So as you surely know by now if you are at all a bookish person, it is currently Banned Books Week, the American Library Association’s annual event to encourage awareness of books bans and challenges. Banned Books Week is actually a product of the ALA’s Office of Intellectual Freedom, which does a ton of work in supporting libraries who are undergoing challenges as well.
This year I was interested to read a couple of articles from LibraryJuice with a different perspective on the Office of Intellectual Freedom’s efforts – one somewhat skeptical, and one outright critical. First, Rory Litwin criticizes the terminology of “Banned Books Week,” saying that really,
what counts as a “banned book” is actually a “challenged book,” and what counts as a challenged book is something quite different from an effort to prevent a book from being published, sold, or even made available in a library.
Second, Litwin interviews Dan Kleinman, organizer of the SafeLibraries campaign which actively works against the ALA’s (and more specifically the OIF’s) work to support challenged books. I admit, I am not on board with Kleinman’s organization and projects, but I do think it’s important to see what the other side of an argument has to say. Kleinman argues that
The problem is the OIF. It advises, correctly, that parents are responsible for book selection. At the same time, it makes recommendations for parents that do not provide accurate information. So when those parents actually do get involved, and when they trust the ALA for a list of reading material, they end up being misled, and, for example, their 12 year old ends up reading a graphic description of oral sex.
Definitely read the whole interview.
And what about me? Well, I am somewhat sympathetic to Litwin’s argument: a parent objecting to a book’s inclusion in a curriculum is not the same thing as a book not being published or being officially forbidden. But at the same time, challenges to books on a recommended reading list often turn into removing the book from the library, or as good as – like the recent incident where parents challenged the inclusion of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, and the school board first removed the book from the library entire, and then created a special “secure section” of the library which required parental permission for students to get ahold of the books.
So okay, the book is still available, and this is only one library, and Slaughterhouse-Five isn’t necessarily a book that’s going to save someone’s life. But what about books on sexual health, or books about kids who are depressed, or are gay, or are living in an abusive home – the kinds of books that often get challenged? Is requiring parental permission to check those out going to do those kids any good at all? (We weren’t kidding with the #YASaves project.)
Of course, it isn’t only challenges that reduce the kind of books that are available for people to read. Book challenges are a pain, and librarians know this – and passive censorship, deciding not to purchase some books or categories of books because you know they’ll cause a stir, is a topic of much debate among librarians. Everyone agrees it’s bad, and most people won’t admit to doing it, but it absolutely happens.
But all of this happens to books that have already been published. What about the books that never see the light of day? A couple of weeks ago there was quite a dust-up over two authors’ claim that agents and publishers were editing gay characters out of authors’ manuscripts, presumably out of a belief that they wouldn’t be marketable. (See also, of course, the response.) If these books aren’t getting published in the first place, isn’t that just as bad as removing them from libraries once they have been published? Actually, it’s probably worse – when Slaughterhouse-Five was removed from the Republic High School library, local bookstores gave away copies to students, but if the book doesn’t exist you can’t read it at all. I think an important part of Banned Books Week is not only to support books that have been banned or challenged, but to support what you want to see in books in the future, to make it worthwhile for the publisher and the author and the librarians to put up with a challenge in the end.
As Banned Books Week wraps up, there are all kinds of events still going on – there’s always the massive Banned Books Week Giveaway Hop, if you want a chance to win a batch of banned books for yourself. This year, the Office of Intellectual Freedom is hosting a Virtual Read-Out, with authors reading passages from banned books. Or, if you jut want to see what’s out there (and maybe get some reading recommendations), there’s the list of 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books. And most of all, read what you want – read what you love, and make sure you support what you love, by buying the books, writing reviews, and making a huge and diverse collection of literature available to everyone.