Information Science

Banned Books Week: All Controversy All The Time

First it was the poster debacle. Now come all of the complaints about the point of celebrating Banned Books Week. I just finished reading an article on Slate called Banned Books Week Is A Crock and I had some thoughts I wanted to share.

I do cringe a little bit as this week approaches. There are some things about librarianship that do that to me. The whole librarian superhero thing, wearing a cape and fighting for your freedom to read, etc. It looks good and it feels good. But now it seems like a bunch of patting-ourselves-on-the-back show. Absolutely, we play a role in all that and we are actually one of the last few institutions strictly about service to the public and not profit in any way. Coming from a background in fundraising, business, and politics, this never ceases to be refreshing to me.

Librarians tend to fall into two, possibly three I guess, camps about Banned Book Week. The first is the cape-wearing superhero camp. The second is the “doesn’t anyone know the definition of censorship?!” camp (see The Annoyed Librarian). The possible third one might be the I-don’t-really-care camp. I suppose I am mostly in the second camp, although this Slate article had me saying, “Ya, but wait a minute…”

The article by Ruth Graham is asking if we really need to publicize Banned Books Week anymore because the good guys won. She closes with the statement,

This Banned Books Week, instead of hand-wringing about a nonexistent wave of censorship, let’s celebrate the obvious: The books won.

I agree that it may not really be “necessary” anymore, but I don’t think there is anything wrong with calling attention to the reasons why it exists. Is anyone really claiming that BBW is doing anything other than reminding us that we don’t really have to worry about this anymore? I don’t know that anyone is really “hand-wringing”…

To be fair, Graham does point to the historical need:

Once upon a time, book bans were a serious issue in the United States. The Comstock Law, passed by Congress in 1873, made it illegal to circulate “obscene literature.” Even classics like The Canterbury Tales fell under that description in the eyes of Victorian moralists, and in the middle of the last century, publishers and booksellers of forbidden novels including Tropic of Cancer and Fanny Hill were actually prosecuted in court. But in the years since, social and legal tolerance for censorship plummeted. A 1982 Supreme Court decision, Island Trees School District v. Pico, ruled that local school boards can’t remove books from their libraries simply because they’re offended by them.

 Once upon a time, if your local library and bookstores didn’t carry a book, it would have been very difficult to procure it elsewhere. But of course we’re now living in an era of unprecedented access to reading material.

I completely understand that the terms “censorship” and “banned” are used inappropriately when talking about what is actually happening. There are, unfortunately, plenty of challenges today. For instance, over the summer at a high school in Charleston, South Carolina a parent challenged Courtney Summers’ book Some Girls Are which appeared only on a suggested summer reading list from the local school. Suggested, people! Instead of suggesting her child pick a different book on the list, the mother wanted it removed all together, calling it “smut”. A librarian blogger worked with the public library in Charleston and put out a call for donations of the book that they could distribute to the teens. They purchased or got donations of over 800 copies of the book!

Here is a picture of their efforts:

So thankfully a true book banning is extremely rare in the United States today. But these are disagreements with how BBW is publicized, not the need for it. To me this is almost like asking if we don’t need to talk about suffrage because so many oppressed people now have the right to vote.

Bottom line is this: Every year during BBW I try to pick up a title that has been controversial either that year or historically, read it, and become acquainted with the challenges it faced. Perhaps others will do the same. Anything that could provide reason for someone picking up a book is worthwhile, in my mind. And if along the way the reader spends some time thinking about the reasons behind the reason for the challenge (religion, “protecting” kids from something, oppression, racism, etc.), then so much the better?

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