When I write my blog entries I usually try (and mostly fail), to inject some humor, but there wonʼt be much of that today because Iʼm writing about an issue I feel very strongly about: Censorship. Every year at the end of September, the American Library Association (ALA) and libraries across the country celebrate Banned Books Week. Itʼs a week of advocacy designed to raise awareness about attempts to remove books from libraries and schools, or to severely restrict access to those books (for example, only letting a student check a particular book out of their school library if they have signed parental permission). Unsuccessful attempts to ban books arise from the same impulse, which is why the ALA also includes challenged books under the umbrella of Banned Books Week.
If you Google “Banned Books Week” you will probably get some results from opinion columns and blogs whose authors claim that the ALA is manufacturing a crisis with Banned Books Week. That weʼre inventing an epidemic of censorship thatʼs sickening the country. Yes, the days when a book could be illegal to own in the United States and seized at the borders by customs agents are behind us (think Ulysses or Tropic of Cancer/Tropic of Capricorn). Just because book banning doesnʼt occur nationally anymore does not mean it has stopped happening on a local level. The challenges of today are brought forth with the end game of having books removed from a library district or a school district. A book ban is a book ban is a book ban, regardless of scale.
A lot of Banned Books Week naysayers like to distort the logic of Banned Books Week like this: The ALA says a book has been banned when itʼs removed from a library, therefore any book not in a library has been banned! Ergo, all books are banned because no book is in every library! The ALA is crazy! Or, the ALA objects when a book is removed from a schoolʼs curriculum because of a challenge, therefore any book not being taught in an English class has been banned! Ergo, all books are banned because theyʼre not all taught in English classes! The ALA is crazy!
Letʼs get real. There is not even one library on this planet that can own a copy of every book ever written, let alone every single library. Lack of space and money prevent this, which is why librarians spend their resources building collections that they believe their particular users will check out. Not having a book because it was never purchased is nowhere near the arena of book banning. Likewise, there are plenty of reasons for removing a book from a collection that have nothing to do with censorship: The book is damaged, the information contained within is out of date, thereʼs a layer of dust on it thatʼs a quarter of an inch thick and it hasnʼt moved from its spot since the 1970s, etc, etc, etc.
The question here is one of intent. Banned Books Week is about a person or group trying and possibly succeeding in having a book removed from a school or library because they rejected to its content on moral grounds. For the record, I do not believe there is some vast, organized, conservative book banning conspiracy at work in America. What I believe is that there are people who take what should be an admirable goal of protecting young people (the vast majority of challenges involve books in the children/young adult sections of public libraries or school libraries, or books that are taught as part of an English curriculum), and try to achieve that goal through what the ALA and the majority of librarians, including myself, consider reprehensible means. If a parent stops their child from checking out a book, I canʼt say that I agree with them, but I canʼt do anything about it. They are making a choice that only affects their family. But when someone steps over the line and tries to prevent other community members from having access to a book based on their personal standards, they have crossed into the realm of censorship.
Make no mistake about it, if a challenge results in a book being removed from a library that is censorship. Some will argue that just because a book is no longer available in one library it isnʼt really banned, because itʼs available at other libraries or in bookstores. This is an easy justification to fall back on, but itʼs not that simple, especially when we remember that these removals usually affect minors. Letʼs imagine a book is banned from a local school district. A student who once had access to that book every weekday at their school library now has to go elsewhere if they want to read it, and they may not have means of getting to the public library (if there even is one nearby) or money to buy the book at a store. Raising awareness about these types of purposeful barriers to access is what Banned Books Week is all about.
Banned Book Week detractors will also argue that the ALA inflates the problem, because the numbers donʼt back up their assertion that book challenges are an issue worth fighting for. Theyʼll probably use the ALAʼs own statistics against it, claiming that incidences of book challenges and removals are actually decreasing. You know what? Itʼs true that if you look at the data the ALA transparently supplies on its website, youʼll see there were 348 challenges reported in 2010. This is the lowest number since 1991. Yes, the 2000s on average show less challenges than the 1990s. However, youʼll notice a lot of fluctuation between years: There is no steady decrease in challenges, just as there is no steady increase, and hereʼs the reason no one should pin any argument about the scope of book challenges on raw numbers, whether you think itʼs a problem or not. ALA gets data on challenges from two places: Newspapers and individual reports directly to the association. Challenges must be self-reported in order to be counted, and any trend that relies on self-reported data is notoriously difficult to quantify.
Ultimately, some challenges donʼt succeed in having a book banned and some do. Either way, tempers cool and the individual incident is forgotten. Banned Books Week is a reminder that these challenges do happen and we need to be vigilant in our own communities, so as not to stand quietly by when one particularly loud voice tries to speak for everyone. To me, thatʼs worth raising a ruckus for one week every year.
See the most frequently banned or challenged books of 2010.