Banned Books Week

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Each of the top 10 most challenged books were represented at the 2009 Banned Books Read Out, which kicked off Banned Books Week September 26 at Chicago's Bughouse Square (across the street from the Newberry Library.) This video features ALA President Camila Alire, authors Cecily von Ziegesar (Gossip Girl) and Lauren Myracle (ttyl), and a reading from Chicago Public Library's Teen Volume Reader's Theatre troupe.

Should We Still Be Celebrating?

Martin L. Garnar
Chair, ALA Intellectual Freedom Committee

Every fall I lead groups of first-year students on tours of our university library.  The goal is to show them the physical resources available for research while also highlighting some of our special collections.  Shockingly, microfiche doesn’t capture their interest, but a stop in the Juvenile collection always gets their attention.  Though I start by telling them of its value for supporting our children’s literature classes, I also mention our practice of purchasing controversial titles.  A favorite for illustrating this point is It’s Perfectly Normal by Robie Harris, which was the 13th most frequently challenged book during the 1990s and made the Top Ten List in 2003, 2005, and 2007.  My students express disbelief that that a book about puberty with cartoon-like illustrations could be the source of so much trouble.  They are horrified to learn that the act of showing them the book almost became a criminal offense , as Colorado recently considered legislation designated such “sexually explicit” material as “harmful to minors” and labeling anyone convicted of making those materials available to minors (including the occasional 17-year-old first-year college student) as a sex offender.  These bright young college students never fail to be amazed that people still get so excited over books and would go to such lengths to block access to them.

Yet, here we are about to observe the 27th occurrence of Banned Books Week.  That’s more than a generation of children growing up in schools and libraries that have annually displayed a range of books and other materials that have been attacked for not conforming to someone’s view of the world.  In 2008 alone, 513 challenges were reported to the ALA Office for Intellectual Freedom, and this excellent map of challenges from 2007 to 2009 demonstrates that challenges occur across the country.  If the purpose of Banned Books Week is to educate the public about what could be lost through banning books and to deter those so inclined to challenge books in the future, then something isn’t working.  We should be seeing a steady decline in challenges every year, but we’re not.  After almost 27 years of Banned Books Weeks, should we call it a failure?

Indulge me for a moment: what if Banned Books Week has another purpose?  What if one of its goals is to point out how deeply people care about their libraries’ collections?  Think about it: in order for people to challenge a book, they have to (1) know that it exists, (2) know that the library has a copy, and (3) take the time to start the challenge process.  Yes, I know that some of these challenges stem from organized attempts to target certain books, but that still means someone cares enough about an issue to expend the energy on a challenge.

Let’s step back and think about what it really means to live in a democratic society.  People should be allowed to hold any belief they want.  Acting on all of these beliefs is another matter, but just believing something should be acceptable for all.  So, if we allow that a democratic society likely means a diversity of beliefs, should we not expect that some people will feel compelled to express opinions that are based on their beliefs?  Should we not also expect that some will feel compelled to work for change in our society so it embodies their beliefs?  If, as the ALA’s Policy Concerning Confidentiality of Personally Identifiable Information about Library Users proclaims, “libraries are one of the great bulwarks of democracy,” should we not support the right of people to express their opinions based on their beliefs?  ABSOLUTELY!

Therefore, if Banned Books Week is about promoting the values of ALA and highlighting the importance of intellectual freedom, should we not consider that a consistent number of challenges could mean an embrace of democratic values?  Well, if we follow these premises to their (mostly) logical conclusion, the answer is YES. 

This, however, is not the world of Star Trek, where we may hold different beliefs but are evolved enough not to act on the ones that would infringe on another person’s freedom.  We still live in a society in which groups are trying to shape it into what they want it to be.  That holds true for defenders of intellectual freedom as well as those who prefer a narrower range of acceptable opinions.  In a sense, Banned Books Week is a sign that our society is still at a point in which neither side have achieved its goal.  We still have to fight for intellectual freedom, and other still have to fight to censor, restrict, or otherwise protest ideas with which they don’t agree.

Personally, I think this is OK. In fact, I think it’s exciting to be alive at a time when so many opinions are being shared and promoted, even I don’t agree with all of them.  If having the freedom to express my beliefs means giving others the same freedom to express theirs, I’m happy to see Banned Books Week continue well into the future as evidence that freedom of expression is alive and well.