purple dot collection

In the fall I went to the Metrotown branch of the Burnaby Public Library. I had heard rumors of a “purple dot” collection so I decided to find out more. The reference staff were lovely and explained that many of their instructional sex books and photography books were behind the circulation desk. Dummy video cases were on the shelves in place of the books. If a user wants to look at, or sign out one of the purple dot books, they take the video case to the circ desk and staff retrieve the book for them. One staff member said that the video cases have caused confusion among some patrons–sometimes patrons think they are getting the video of The Joy of Sex and are visibly disappointed to only get the book.

Being the nerd that I am, I was trying to do an OPAC search to get a complete list of all the purple dot books, and nothing else. (For other nerds, I tried to find a record of a book that I thought might be a purple dot book and then expanded from there. “Explicit” features in many of the notes fields, but a keyword search on “explicit” retrieved some items that were not purple dot items and missed some that are.A   The call numbers all have a “^” after them, but that is not searchable. The phrase “purple dot” doesn’t appear in the record anywhere. )

The first person at the reference desk was unable to help me, but suggested some call number ranges I could browse to find the dummy video cases. I spoke to several librarians who gave me different reasons for the purple dot collection including:

  • it’s for the protection of patrons (who might not want to see sexual images)
  • it’s for the protection of children
  • it’s for the protection of the books themselves (from vandalism or theft)
  • it’s for the protection of staff (so they do not have to deal with patrons who might be angry that the library has sex books)
  • it allows the library to collect more risque materials
  • it is too expensive to keep replacing these books when they get vandalized or stolen

I got a different answer from each person I spoke to.A   Staff seemed to agree that the criteria for being a purple dot book was an erect penis, even though nobody could find any policy outlining the purple dot collection and the criteria for being a purple dot book. I also learned that the Metrotown branch is the only Burnaby branch with a purple dot collection.

I don’t really want to pick on Burnaby PL–I respect and admire many of the people who work there and the services they provide. I want to start a conversation about the purple dot collections in libraries and the other unofficial shelving locations (under the reference desk, in the librarian’s office, in compact shelving, in a cage, on top of the workroom shelf), that we have in libraries. All of these locations come from real examples where library policy, librarians or other individual staff members make a decision to limit access to certain materials in some way.A   It goes beyond the selection/censorship debate–if an item is in the collection, but there are additional barriers to accessing the item, does that uphold the values of intellectual freedom?A   As a new librarian, I’m learning that almost everyone will tow the party line on intellectual freedom in public, but within their own institutions they make decisions that fall short of this core value.

So, please share your purple dot stories.

2 thoughts on “purple dot collection”

  1. As a librarian at Burnaby Public Library who is grateful that my branch no longer has a purple dot collection, I need to share my own “behind the desk” transgression from a former job. When I worked in Nelson, we did not put the Joy of Sex behind the desk and assumed it would occasionally disappear and we’d have to replace it. We did at one point put books on contraception in reference because the “right to life” people kept stealing them. Now there’s a perplexing contradiction but that’s another story. The story I want to tell is about the books on marijuana cultivation. Before we had a loss prevention system (ie. 3M strips and gates), we had to keep all of those books behind the desk due to the fact that they were consistently stolen. There were two factors here: one is that the Kootenays are famous for the green crop and the other is that rural areas did not pay taxes for library services (another very long story) and so residents had to pay a non-resident fee to get a library card. Not surprisingly, the books did not circulate much when people had to ask for them but we did not have to replace them as often. After we installed the 3M system, we put them back on the shelves. In the years that followed before I moved on to Burnaby, we only caught thieves trying to walk out with one of these books once or twice – and the loss rate dropped dramatically. Did the system act as a deterrent? Were those rural residents finding other ways to borrow the materials – or were they sufficiently expert that they didn’t need them anymore? I don’t have the answers but our experience does beg the question of whether it made sense to keep them behind the desk. How do we balance our mandate to get information to the people and our role as stewards of a publicly-funded collection? And do we ever have a role as arbiters of public taste and morality? All questions worth discussing!

  2. Thanks for the story!

    I’ve never been a part of collection development at a public library–what happens with books that have a high chance of walking out the door? Is it possible to buy a dozen (at a discount) and process and catalog them (taking advantage of small economies of scale) and have them shelf ready to replace the copy that is going to walk? Is this the cost of doing business, or is it reckless stewardship of a library’s limited resources? Anyone know if this is practiced anywhere?

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