thinking about banned books

I’ve long been a fan of Jessamyn West’s take on Banned Books Week — that it’s a marketing ploy, that most of the books that claim to be banned are actually just challenged and are not ultimately removed from library shelves, that there are many more issues of importance when it comes to censorship and the disappearance of information that used to be public. So I’ve tended to treat the subject lightly if at all at the library — I sometimes print out some stuff and throw up a book display and put a post on our website (and, in fact, that’s all I’m really doing this year), and then I complain to my librarian friends and colleagues about all my issues with the event.

This year, the lead-up to Banned Books Week in the young adult blogosphere was the attempt to have Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak, Sarah Ockler’s Twenty Boy Summer, and Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five removed from a school in Missouri. (Anderson also has a followup post.)

Now this is very much your typical book challenge of the sort recorded by the ALA’s Office of Intellectual Freedom. Someone gets upset that high school students are reading about sex and swear words and, using media-savvy, raises a huge stink. Nothing too unusual in the annals of book challenges.

But it got me thinking again, perhaps because Speak is one of my favorite books, perhaps because the description of it by the objector (“soft porn”) was so ridiculous, perhaps because I work in what is half a school library.

It’s easy to dismiss school libraries as, well, different. They’re serving a specific population. Their collection all has to “support the curriculum.” But I don’t think that we, as librarians, should take that view. As Justice Abe Fortas wrote in Tinker v. Des Moines, “[i]t can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.” Nor should they lose their right to read freely. And so many of the books that are challenged in schools deal with topics students want and need to know about. Students with same sex parents, teens questioning their own sexual orientation, young people who’ve been abused or assaulted — people don’t write books about these things to be prescriptive. They write about them because they happen. And reading about them happening is one way that those who’ve experienced those things can learn to deal with them, and one way those who have not can have their eyes opened to them.

I want to talk about a lot of things related to censorship and freedom of information, from government information and free law to the embargoes and copyright agreements and astronomical prices that often keep scholars from accessing their own work. But I still want to talk, as I so often do, about that kid lurking in the stacks, looking for something that just might change her life.

One thought on “thinking about banned books”

  1. Of possible interest:

    Marking 25 Years of Banned Books Week,” by Judith Krug, Curriculum Review, 46:1, Sep. 2006:

    “On rare occasion, we have situations where a piece of material is not what it appears to be on the surface and the material is totally inappropriate for a school library. In that case, yes, it is appropriate to remove materials. If it doesn’t fit your material selection policy, get it out of there.”

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