or, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Fear and Loathing at a Public Library Reference Desk

Reference Question of the Week – 11/6/11

   November 12th, 2011

Show Me! A Picture Book of Sex for Children and Parents - Photography and Captions by Will McBride - Explanatory Text by Dr. Helga Fleischhauer-HardtThis was a bit bizarre. Three or four weeks ago, a woman came to the reference desk holding her Blackberry. English was not her first language, so there was a bit of a language barrier, but on her Blackberry was a photo of a book titled Show Me!

I didn't recognize it, but from what I could piece together of her story, she had found this book in the home of friends of hers. She felt it contained child pornography, and wanted to know if the book was illegal. She said she noticed it while they were all sitting around talking, but as soon as her friend went into another room, she rushed over, snapped a covert photo, and then ran out of the house and came straight to the library. She wanted to know if the library had a copy and if it was legal to check it out.

I tried to explain that "legal" and "illegal" usually doesn't actually come into play - but if it would with anything, it would be child pornography. However, her photo of the book wasn't clear enough to read the author's name, and a search on Amazon for Show Me produced a lot of results, with none matching the cover (although there were a few that were slightly uncomfortable to skim through in this context).

After a few pages of results, I think she understood that there were a lot of books with "Show Me" in the title. I told her if she could get the author's name from the book the next time she goes to her friend's house, then we'd have a better chance of finding the book.

As she walked away, I actually thought, "well, that was weird, and I will never see her again."

So I was surprised when the woman returned this week. She walked up to me as if no time at all had passed, and just said,

The author is Mac Bride.

I don't have the greatest memory for faces, but for some reason immediately knew who she was and what she was talking about. I searched for "show me mac bride," which lead to a Wikipedia article on the book Show Me!, by Will McBride (the Mac Bride/McBride mistake was me not getting over the language barrier right away).

According to the article, this book does have a history of being challenged in court, but the outcome was not definite. Distribution of the book was stopped to avoid potential legal challenges, and some libraries withdrew it from their collection, but the Supreme Court case cited seemed to only allow the government to ban the sale of the book (not owning it or loaning it, although I am no legal scholar).

We do not own a copy of this book, but I did find a copy at the Boston Public Library (through the state-wide Virtual Catalog), and told her we could request it if she wanted. She asked again if it was legal to take that book out of the library, and I said that yes, it was. Someone could challenge the library making it available, but that it didn't seem illegal to have it.

With that, she said thanks, that's all she wanted to know, and left.

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9 Responses to “Reference Question of the Week – 11/6/11”

  1. Edith Says:

    I remember my TA in grad school in my Youth Services class showing us a copy of this book when we were talking banned books. Apparently it is now considered a rare book, she said her battered copy had cost her $50 but copies of the book in good condition can go for hundreds of dollars. It is a bit uncomfortable to look through because of the content, but I believe it is suppose to be a sex ed book for children.

  2. jmb98115 Says:

    Could she been asking out of incredulity that our society and culture are so tolerant of these materials? Perhaps she comes from a society or country that has less freedom of expression and she is shocked by our permissiveness to allow such materials, and is not personally offended.
    Not even a remote chance of that, huh? 😐

  3. JP Says:

    How timely. I just finished up the intellectual freedom unit in my collection development class, where this book and it being challenged was discussed.

  4. Brian Herzog Says:

    @Edith: I agree – and was surprised to see the subject heading for this book is “Sex Instruction for Children — Pictorial Works.” As @jmb98115 indicated, some things are going to be uncomfortable based on your cultural background, and this definitely qualifies for me personally.

    @JP: Just out of curiosity, what did the class think of this book?

  5. JP Says:

    The class didn’t really give an opinion. Just presented the book as a contested item because of the photography. It was in the context of the 1982 Supreme Court decision (Miller Decision) that upheld a NY law stating that it was illegal to use children in sexually explicit photographs, obscene or not. After that, the company decided to stop distributing the books, since it was too complicated to determine each states’ morality codes regarding “questionable” photographs.

  6. Brian Herzog Says:

    @JP: thanks for the update.

  7. laura k Says:

    Maybe it’s just me, but I think it’s a little weird that someone would see this book at a friend’s house and try to surreptitiously find out if it’s child pornography, instead of asking the friend about it. That smacks to me of weird neighbor surveillance. Although I guess maybe it just made her uncomfortable?

  8. Brian Herzog Says:

    @laura: no, definitely not just you. Despite the content, the whole “surreptitious photo” thing made me laugh – although if it weren’t for the extreme content, she might not have been prompted to act.

  9. Thad McIlroy Says:

    I was a bookseller in Toronto when the book was first published and being young and idealistic I enjoyed confronting the ethical challenge of whether to protect this book. I agreed with the court that it should be made available — it’s on the difficult questions like this one where it’s most important that we carefully think through our position.

    You see from the Wikipedia article that the eventual effect of the legal challenges by the book’s opponents was to effectively censor this book (and presumable some others like it) — St. Martin’s reasonably enough had to draw the line at the mounting legal costs.

    And America, as we all know, remains a culture committed to treating our physical bodies and our sexuality as something damned, strange and forbidden.