Banned Books Week – Still a Big Deal?

Last week was Banned Books Week in the library world, celebrating titles such as Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, and J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. At my public library, staff posed in front of a poster with their favorite banned book, as a way to show support for free and open access to all. I didn’t end up doing it myself; I found myself in a deep internal dialogue, trying to think of which book I would like to be seen with. And before I knew it, I completely forgot and now banned books week is over.

And it got me thinking…are banned books still a big deal? In the world of libraries, absolutely. That’s why we celebrate them for a whole week: we are all about access to information to everyone. But there are some who think that people just don’t care enough about them anymore.

As a reaction to only six people showing up to a panel discussion to plan programming for Banned Books week, Librarian Scott DiMarco decided to ban a book at the University of Pennsylvania’s Mansfield Library in 2012. When DiMarco announced the ban of a local author’s book on the library’s Facebook page, the reaction was strong. He was contacted by the press 20 minutes after the post went live, and opponents of the ban created a Facebook page in protest. However, only eight people requested a meeting with DiMarco to ascertain why the ban was instituted and how it could be overturned.

I became aware of this story when reading another of my favorite library blogs, the Annoyed Librarian, a Library Journal affiliate who writes very honestly about the goings-on in the library world. While it’s understandable that DiMarco felt outrage at the lack of concern for banned books, banning a book that hasn’t been challenged is problematic, to say the least. It sends the wrong message; instead of raising awareness about a restriction on access to information, it instead shows that information can be taken away from them at will.

The Annoyed Librarian also brought up that banned books tend to be banned in school and public libraries, and not in academic institutions. Jacqueline Woodson, author of such banned books as Brown Girl Dreaming and Hush, in an interview for the Washington Post got to the heart of why books are challenged:

Everybody wants to believe that they’re in the right place…These people see violence or something sexually explicit, and they think, ‘We don’t want our kids exposed to that because we want to protect them…[but] are you really protecting your child, or are you keeping your child from the tools they’ll need to deal with these issues?

A fair question. And I’m sure the mother of a 15 year old in Knoxville, TN, when she discovered her son was assigned The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, only had her son’s best interests in mind when she challenged it.

I should also mention there is a very great difference between a book challenge and a book ban. Challenges happen frequently; a formal complaint is brought to the attention of public libraries and school boards and bans are requested. However, bans are actually quite infrequent. Most schools have protocol in place for book challenges, usually alternate assigned reading. Even if a public library book ban were successful, in this day and age, it is quite easy to walk into your local Barnes & Noble and pick up a copy.

Though I feel a little guilty for not showing my support for banned books in a more outward way, it doesn’t mean that I don’t care about book bans. Though DiMarco was upset at the initial lack of support for banned books, the reaction to his pseudo-ban certainly proved that there is quite a lot of outrage at book banning in that community. The Henrietta Lacks challenge made local news in Knoxville, and even got the author involved.

It seems not quite right to say that people don’t care about banned books anymore. It’s more true to say it may not seem like a big deal when you can find that book anywhere else.

6 replies

  1. I kind of wish ALA (or some rogue librarians, anyway) would rebrand banned books week. Because, yeah, often there are different outlets to get books from if you’re restricted from getting them from your school or local library. But it’s not just about the hassle of having to go somewhere else to get a book or sneaking off to hide a book from your parents or teachers. It points to the bigger issue of censorship of information, which goes WAAAY beyond books banned from classrooms. I’m trying not to sound like a conspiracy theorist, but there’s information out there that matters to the public but which the public is not permitted to access. And there’s information out there that is accessible but doesn’t get acted upon because people or corporations who have an interest in silencing or devaluing that information are more powerful than those who stand for it. And these are crucial matters made even more important today in a society in which we tend to assume all information is free and open, and all the information that exists out there is generally trustworthy.

    I don’t want to diminish the importance of standing for anti-censorship in the case of banned books. I just think there’s more to the issue of censorship than we give credit for with banned books week, and that’s maybe why people don’t seem to give it much thought anymore. If we took the issue of books banned in the classroom as a springboard for discussion of the larger issue of censorship, one which impacts the public whether or not they read books that are banned, maybe we’d be more successful and open more eyes to how crucial and pertinent the issue still is today.

    Thanks for your post, Lauren. I honestly hadn’t organized these disparate thoughts I’ve had floating around in my head ever since I took Collection Development, and somehow your ideas helped me make my own more concrete.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Glad to help, Liz. I wrote this post to help me get my thoughts straight on the subject! And you are absolutely right – censorship goes far beyond just the banning of books. While ALA will vigorously promote both banned books week and open access separately, I wish there was some way they could bridge that gap.

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  2. I put up a display for Banned Books Week in my urban public library, and it got a lot of attention. I overheard a few people marveling that books like I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and Harry Potter had been challenged or banned for the reasons posted (information used was from the ALA Frequently Challenged lists)… but many more didn’t understand the basic concept of the display. They thought that our library was banning these books! Yes, the books that were available for checkout right next to their BANNED wanted posters and the “I Read Banned Books” buttons. Several raised objections with me, and I was able to assure them that librarians were not in the business of banning books, and that we most certainly wanted them to be read. (I also led a couple of storytimes with the refrain “There’s No Such Thing as a Bad Book.”) Because those are great conversations to spark, and also because I was a little bit shocked that patrons would assume the worst (not only that we had banned the books, but that we’d put up big posters and stickers proclaiming so!), the display’s staying up for a while to prompt discussion.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Wow, this is fantastic! I’m glad you have the opportunity to educate your patrons and spark conversation on banned books. I’m sorry they all assumed you were banning books yourselves, but at least that gives you the opportunity to set the record straight!

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