See "[Title Elided]," by [Elided], [Elided], 27 September 2009, reprinted here:
September 27, 2009
— [elided] @ 7:52 pm
— [elided] @ 7:52 pm
I dislike Banned Books Week.
I dislike Banned Books Week because of its imprecise language. When I think of censorship, I think of 1984-style memory holes and governmental restriction of information. Inherent in this view is the use of power to restrict access. To my view, a parent complaining about a book in a school library is not censorship, for it lacks the power dynamic. A parent has no state-granted power to restrict; a parent can only complain, and the real state authorities–typically public libraries or school libraries–can choose to comply with the challenge or deny it. According to the ALA, most challenges are denied.(1) Is this really censorship in any meaningful sense of the word? If we lose our heads and cry censorship over every school library challenge in East Nowhere, Nebraska, we’ll never be taken seriously when we complain about the real thing.
I dislike Banned Books Week because it does not deal with books that are actually banned. In America, I’m aware of no books that are actually banned; even books that are successfully challenged in one library can be requested from other libraries; can be bought from bookstores common in cities everywhere; can be ordered from a hundred websites at frequently trivial cost. As far as I can tell, neither the Banned Books Week nor the ALA websites acknowledge this. It’s hard not to see an element of intellectual irresponsibility in their failure to recognize this.
I dislike Banned Books Week because of the atmosphere of self-congratulation it promotes among librarians in general and the ALA in particular. We in America are blessed with intellectual freedoms that are rarely met and even more rarely surpassed by any nation-state in history; even other states in the West are inferior in some respects.(2) I don’t mean to say intellectual freedoms are in no danger here in America; heavens no. But consider the alternative: if supporting intellectual freedom were such a brave and dangerous position–if fighting censorship were a guaranteed ticked to Room 101 and the Memory Hole–would a large professional organization be able to hold a weeklong celebration of said fight?
There is also a certain paternalism inherent in the efforts of those who are ostensibly fighting against this attitude. Consider the opening paragraph of the Banned Books Week Manifesto:
To you zealots and bigots and false patriots who live in fear of discourse. You screamers and banners and burners who would force books off shelves in your brand name of greater good...—Ellen Hopkins, from the Banned Books Week Manifesto (pdf)
And the ALA’s characterization of “censors,” AKA the citizens who express concerns about books:
Regardless of specific motives, all would-be censors share one belief-that they can recognize "evil" and that other people must be protected from it. Censors do not necessarily believe their own morals should be protected, but they do feel compelled to save their fellows.This quote is from an article titled–I am not making this up– “The Censor: Motives and Tactics.”
Heaven forbid a citizen ever question a librarian, I guess. I’ve lost count of the number of articles I’ve read in library school about how we aren’t here to tell the public what to read, but actual practice flatly contradicts this. Read the ALA’s website and see if you can find any conception that a challenge could be legitimate. There’s a lot on there about listening to patrons and answering objections, but what it really means is telling patrons to STFU and accept our selections. It’s like the library equivalent of Team America:World Police: intellectual freedom is the only way.
As I finish, I’d like to correct one misconception that I’m sure will crop up: I don’t like library challenges, either. I don’t even dislike them. I think most of them are well-intentioned(3), but I agree with most librarians that most should not be upheld. I think it’s reasonable for parents and community members to feel uncomfortable with some of the items we select, and I think that we librarians should acknowledge that not all items are suited to all collections. (Anyone who disagrees is requested to post in the comments, in 500 words or fewer, why the contents of the Kinsey Institute Library or any other medical library should be duplicated at all public libraries.)
In short: let’s all support intellectual freedom, but let’s support it without declaring a week to celebrate how awesome we are for doing it.
(1) ALA.org, “About Banned and Challenged Books.” Available at http://www.ala.org/ala/issuesadvocacy/banned/aboutbannedbooks/index.cfm.
(2) I have in mind Germany’s and France’s criminal penalties for holocaust denial and the latter’s criminalization of positive depictions of drug use.
(3) Even the Banned Books Week website seems to tacitly acknowledge this; seven of the top ten most frequently challenged books are challenged for age-appropriateness–hardly “Do it to Julia!” territory.
[Note added 29 Sept 2009: this was originally republished without the knowledge and permission of [elided]; my apologies for this oversight have been accepted, as shown in the comments.]
[Note added 19 February 2013: Authorship of the article has been elided in respect of the author's request. The title of the author's work has been elided as well. Links to the author's site and related blog post labels have been removed. Any comments that reveal authorship are gone.]