussion about the depiction of race on the cover of her book at http://justinelarbalestier.com/blog/2009/07/23/aint-that-a-shame/] and publishers face pressures from the booksellers who buy their books and from the sensibilities of the book buyers [Publisher’s Weekly on how the events of September 11, 2001 impacted cover design: http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/print/20060821/4646-some-covers-speak-too-loudly-for-their-words-.html ]. Covers’ styles are strongly influenced by genre [view a flickr collection of gay and lesbian pulp book covers at http://www.flickr.com/photos/hangfirebooks/sets/72157601656991552/] and even national tastes [The Millions’ comparison of US and UK covers for the same books: http://www.themillions.com/2012/02/judging-books-by-their-covers-u-s-vs-u-k-3.html].

Making selections based on cover design would involve making value judgments, something librarians strive to avoid. Our collection development policy states that “[t]he GLBTSSS Library, in accordance with the American Library Association’s Bill of Rights and Freedom to Read Statement, does not want to restrict the purchase, donation, or circulation of any material due to the viewpoints and messages expressed therein” (http://www.indiana.edu/~glbt/assets/Uploads/Collectiondevelopmentpolicy.pdf) and that statement also applies to the images presented on the cover.

Our library is open to the public and we don’t consider it appropriate or practical to allow one person’s opinion to guide decisions about what stays and goes. If we removed or hid every item that an individual finds offensive we might end up hiding a part of the very community we serve. Take the events in Hillsborough County, Florida for example. One government official was upset by the library’s display for Gay Pride and successfully passed a policy that the Hillsborough County Government abstain from acknowledging, promoting, and participating in any gay pride recognition or events. A transcript of the meeting, including the responses of the public (everyone who spoke opposed the policy) is available online (http://www.htv22.org/htv/caption/download.cfm?file=bc050615.rtf) and the Tampa Bay Times wrote about the story as recently as last year (http://www.tampabay.com/news/politics/politifact-florida-gay-pride-ban-is-discriminatory/1153057). Even if we did decide to censor displayed books based on their covers in an attempt to avoid discomforting those who visit our library, how would we decide what is appropriate? Whether or not an image is sexualized or prurient is a subjective matter.

That being said, we strive to be sensitive to our users’ needs and want our library to be as accessible as possible. We have taken this note to heart and will attempt to use our displays to showcase a variety of aesthetics whenever possible because doing so will further our goal of serving the informational and entertainment needs of those who use our library.

Curious about the covers that prompted the note? Images of the books that were on display at the time the note was discovered are provided below so that you can make up your own mind:

*Coincidentally, a documentary about the way that women are portrayed in media is going to be presented tonight, March 28th, at 6:30 in the Whittenberger Auditorium at the Indiana Memorial Union. If you want to know more about the movie or the impact of sexualized images of women check out their website at www.missrepresentation.org.