Does political correctness lead to access issues?

This is a question I have been asking myself lately. Does political correctness lead to access issues? One of my ongoing responsibilities is to maintain our kids’ catalogue. The catalogue is a “sub-catalogue” to our main catalogue and is based on images, rather than text.

I often find myself censoring the images I use to depict reading lists and subjects due to my concern over how adults will react. Although my main concern should be whether or not the image properly reflects the content of a list to a child, I am constantly asking myself, “Will I offend someone?”, “Is this appropriate?”.

An example of this political correctness and yes, perhaps censoring, occured the other day. I decided to use an image of a young Native American girl dressed in traditional clothes to represent a reading list for Mi’Kmaq Heritage Month. I had carefully considered this image before approving it. To my way of thinking, children could identify the image with the reading list topic. They could also see themselves as the young girl.

Like all of the images I choose for the kids’ catalogue, this one was also in cartoon form. However, there were no distinct features and actually, the image closely resembled a dark haired and “darker” skinned Precious Moments figurine. Who would have a problem with that? Well, shortly after the image went “public”, I had a complaint. Some one was concerned that it was not politically correct due to the skin color and feathers.


(Courtesy of Microsoft Office Media Elements)

My first reaction was one of disbelief. What?! It’s a cartoon drawing of a little Native American girl! What’s the problem? However, at that moment I had to balance my professional and personal opinions with that of the “public”. In the end, the image was changed. Has it impacted access to the list? I believe so. Given all of the literature I have read on how children search, it is necessary to provide images that children can recognize and identify with. The new image for the list is now a drum. My concern is that they will think it is a list about music.

What really bothers me is that I’m unsure how to proceed. Earlier this year, there were images on the kids’ catalogue that depicted a Jewish man in his religious clothing and later, a Muslim woman in traditional garb. These images were acceptable and there were no complaints.  They could be called “stereotypes” as well.
Should I have fought to keep the image of the Native American girl? Am I too insensitive? Not politically correct enough? I don’t know. I do know that my library has a history of not apologizing for its large and broad collection. We do not censor, we do not label. Is that what I was doing? How can I balance how adults think with what children think? Isn’t this about access?

I wonder what new lists or images I will come across that evoke negative responses. How will I handle the situation? Will I fight for what I think is right? Should I meekly allow the public to dictate what I should do, responding to their sensibilities? Should I let those without my expertise direct my decisions? I don’t know. I would hate to see cataloguers in a position where they are afraid to assign access points for fear of being criticized for “labelling” people and topics. After all, isn’t that what cataloguing is? We need to assign words to concepts and articulate ideas in a word or two. We assign adjectives to thousands of items. Should we start fearing repercussions? Complaints from the public? And if so, how far do we take this? Do we do so without question, or only respond to those “squeeky wheels” who decide they are the spokespeople for humanity?



Filed under Access Issues, Professional Ethics, The Cataloguer

3 responses to “Does political correctness lead to access issues?

  1. Lanie

    My personal view is, bluntly, that you were right in your original decision and the public (consisting of ONE complaint?!) was wrong.

    Reasoning: To answer the question you posed, your expertise does matter! You are the professional; you spend your working life on such matters. The complainant is not; this was almost certainly a knee-jerk reaction motivated by who-knows-what: squeaky-wheel anarchy.

    You can, and apparently do, take into account broader political issues that have currency in society. But you add to that, importantly, deep professional insight into what you are trying to achieve and the nuts and bolts of making a system work. You see a bigger picture than a non-professional can be expected to.

    And a single complaint should almost NEVER be permitted to rule the day.

    Possibly your library has a copy of “The Road to Abilene,” a video about the perils of groupthink, in which one evening porch-sitter makes an offhand comment about going to Abilene for (if memory serves) ice cream, all the other porch-sitters think they must go along, and a most unhappy trip ensues.

  2. Ray G.

    Wow. Just wow. I’d like to know what the person who complained would have used.

  3. Deidra Mahon

    “As a person of Native American descent and a mother of a daughter of who is Maya Indian, I find nothing wrong with the image, which is cute and allows students to make a quick connection with the information contained within that reading list. After looking up pictures on the Internet of Mi’Kmaq in traditional dress, I found images very similar to your depiction. I would have to agree with you that although we should be sensitive to racial stereotyping, I do not feel that is the case with your image. After all, you are trying to create an access point for your students while being aware that there are sensitivities in some erroneous images of Native Americans, and I believe that you achieved this. Some people complain just to be complaining, and one complaint should not outweigh your intent to represent the Mi”Kmaq heritage in a kid-friendly, genuine manner.” So far, there has been no reply post, but I was only the third comment to this article. Both of the others are in agreement with the author, but it is difficult for me to tell whether or not they are of the general public or are library professionals. One of these posts does make the valid point that the author is the professional and that her expertise should be cause for her support in this matter.

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