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Banned Books Week

Banned Books Week, the ALA’s yearly anti-censorship awareness campaign, starts tomorrow.  I hadn’t really thought much about it or paid much attention to it as I work in a special library.  We don’t exactly do the sorts of themes that public libraries do.  My GoogleReader had an opinion piece from the Wall Street Journal that raised quite a few relevant issues with the theme that I hadn’t thought about before.

Muncy points out that traditionally censorship is seen as the government prohibiting their citizens from possessing or gaining access to something within the borders of that country.  China’s censorship of the internet is called to mind.  He then points out that public libraries are technically branches of the government.  In addition he points out that most of the “banned books” being celebrated this week have in fact only been challenged by patrons, usually patrons concerned about their children reading/viewing these materials.

You know those moments when you suddenly realize you’ve been indoctrinated into believing something that doesn’t make sense?  Reading this article gave me one of those moments.  Muncy is completely right.  When was the last time the US government–any branch of it–banned a book from being in the United States?  Um….I can’t even think of a single time in the last one hundred years at least.

Don’t patrons have a right to express their opinion regarding library holdings?  It doesn’t mean librarians have to acquiesce to these opinions, but shouldn’t patrons have the right to express them?  Aren’t librarians supposed to cater to their community?  Clearly if only one patron doesn’t want a book in the holdings but many others do, we shouldn’t remove the book, but what would be the harm in putting some sort of parental warning sticker on the book?  The parent could tell the kid “don’t read books with that sticker,” then it’d be up to the kid to be obedient.  Like it or not parents actually do have the right to censor what their kids are exposed to.  Would any librarian complain about a parent preventing a child from viewing porn?  No.  So why do we get all upset when a parent doesn’t want their child reading a book that has the n-word or that has a gay couple in it?  It may go against our politics, but our politics are not supposed to come into play when doing our job.  We are here to serve our patrons whether we agree with their political opinions and manner of raising their child (within the confines of the law of course) or not.

Muncy is right.  Banned Books Week highlights censorship where there really isn’t any.  Why couldn’t Banned Books Week highlight actual censorship worldwide?  Books that have actually been banned by various governments, for instance.  For that matter, why couldn’t we have a Controversial Books Week?  That could show how powerful books can be ala the pen is mightier than the sword.  Books such as Uncle Tom’s Cabin that stir massively strong feelings in people would be such a wonderful tool for opening up dialogue.

Of course I am against censorship, but patrons voicing concerns about holdings isn’t censorship.  It’s their right as a public government-funded public libraries serve.

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  1. September 25, 2009 at 11:58 am

    I agree. We spend so much time talking about and defending “Intellectual Freedom” on one hand and then fail to uphold it on the other. It is not our jobs to be parents, that is the parents job, but it is our job to listen to, support, and consider all ideas, even if we don’t agree with them.

    • September 28, 2009 at 12:06 pm

      Thanks for stopping by, Scott! I went to your site. Are you a YA librarian? If so, it’s awesome that you respect the kids and their parents.

      • October 7, 2009 at 10:53 am

        I am a YA librarian.

  2. geekylibrarian
    September 25, 2009 at 4:57 pm

    I whole heartedly agree with your argument in principal, and I think most libraries are as well. This is why most have formal procedures in place for handling book challenges. Libraries also conduct a certain amount of labeling without thinking about it. For example, books are (or ought to be at least) shelved in adult and YA collections according to their contents more so than their reading levels. Although some improved labeling is certainly worth considering; games, videos, and cds have them already so why not the books?

    My issue with patron based censorship is that the great majority of it seems to take the form of banning a book outright. It’s one thing to say a book is not appropriate for their children or for themselves, but all too often they go beyond that to depriving others of the option to make that determination on their own.

    • September 28, 2009 at 12:11 pm

      Oh I absolutely agree that patrons shouldn’t be able to ban other patrons from reading a book, but there are options other than removing the book or leaving everything as is. I’m really liking the idea of labeling the books the way we already label games/videos.

  3. September 26, 2009 at 4:00 am

    No, the government has never banned a book, and for that we are extremely lucky. But why should one kid’s parents or a group insist that a book must be banned from a library? They can stop their own kid/children from reading it, but they should not have control over what everyone who frequents that library reads. I do agree that if a parent says, “don’t let my child take out this book,” then the library can do so, but they should NOT be able to say, “take this book out of the library.” Well, they can say it, but it shouldn’t happen, if that makes sense.

    Besides that, most challenged books don’t seem to contain porn. They contain ideas that the parent believes are dangerous. And ideas are dangerous because they make us think, which IMO is always a great thing.

    I think Banned Books Week IS basically controversial books week. It would be wonderful if someone discussed why the books are so threatening in conjunction with it. It would of course be great to have another week highlighting government banned books across the globe.

    • September 28, 2009 at 12:16 pm

      Hi Meghan–Of course one person shouldn’t be able to prevent an entire community from reading a book, but on the other hand librarians shouldn’t be pushing an agenda via the book collection. For instance, if the community a public library serves is very conservative, is Heather Has Two Mommies really a good buy for that community?

      I mostly have a beef with the name of the week, because technically they aren’t banned. They are, however, controversial and you are so right that the power of ideas is what is so incredible about books. Having a Controversial Books Week would just give so many opportunities to talk about the ideas that made the books be challenged in the first place–it’d bring about the exact opposite affect from what the original complainants would have wanted.

      • September 29, 2009 at 8:15 am

        I do think it can still be a problem if one person has control over all the stock in the library; it can end up very unbalanced. I’m not sure how to fix that but you’re right that it’s a concern.

  4. September 28, 2009 at 9:42 pm

    Actually, the federal government has banned books — albeit in the distant past. Without checking, I am sure that Lady Chatterly’s Lover and Tropic of Cancer were prohibited from being shipped into the US. There was also much controversy over Nabakov’s Lolita which has no swear words, and no explicit sex.

    Look at what is happening in West Bend WI where a pair of parents started by complaining about one, then a few, and now a large list of books, which they want removed.

    Censorship is alive and well today.

    • September 29, 2009 at 8:11 am

      Dude. Re-read the entry. Parents asking for a book to be removed *is not* censorship. Also I stated that the government banning books hasn’t happened for around 100 years, not that it never happened. It’s evident someone needs to visit his local library and work on his reading comprehension skills.

  5. Michelle
    September 29, 2009 at 10:55 am

    So the answer here is to have a formal policy of accepting complaints regarding a library’s holdings, and explain to parents that’s it’s not our job to decide what’s appropriate for their child? I’m fine with that. I would hope that most libraries do that.

    However, I don’t think it’s necessarily true that we don’t have censorship here. I think it’s a more nefarious kind of censorship because we all accept the given belief that we have freedom of speech. I had a friend in college who was visited by representatives of the FBI for having an anti-Bush poster in her dorm room post 9/11. Also I knew a fellow student in college who studied all the books not allowed to be sold in this country, particularly ones that challenged accepted ideas on the Christian faith and Cuba.

    I think we’re given rose colored glasses at birth and told that the US is the greatest country with the highest level of freedoms. The latter may be true, but it doesn’t imply that everyone is always treated fairly or that you won’t have to really dig online to find materials not available here.

    • October 7, 2009 at 1:04 pm

      Now see, talking about books that aren’t allowed to be sold in the US would be a much more interesting and important item to cover in a theme week. I would be very interested in just what books those are.

  1. January 13, 2010 at 10:29 am

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