The ALA Banned Books Poster Debacle

Via the American Library Association store

There it is. The poster that sparked some major outrage. Library Juice has called it Islamaphobic stating,

Clearly, the image links suppression of information with the religion of Islam, depicting a woman whose eyes are showing through her niqab. No one denies that there is suppression of information in a number of countries where Islam is the national religion, but this image implies an identity between the religion and the practice of censorship. I think most of us can think of some American muslims who would take offense at that. Perhaps they are even members of the American Library Association.

There is also a petition to have it removed from the ALA store that states,

This poster uses undeniably Islamophobic imagery of a woman in  traditional Muslim clothing.  It should be removed immediately from the ALA Graphics store, and the ALA Graphics Store and Office of Intellectual Freedom should apologize and explain how they will prevent using unethical imagery in the future.

Let the ALA leadership and Graphics Store know that this poster violates the ALA Code of Ethics, represents libraries and librarians as discriminatory and non-inclusive, and must be removed immediately.

I have seen so many widely varying ideas about this image. Some people see a woman wearing a niqab. Some see a woman looking through a Do Not Enter sign.

Unfortunately, I did not see the poster outside of the debate so I cannot say what I would have thought of it on its own. What I can say is that I don’t care for the term “Readstricted” as it trips my eyes up. I had to say it aloud a couple of times to make it work for my eyes. And I would have chosen a different color for the cover of the book. But those are design issues.

As Agnostic, Maybe points out, the ALA store is also selling a downloadable poster that you can edit to put yourself in the image. Seeing it this way certainly does change the image for me quite a bit. It is more obviously a Do Not Enter sign.

Overall, the big issue seems to be intent. What were they trying to do here? If the intent was as speculated, then many are wondering how many saw this in production and how no one thought this might be a bad idea. Perhaps it was just a design blunder?

And if the intent was as speculated, then the statement is that having access to books information can transform and enlighten. I suppose it is a question of what you feel it means to be enlightened. That is a much bigger discussion for another time. I am not a member of the community in question so I don’t feel I have the right to be offended for them.

Since I began writing this (also trying to get ready for #txla15), the ALA Office for Intellectual Freedom has released a statement on the matter. Here it is:

We are aware of the comments about this year’s poster for Banned Books Week. We appreciate and respect the concern expressed by the commenters on behalf of the individuals and communities served by their libraries, as well as the concern expressed for the association’s work on behalf of diversity and intellectual freedom.

We take to heart any distress we may have inadvertently caused anyone. The poster was never intended to offend or shock, nor was there any intent to include any ethnic or cultural stereotypes. The aim of the campaign is to employ the universal signage for “Do Not Enter” – a red circle with a bar across it – as a visual proxy for book censorship. It is not a head covering.

We attempted to embrace diversity by including a person of color – which, combined with the graphic elements of the design, appears to have contributed to the multiple perceptions of the poster. It is especially unfortunate that a poster meant to embrace diversity has raised concerns about possible stereotyping and offense.

Commenters have shared how the image evokes a burqa or a niqab. This simply did not occur to us as the design for the poster developed. Our design team included a Muslim woman who wears traditional dress. She was enthusiastic about the campaign and the poster design and we were pleased to work with her on it. We have shared the comments with her and she is surprised that the poster has been interpreted as traditional Muslim dress.

We have read and carefully considered all the feedback. We will be exploring alternatives and our future course of action in the coming week with the goal of reaching a resolution that responds to members’ concerns and upholds the values of our association and the profession. We will continue to engage in the robust exchange of ideas that is the hallmark of our values.

As always, our goal for Banned Books Week is to highlight the harms of censorship and to promote the freedom to read for all.

So they do plan to take some action. But, again, Agnostic, Maybe asks a very important question… if they do respond to the petition and the outcry, how does this look for our national figurehead’s response to censorship?

What do you see? What do you think? I will update when their action has been announced over the next few days.

3 thoughts on “The ALA Banned Books Poster Debacle

  1. Hello. I am an assistant professor at the University of Kentucky. I am studying responses to the controversy about the Banned Books Week poster (along with my colleague, Emily Knox, an assistant professor at the University of Illinois). I really appreciate what you have written and would love to speak with you further about this. Please contact me via email if you are interested. We can keep this anonymous with no identifying details.

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