Reference Librarian At Center Of Controversy Over Common Reading Experience

You would think that including the head of your reference department on the commitee that’s selecting the common book for a freshman reading experience would promote better relations between the academic library and faculty. But that’s hardly been the case at Ohio State University at Mansfield where Scott Savage, the head reference librarian, has become the subject of harassment charges filed by several faculty members. The controversy at Mansfield is detailed in a report that appears in today’s Inside Higher Ed.

How did Savage land himself into hot water with the faculty? It seems that after suggesting the book Freakonomics, as a non-ideological and less controversial book, faculty rejected the suggestion because it lacked the sort of controversy that would engage students in debate. Savage then suggested four additional books all of which were decidedly conservative (e.g., from authors such as Rick Santorum and David Horowitz), including one title that clearly contained anti-gay content. One needs only to read some of the e-mail that went back and forth between the committee members (see the document from the Alliance Defense Fund – a conservative organization – which has threatened to sue OSU if they don’t drop the harassment charges against Savage) to get a sense of the enmity this has caused between the conflicted parties.

I don’t know if the librarians at Mansfield have faculty status along with full tenure rights, but we often debate if academic librarians actually need the protection of tenure. This may be a case for us to watch closely. Shouldn’t having faculty status give librarians the right to express unpopular views or to recommend controversial or conservative books for community reading programs without fear of retaliation. Or must we be deferential to teaching faculty for fear that we will offend them and cause them to, as one of the faculty at Mansfield indicated he would, stop using the services of the library and encourage students to do the same. Savage did not respond to requests to be interviewed so we really don’t know what he was thinking. Having faculty status and the rights guaranteed by academic freedom and tenure does not give carte blanche to act in ways that are sure to be perceived as unreasonable and insensitive to one’s colleagues. Did Savage not see the firestorm he’d be creating with his suggestions? Did he intend to provoke his faculty colleagues because they rejected his initial suggestion as lacking controversy? I suppose we’ll need to watch this story as it develops to better understand the case against Savage. But I suspect that there will be some important lessons to be learned for academic librarians, both those with and without the rights afforded by tenure.

4 thoughts on “Reference Librarian At Center Of Controversy Over Common Reading Experience”

  1. Probably the only issue more likey to generate discord than what an institution’s Web page should look like is what the campus should read. It’s not an easy choice: the chosen book must be readily available (and affordable – not a hardcover), not so long or challenging that incoming first year students will be defeated by the task, not so simplistic that it sends the wrong message about academic expectations. It can’t be so bland or obvious that there’s nothing much to discuss, but it shouldn’t be offensive. And, of course, it should be well written. Add to that, many campuses invite the author to speak, so he or she must be charismatic, available, affordable, and alive.

    What really makes a common reading choice interesting is the contest that takes place over what reading means. Social reading practices outside the academy tend to emphasize empathy and identification; the choices the characters make are the subject of discussion, rather than the choices the author made as an artist – which makes the Oprah book club very different in character than American Lit I. Students often come to college thinking there are two kinds of reading: reading for class and reading for pleasure. A good common reading helps them do both. Another area of contest is the purpose of reading together. For student affairs, the main point may be to practice discussion skills while reading a book that provides new students with material that can be related to adjustment to college. For faculty, practicing critical reading of a literary text may take precedence over any other reading strategy.

    And that’s apart from the charged issue of what the book is about! That issue – in particular the political stance of a book and the message that sends – seems to have been the flashpoint here. But it’s certainly not the only one.

    I’ve been compiling a list of common reading programs at colleges – and I am sure it’s not complete and would like to hear from schools who have such a program. As you can see from the books chosen, there’s a mix of fiction and current topics, with an emphasis on diversity.

    Certainly there are plenty of good books a college could read together. But choosing the book will entail a lot of negotiation about why we read and what reading together can accomplish.

  2. Unfortunately, this seems to be a common response on university campuses. A university is supposed to be a place of learning and exploring. Being exposed to alternative ideas and views should be part of the education process. Students should be taught to think critically. Why universities have found themselves in an ideological war against what they perceive to be a conservative threat is a mystery. The fight over a book recommendation is just an example of an endemic problem on campuses. They have become places of close-mindedness instead of institutions to facilitate true learning.

    Attacking the librarian for suggesting a book title, regardless of the content, should not be the response of open minded academics. Sitting in a library, looking at a display of censored and banned books reminds me that this is an ongoing fight, even in our institutions of higher learning.

  3. This smacks of Fahrenheit 451.
    If faculty members are so opposed to something controversial, and/or something they don’t agree with, maybe it will raise the students’ curiosity enough to raise true and open discussions – no matter what the topic. Academic freedom is a two way street. Slander needs to get off the road.

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