Banned Books Week is a fun time for librarians. We get the opportunity to show how edgy we are by putting up displays that showcase the books they don’t want you to read. We wear badges and tape posters to walls. For one week every year, we’re the champions of intellectual freedom. But what about the rest of the year?
The best way to answer that, I think, is to look at what actually earns a book a “banned” status. In reality, there are very few that are officially censored. Most of the books we parade around are merely “challenged.” Banned materials are those that are actually removed from a collection because of a challenge; a challenge is a request that a book be removed from a collection.
When you look at the lists of frequently banned/challenged books, you quickly notice how few fall into the former category. What’s more, the inclusion on these lists is sketchy. A lot of them are cases where a PTA questions a book’s inclusion on a required reading list. The book remains in the library, but is merely removed from the list. Students still have access to the materials, but are no longer required to read them. There are others that, due to public pressure, are removed from libraries, but not many. The majority of the titles in question are challenged in a school setting, where minors may come into contact with the materials.
I would argue that schools have a responsibility to protect the children in their care. If I drop my daughter off at school, I can reasonably expect that they will not screen The Texas Chainsaw Massacre in her kindergarten class. Books, I think, are no different. The schools and PTAs who challenge these books (even in the cases where the materials are eventually banned) are doing so, more often than not, with a child’s best interest in mind. There are obvious political motivations for some, but these are outliers and infrequently supported by the eventual outcomes.
Public libraries don’t have this same requirement. In most, any user can access any book. If your school removed Toni Morrison’s Beloved from your required reading list, you can still check the book out and read it on your own. Your access to the material has not been diminished. I suppose, then, its acceptable for libraries to participate in these sorts of events, but, really, it’s low-hanging fruit: your school won’t force you to read this, but we’ll let you read it on your own. That’s a pretty easy way to stick it to the man.
In the end, of course, Banned Books Week is just a canned attempt at marketing. If you can get people angry that a book has been challenged, you might be able to get a few circulations out of it. It’s a good way to get some of the dust of the classics. It’s not the act itself, but the philosophy behind it that is an issue. Don’t be too quick to believe your own hype.
Because librarians, we know, are the biggest censors in the library. Earlier this week, I saw a photo posted by a library where I used to work that showed their Banned Books display. The irony is that this same library, while I worked there, commonly taped a piece of paper over the cover of Rolling Stone magazine, and T.C. Boyle’s Drop City was removed from the NY Times Bestseller display because it had butts on the cover. These are instances of institutional challenging, only these cases don’t get any notice. Should they? I don’t know.
It brings up the bigger issue of censorship and age appropriateness in general. Are there materials that are inappropriate for children? Yes. Is it our job to protect children from inappropriate materials? In many cases, yes.
The real value of Banned Books Week lies in the opportunity it affords us for reflection on our own practices. Access to information and censorship are integral to our jobs and we need to think about our stances critically and often. Every book has its reader, but not every reader is ready for every book.