WILL UNWOUND #569: “Weekend Meditation – Some Final Thoughts on Banned Books Week”October 1, 2011
Banned Books Week ends today. I will miss it. Over the years, it has become an effective catalyst for creating a conversation about precisely why libraries are important.
What Banned Books Week teaches us is that libraries are important because books are important. If books were not important, people would not try to ban them. Books contain ideas, and ideas can be very powerful. Some people think these are ideas are so powerful that they can be destructive to human beings. That is why they want certain books banned.
What kinds of books can be destructive? Here are just a few examples that I can think of off the top of my head:
- Books that deny the Jewish Holocaust.
- Books that claim with “scientific evidence” that the earth is only 5,000 years old.
- Books that extol the virtues of using tobacco and other drugs.
- Books that claim that certain human races are genetically inferior to other human races.
- Books that depict and glorify the sexual objectification and exploitation of men, women, and children.
- Books that give instructions on how to produce terrorist weapons in your basement or garage.
I am sure that you can think of other types of books that contain ideas that are destructive to human beings. I am also sure that you would not want these types of books in your library. I know I do not want the books described above in my library. Does that make me a censor or a selector? It’s a fascinating debate. Basically it comes down to this: If you’re a librarian, you’re a selector; if you’re a patron, you’re a censor.
If you closely read the excellent background materials that the American Library Association provides to support Banned Books Week, you will discover that in almost every single case, a library book is challenged because an individual or a group thinks it will be harmful or destructive to human beings, and in most cases the concern is specifically with the effects the book will have on a young person.
In the majority of instances, the local library board or governing body successfully resists the challenge. In a small minority of cases, the challenge is upheld and the book in question is removed from the shelf, is subjected to age restrictions, or is removed from a mandatory classroom reading list.
In many cases, cases which never get reported to the American Library Association’s Office of Intellectual Freedom, a librarian never selects a controversial book or surreptitiously removes it from the shelf to avoid a nasty challenge battle.
This is where a librarian goes from being a selector to a censor. The irony, of course, is the librarian becomes a secret censor to avoid the stigma of being identified as a public censor.
That is why we need a new mindset in the profession. We should welcome book challenges, not condemn them. It is within the give and take of an open and honest debate that we can be open and true to our ideals.
Look at it this way: without book challenges there would be no Banned Books week, and that would be a shame because the amount of interest that Banned Books week produces (which grows from year to year) is a positive sign that libraries are important; books are important; and ideas are important.