Article Review: Controversial books in the public library

This article was originally reviewed for my course on research and statistical methods.
Spence, A. (2000). Controversial books in the public library: A comparative survey of holdings of gay-related children’s picture books. Library Quarterly, 70(3), 335-379.

This study used electronic library catalogs from American and Canadian public libraries (although some libraries in New Zealand, Britain, and Australia were also examined) to do a comparative survey of libraries’ holdings of controversial books; specifically ‘gay-related’ books for children.

Spence’s study was very well thought-out, and I thought it addressed a specific need within the literature; that of understanding how libraries provide for accessibility and diversity within their collections – and when there isn’t diversity, an attempt to understand why. Spence was very careful to define all of his terms, in order to be specific about which books he was talking about. In addition, his paper not only adds to the body of research in the field, but could also be used as a tool for librarians who are in charge of collection development, since his appendices include detailed information about each of the books that he uses in his study. I also appreciated his use of tables and appendices to structure and display the data, instead of listing all of his results.

I was attempting to think of flaws in the methodology as I read through this, but I was mostly ambivalent about things that could be considered flaws. For example, I felt that the introduction and some of the discussion areas were a little redundant, and occasionally ventured into editorializing; Spence is comprehensive in his discussion of why these books might be controversial, which made me check to see when the article was written – 15 years ago. Perhaps at the time such explanation was necessary, but in the current political climate, it feels like a slog to read through things that are common knowledge. One point that I found unclear was Spence’s statistical calculations. On p. 347 he states that he uses the library system with the most copies per 100,000 people as the normalizing value, and then later he seems to be using the mean number of copies per 100,000 system as the benchmark. It’s possible I’m not understanding the math here, but this point jumped out at me as something that seemed worthy of further discussion.

This research is obviously helpful for public librarians and others who work with childrens’ collection development because of its comprehensive discussion of gay-related children’s literature, but I think it could also be used as an interesting historical document for scholars interested in the shifting social acceptance of the LGBT community.