In Defense of Banned Books Week

I’m a little late with this topic since Banned Books Week ended on October 3 this year. However, I noticed this year several articles and blog posts criticizing Banned Books Week and the American Library Association (ALA), and I wanted to address their arguments.

According to the ALA’s statement about Banned Books Week, “Banned Books Week (BBW) is an annual event celebrating the freedom to read and the importance of the First Amendment.” Sounds pretty innocuous, right? Who could be against the First Amendment and freedom to read?

Well, it’s not quite that simple. The main complaint is that no book has been “banned” in the strict sense – censored by the government – in this country for a long time. According to the Annoyed Librarian in her Library Journal column, “since there is no actual book censorship in the United States, there’s not much need for a group crying out against it.” Her complaint is with the imprecise terminology used by ALA and the way it allows them to “make themselves more important than they actually are.” This is a fair point. In promotion of Banned Books Week, people regularly use “banned,” “censored,” and “challenged” pretty much interchangeably. ALA does provide definitions for these terms on their site (here and here) but they are not terribly consistent about always using the most appropriate term.

And then there’s Mitchell Muncy’s article in the Wall Street Journal from September 25:

In the common-law tradition, censorship refers specifically to the government’s prior restraint on publication. None of the sponsors claim this has happened; the acts they have in mind are perpetrated by private citizens. Yet the cases on the map almost all involve ordinary people lodging complaints with school and library authorities. Before Banned Books Week began in 1982, such behavior was known as petitioning the government for a redress of grievances.

Muncy seems to see the artificial inflation of the number of “banned” books (by counting challenged books as well) as a sinister attempt to deflect attention from the real censors: the librarians. “The ALA’s members have immeasurably more power than the ‘censors’ they denounce to decide what books are available in our communities, but this power is so familiar it’s invisible.” In his view, librarians and the ALA are the ones stifling discourse, and the people challenging books are bravely attempting to get a hearing for their grievances.

I think these kinds of arguments betray a fundamental lack of understanding about what Banned Books Week is about. Muncy thinks ALA is being deceptive by including “complaints” in their statistics. However, ALA is counting challenges which involves a lot more than just lodging an opinion: “a challenge is an attempt to remove or restrict materials, based upon the objections of a person or group.” If these attempts are successful, they result in restrictions on the access of others. Many people, like Muncy, think parents should be able to dictate what is and is not appropriate for their children to read, and therefore challenges in the school or children’s section of the library are justified. However, parents may have the right to control their own children’s reading, but they do not have the right to make that choice for other people’s children. Different people, even those who are parents, have different ideas about what is appropriate. If a complaint results in a book being removed from the library so others cannot access it, that book is effectively banned.

“But people can still buy the book!” you might argue. “If it’s available elsewhere, is it really banned?”

I would argue that it is against the fundamental values of librarianship to restrict access to controversial ideas and materials to those who can pay for them.

Another misunderstanding is idea that if books are rarely, if ever, banned,  it means Banned Books Week is not necessary. Here’s why I think it is:

  • Remember the oft-repeated phrase, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”? We may think of book banning as existing firmly in the past, but it is important to remember it for the same reason it is important to remember any past injustice: to try to prevent it from happening again.
  • It is a public declaration of one of our field’s enduring values: intellectual freedom. Librarians support the freedom to express one’s ideas and the freedom to read the ideas of others, no matter how controversial. Letting everyone know that we support the freedom to read serves as an explanation of why we will not take And Tango Makes Three off the shelves. And maybe if people know the reasons why it might make them think about these issues.
  • Books are still banned outside the United States. I think we should make more of an effort to publicize the fact that the freedom to read is not secure everywhere.

My position can be summed up by this observation by Doug Archer on the OIF blog (Office of Intellectual Freedom, ALA):

Just because libraries and librarians have been so good at defending the freedom of the public to read as they choose, means that we’re being dishonest? No, it just means were doing our job.

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