The notorious case of self-censorship in the Fiske Report

Self-censorship in libraries occurred in the 1950s due to the fear of being “blacklisted,” an outcome produced by the McCarthy era and the House Un-American Activities Committee in their maniacal efforts to root out soviet conspiratorial activity. On the heels of this shameful period in American history, libraries transitioned from a period of careful, “patriotic” book selection to the more enlightened practice of collecting materials on diffuse and even controversial subject matters.

The “Fiske Report,” conducted by Marjorie Fiske between 1956 and 1958, is a 1500-page study which focused on book selection and censorship practices in California libraries. The damning conclusion of that report was that librarians censored themselves, often shamelessly and habitually. Curiously, however, the Intellectual Freedom Committee of the California Library Association (CLA IFC) had already secured victory over McCarthyism, opposing blacklisting and loyalty oaths. Yet, self-censorship was still a reality in library selection processes. For the CLA IFC, the question became: Why is censorship continuing unabated after the pressure of McCarthyism has subsided? Indeed, after these late victories, the CLA IFC attempted to unravel the mystery. There was a search on for a new and unmasked “enemy,” as it were, of intellectual freedom who threatened the newly minted freedom-model of California libraries (if not libraries across the nation). This was the basis of the Fiske Report.

In outlining the goals of the report, intellectual freedom was established as a “sacred” principle that librarians were exhorted to uphold going forward in defiance of what happened during the McCarthy period. Why, then, did this professional call to action not permeate the institutional practice of librarianship?

Until recently, the research data from the Fiske Report went unquestioned. But Latham (2014) points out that there were many problems in Fiske’s original research strategy, and in Fiske’s assumptions about the leverage librarians had to affect real change. Latham has reinterpreted this data using a feminist approach. This makes perfect sense considering the nature of the research data. For instance, the entire report was predicated on female service-oriented librarians in the 1950s when females were considered “timid” and “mousy.” Indeed, “women’s work” was still prevalent; a concept that goes back to the Cult of Domesticity and beyond.

The original report consisted of interview material with California public and school librarians. The gender ratio of the respondents was very unbalanced, with 87% of those interviewed being female librarians. Curiously, interview respondents occupying higher, more “elite” positions, like school administrators, were predominately male: 47 out of 48 individuals, in fact. (Latham 58) Therefore, what we have here in the Fiske Report is not just a random gender ratio imbalance, but – given the social context of the day – a deeply gendered and sexist politics. This structuralism of 1950s librarianship went overlooked, and this is what Latham addresses, informed by the evidence of earlier studies from Serebnick (1979) and Stivers (2002).

Gender norms of the 1950s suggested that men had more authority than women in matters of social importance (religion, morality, politics, etc.). This is reflected in the statement made by Max Lerner, speaker at the UC Berkeley School of Librarianship symposium cited in the article. Lerner said, “Having only petticoats among teachers and, perhaps, among librarians, too is not entirely healthy…” (66) This unfair and glaringly sexist statement reflects the consciousness of the day, which the symposium was rife with. Indeed, the pre-eminent sociologist Talcott Parsons concluded from the Fiske Report that self-censorship was still an issue in libraries because female librarians could not handle the intellectual rigors of reestablishing the authority of the library’s intellectual freedom.

If librarian autonomy and the role of the board or school administrators was compared in the report, why did the reality of the situation escape Fiske, a woman herself? Admittedly, she was a bit of a high-brow. But her attitudes toward women should have been gentler than that of Lerner or Parsons. Moreover, bias should have been tempered by her research support, as Katherine G. Thayer joined the research team to provide a perspective on librarianship. Thayer was the head of the library school at UC Berkeley, and she surely would have had a more intimate understanding of the field at the time. But the sad reality is that the librarians who participated in the study derived little support from the male administrative hierarchy when it came to figuring out the best practices for reversing restrictive collection policies.

Finally, as was already mentioned, Fiske’s research was deeply flawed. Latham writes, “None of [Fiske’s] interviews were taped, and notes were handwritten. When interviewees objected to handwritten notes, the interviewer used memory to reconstruct the data after leaving the interview (64). This is a big red flag. One does not simply – and certainly does not ethically – “fill in the blanks” when doing ethnographic research. When in doubt, clarification from the respondents should have been sought and attained with careful attention to the re-recording of participant perspectives. Therefore, the report suffers from a short-sightedness in both the integrity of data and in a deeper understanding of the cultural milieu of a male-dominated society.

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