Gatekeeping and Library Ethics 101 / Barbara Opar

This past April, I wrote a column addressing the Shitty Architecture Men list of 2018 and the reactions of some library patrons and staff to certain materials in our small branch.  See This second column includes the results of a brief survey distributed late spring to both the ARLIS and AASL listservs as well as students and faculty here. The results noted below are some of the suggestions survey respondents gave to address ways in which we might “downplay” the prominence of those on the accused list:

“Don’t highlight them in book displays or new book advertisements, but they should remain in the collection. Their presence provides an opportunity for discussion and debate.”

“In instances like this it may be useful to make available information about such abuse and intentionally highlight works about women architects. Uplift others to make a point, and use it to start a conversation to shed light on the situation.”

“Allow for these works to be available in your online catalog the way other works are, but simply move to storage for the time being.”

Just coming off Banned Books Week, I verred away from my initial reaction and started to question whether or not we as librarians should or have a right to “restrict” access or limit purchasing of materials on controversial architects.  As one person responded:  

“NO- it is not our job to endorse, or not endorse. We are here to provide accesses to resources. We are stewards, not cultural critics. Librarians really, really need to be impartial – it isn’t cool to ask why someone wants information- do the reference interview but don’t interject your beliefs. Library ethics 101”

Most of us would agree how disturbing it is to see books by or about these figures deemed seminal. Yet, at the same time, most would agree that no library should have the right to censor information to its users. What about gatekeeping?  The following comments were also part of the survey results:

“I’d say simply stop buying new materials on this person. Use your buying power not to support new scholarship on them. Invest in alternative voices. Seek out more resources on female architects and people of color, etc.–i.e. give more choices to patrons. If the architect no longer represents the changing tides, don’t feature them in library displays. Every library is a library of “great” males to some extent. To what extant is it up to the library to decide how morally great each author or subject matter is?”

“There could be notices on the shelf (that’s a bit harder to do in an online environment). One could contact the publishers of online reference works and ask them to include statements. It’s a slippery slope and difficult to know that all the “bad guys” are included. How far back do we go?”

Ethically speaking, selection decisions should be decided without censorship.  Architecture selection unlike art and photography rarely involves controversial content. There is no decision point requiring content assessment. Most would also agree that materials on well- known figures are likely to be sought after and consulted. So do we have any right to place limits on new materials on controversial figures?  Is it fair to downplay their existence in our collections? What about using media to “influence” and educate patrons about the context of an architect’s work? Where does our responsibility lie? 

Comments and ideas welcome. Email me at


Barbara Opar is Librarian for Architecture, Syracuse University Libraries

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