Banned Books Beast 2014

Once again, Banned Books Week is upon the library world and this year I find myself disappointed. This is my sixth annual entry on the event, the only consistent thing I’ve written about throughout my blogging years. I’ve been thinking about writing this blog entry for a week, a constant companion in my quiet moments traveling between home and work, doing chores around the apartment, and in that short span of consciousness laying in bed before sleep. Unlike other things that would have developed in blog posts in the past, this one pestered me to finally put fingers to the keyboard.

My disappointment with the event comes from the notion that is an excellent case study in how public librarians fail to articulate their values to the general public. Our ideals as related to this event revolve around intellectual freedom, personal liberty in reading materials, and the public library as a platform for individual expression and ideas. Our output is “I Read Banned Books” stickers and shirts, a collection of current and historically challenged/banned books on a shelf or table, and the liberal use of “CRIME SCENE DO NOT CROSS” police tape. In presenting Banned Books Week to the public, it misses the meaning in favor of the cheap shock and most superficial of library/patron interaction, materials with signage.

I can sense the itchy fingers that are waiting to spring into action once the indignant eyes race down to the bottom of this post so as to leave a comment as to how it might be true but not at their library. I know I’m being unfair to a good number of librarians who take the time and effort to provide more than what I have outlined above, but I would be willing to bet dollars to donuts that my examples are more of the norm. To those peers, I salute them for providing the context that makes the week more than a recitation of book names from a list.

In my reckoning, the materials are a vehicle to introduce and educate people about the librarian ideals on these important topics. To be honest, I don’t have anything specific in mind (as public libraries are inherently local so your best communication practices with the community may vary) but I would urge my fellow librarians to consider how these challenged materials are the beginning of a conversation with the community, not the sum total of the Banned Books Week event.

Another thing that stems out of my thoughts is how the collection development process remains an enigma to the general public. Here is a document (or policy or guidelines or whatever you want to call it) that outlines what the library will and will not consider for inclusion in the collection and yet it remains lost in the preening terminology of the library world. For all the time devoted to presenting the image of the library as welcome to all ideas and opinions, the reality is more pragmatic and nuanced so as to keep the library efficient, relevant, and functional.

A typical criticism of the public library during this time of year is that it won’t collect a certain type of book or topic. “How can they talk about banned books when they won’t carry X subject?” asks the commentator )where X is their pet subject and part of an agenda that they want to push). “That is so hypocritical!” they exclaim, faux shock coursing through their ham-fisted screed. (Some of this is done without an ounce of irony since they can’t get some book or subject removed from the library that they will try to put their propaganda next to it.) Then they pat themselves on the back as if they have discovered fire or antibiotics or solved a great mystery of our time.

What is lost in this thin skinned moral outrage is that there is difference between speech and collection material. The library should be welcoming of all kinds of speech and expression, no matter how odious or vile the librarians might find it. This support is paramount since it strikes at the heart of our support for intellectual freedom; if we are as enlightened as we pretend to be, we can welcome such opinions without accepting or endorsing them as our own. Our comfort with these individuals, groups, or organizations is secondary to the freedom that is being expressed for we cannot support one form of speech and disregard another. 

While freedom of speech should be near-universally supported within the library, the collection is a different matter. It is a finite resource in so many definitions of the term: physical space, limited budget, and usability/relevance. The “why doesn’t the library carry this subject that I care about?” tends to be a self-interested argument that doesn’t care for everything that is potentially behind it. It doesn’t care for the quality of the scholarship (if there is any) nor for the relevance in the broader collection nor any cost/benefit (read: usefulness) consideration. I want it, therefore the library should have it.

Collection development policies exist for a reason: to provide guidelines to staff as well as the general public as to what the library collects and why. It’s a tightrope act in which an individual can raise hell as to why X isn’t in the collection while another can wave around a book they found in stacks asking why their tax money was spent purchasing it. At my library, the policy outlines material that the library will not purchase such as college textbooks and technical scientific literature. Does that mean we hate higher education and professionals such as engineers, doctors, and psychiatrists? Not at all, but the time, space, and financial outlay to establishing and maintaining such collections doesn’t mesh well with our service to the public. There is a level of quality (albeit flexible) that material needs to meet for purchase. It’s part of our fiduciary duty to the library funders to make the best use of their money; it may not always sit well with them, but it is important to present this as our area of expertise with clear cut directives that explain and justify it.

(Note: I do want to mention access in passing because it’s a tough librarian issue. Our discretion in purchasing can make a difference when it comes to our community members and the materials they want. Access is vital in some communities, often the only way that people can reach out to the world via the internet or lack of other services. I don’t really want to go further on this avenue, but I did want to acknowledge it.) 

One final thought: the profession really needs to define the conversation about Banned Books Week instead of our critics. It’s not that books have not been banned by the government therefore this week is moot, it needs to be about infringement of the freedom to read at a local level. It’s not about the books themselves, it’s about the ideas and notions they represent. Too often we meet these arguments and fight them at their level; we are better than that and the ideals we represent are as well.

So, go on, celebrate Banned Books Week. But be ready to say why the week exists and continues to be important in the first place.

Banned Books Bollocks 2013

It’s that time of year again and this will be my fifth (fifth! My God!) post on Banned Books Week. While I have used another curse word in the title in previous editions, I thought I might switch it up to one of my favorite English (as in UK, not as language) curse words. My thoughts on the week have evolved as I’ve learned more about the week, how it is treated, and the circumstances around it. Eventually, I’ll tell you the whole story behind some of these thoughts, but that’s for another year day.

In seeing the pictures shared on social media of various banned book displays, I keep feeling like there is an element missing from those exhibits. There is lots of emphasis on the fact that the books have been challenged or banned and how subversive, notorious, or socially unacceptable they are, the hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold approach to enticing people to consider reading them. But I haven’t seen is an explanations provided as to why those books have been challenged or banned. Not to put too fine a point on it, but isn’t one of the main reasons for the week is to talk about the controversy surrounding the content? It’s like asking about the contents of healthy meal and being told, “just eat it, it’s good for you”. Here, read this, someone else didn’t like it enough to try to get it removed somewhere for… reasons.

The only thing I’ve seen that has worked to address the underlying reasons has been Kelly Jensen’s excellent post on Bookriot. She gives a brief explanation as well as links to primary sources for some of the latest book challenges. These abstracts are short enough that I can see someone printing them out and adding them as a insert into the books on their display. The only thing I feel is missing is a closing argument as to why the person should read it anyway. “Here’s a book, here’s why people have challenged it, and here’s why you should read it.” And not one of those “make up your own mind” positions, but something more akin to reader’s advisory about the plot, characters, and the kind of story it tells. This is the kind of follow through that I believe is necessary to show the literary and artistic merits that are so commonly called upon as a defense of the work. Simply hanging a bunch of signs to denote their challenged or banned status is all style with no substance.

Beyond that, I think an important underlying principle that gets lost in the push for people to read these books is the freedom to discuss the ideas they represent. If the purpose of the event is the preservation of differing and possibly unpopular perspectives, then where is the call for dialogue? I can hear my cynical heart mocking me on this point, snickering while it says, “Oh yes, civil discourse on the internet. Good luck with that.” I concede that fact that there is a unhealthy amount of online discussions that split in the factions of “I’m right” versus “You’re an asshole”; and those that don’t start that way can very easily end up marching slowly towards Godwin territory.

Even more troubling to me is seeing some of my librarian peers who proclaim their love of intellectual freedom but react poorly when actually faced with differing viewpoints. It is not a trait unique to the library world, but it is one of believing in the freedom of expression so long as it is words of agreement. I’m not sure how people so eloquently manage such cognitive dissonance, but it’s pretty breathtaking to see in action. I’ll concede that the human mind is capable of many kinds of contradictions, but bragging how open minded you are while marginalizing those who don’t agree with you is still pretty damn amazing. To wit, it reminds of that famous quote from the television journalist Edward R. Murrow.

We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty. We must remember always that accusation is not proof and that conviction depends upon evidence and due process of law. We will not walk in fear, one of another. We will not be driven by fear into an age of unreason, if we dig deep in our history and our doctrine, and remember that we are not descended from fearful men — not from men who feared to write, to speak, to associate and to defend causes that were, for the moment, unpopular. This is no time for men who oppose Senator McCarthy’s methods to keep silent, or for those who approve. We can deny our heritage and our history, but we cannot escape responsibility for the result. There is no way for a citizen of a republic to abdicate his responsibilities. As a nation we have come into our full inheritance at a tender age. We proclaim ourselves, as indeed we are, the defenders of freedom, wherever it continues to exist in the world, but we cannot defend freedom abroad by deserting it at home.

Even so, there should be a call for debate on the issues that get brought up related to the work. The issues that they face, the decisions the characters make, and the implications of their actions are all worthy of examination. Furthermore, when it comes to children’s, juvenile, and young adult literature, the content versus the relative maturity of the audience is also an important conversation to have. The middle ground is overshadowed by the reactions of the extremes, leaving very little room for compromise or dialogue. I know these aren’t new to anyone, but they seem to be discarded easily once the lines have been drawn.

For my part, I helped put together a national campaign to encourage people (librarians, library staff, the public, anyone) to report book challenges or removals to the Office of Intellectual Freedom at the ALA about two years ago. It’s still there, it’s still important, and I still hold out hope that people take a moment to be courageous and speak up, even if it is anonymously. Jessamyn West has a nice roundup as to what different groups are doing for Banned Books Week so take a moment to check it out.

Previous Banned Book Week posts: 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012.

Banned Books Bullshit, Year 4

Once again, Banned Books Week is here, the Spirit Week for Intellectual Freedom lovers all over the United States. As it is the apparent tradition of this event, the same tortured arguments and responses get trotted out like holiday decorations pulled out of bins that are stored in the basement all year. It is met with all the joy and cheer of people who like to point out the historical inaccuracies of the Christmas story; that Jesus was probably born in the spring, that the tree was adopted from pagan traditions, and that the wise men probably didn’t arrive until Jesus was a toddler. These are probably the same people who saw Linus start his monologue in “A Charlie Brown Christmas” and thought, “Oh, it’s time for a bathroom break.”

Yes, there hasn’t been a truly “banned” book in the US in decades. With the advent of the telephone and the internet, no book is truly unavailable to someone who wants to get their hands on it. There are reasonable cases to be made to relocate, re-label, or otherwise withdraw a book from a collection. The objections to subjectively experienced content should not trump over the rights of access to others. It’s about intellectual freedom, the freedom to read, and not marginalizing books because of their content.

And so forth and so on.

While the arguments about what is appropriate (age, content, language, access, etc.) could rage on from now until the next Banned Books Week, I think the one reasonable thing that opposing viewpoints on the issue could agree on is that the debate needs to happen. When a director, school administrator, teacher, or member of the community takes it upon themselves to unilaterally remove a book outside of established challenged material guidelines, all sides suffer from the lack of dialogue. It is the transparency and the rule of policy that allow people to approach the challenged book rationally and objectively. From that, a (hopefully) fair decision can be rendered.

For myself, there has to be a process and a trust in that process for any sort of resolution to be made and feel good about it. I’m less interested in whether a book was kept or removed than as to whether the challenged materials policy or guidelines were followed. In a (hopefully) fair hearing, either side can prevail as it comes to reflect the community that it serves. I have come to terms with the fact that you can’t win every book challenge and have it remain on the shelves, but I’d like to imagine that any decision made to remove a book is community approved.

The Office of Intellectual Freedom at ALA makes it a point to remind people to update their challenged material guidelines (or draft some, if your library doesn’t have any.) And if you get a challenge, be sure to report it to them for their data collection and statistics (they even have a video). Seriously, report it. It matters.

And it’s 2012. Even in a hundred years from now, my greatest fear is that this will still be the same conversation, right down to people being the community’s moral police while others rattle the intellectual freedom bones insisting that all book selections are final. If we as a species are as enlightened and as civilized as we claim to be, then we better start acting like it.

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Previous installments of Banned Book Bullshit: 2009, 2010, 2011.

Defend the Freedom to Read: It’s Everybody’s Job

“Defend the Right to Read: It’s Everybody’s Job” THE VIDEO

“Defend the Right to Read: It’s Everybody’s Job” is an awareness campaign I’ve been working on with the ALA Office of Intellectual Freedom (OIF) for the past couple of months. It was born out of learning about the dismal estimate that only one in four book challenges or removals are reported to the OIF. One in four! I knew I wanted to do something about it so I pitched this idea to the OIF. It’s been a long process, but I’m proud to see this campaign finally come to fruition. It was inspired by the World War II “we can do this together!” posters and the New York Transit System “If you see something, say something” campaign. This is, as the tagline above plainly puts it, everybody’s job and it needs your help.

In collaborating for this awareness campaign, I am hoping that it will encourage people to come forward and report book challenges or removals. I believe there are a number of excellent benefits to better reporting of book challenges/removals.

First and foremost, better data means better analysis. This means the ability to look at these events and spot trends and patterns. If there is a school book that is being routinely moved up from a younger grade to an older one, there is value in the ability to alert school librarians to that situation. It might also warrant a re-evaluation of the material to ensure that it is in the proper location or grade. If there is an individual or group challenging a book in a particular part of a state or region, there is value in advising libraries in the immediate area to such activity. This allows for librarians not to be taken by surprise and to prepare for the possibility. If a book appears to be targeted because it is by a particular author or appears on a list, there is value in making that connection and informing the membership. While it may not be local to one area of the country or another, such a discovery won’t happen without the challenges being reported. Or, to put it in the immortal words of Lester Freamon in The Wire, “All the pieces matter.”

Second, reporting can be done anonymously and the challenge files are held in confidence. This is not a campaign to draft people into this battle, but to gather intelligence. With these kinds of safeguards, people can still take action while minimizing their exposure to repercussions. Simply put, it’s doing something rather than doing nothing and that can make all the difference.

Last but not least, librarians are the public defenders of literature and prose. As such, we do not have the luxury of choosing our clientele. In a nation which values ideas and expression, every book deserves and demands a vigorous defense. It is the right and proper thing to do even in the face of mounting adversity and focused opposition. Though some may consider this an unpopular burden upon the profession, I believe that it is our honored duty. It is who we proclaim ourselves to be: offering the greatest possible access to literature and information to all who seek it. Let us embrace this ideal and act accordingly.

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The art is available via download from the ALA OIF site. There are blog banners, social media avatar, print posters, and wallpapers. Grab one for your social media stuff and show your support! We need to spread the word! You can bug OIF for the bookmark file (there was one, I believe); you can also bug them if you want to request this graphic in poster or t-shirt form.

I made a video for this campaign which I hope you will enjoy. The books and the lyrics are matched according to my quirky system; some are obvious, some are not, and I hope you enjoy figuring them out. Be sure to share it to see what other people think of it!

[The wonderful Amy Houser did the art for this project. If you are working at a library or a library system that is considering branding illustrations, I highly recommend her art skills and creative talents. Tell her Andy sent you! –A]

Banned Book Bullshit, Revisited

Like Thanksgiving each year, Banned Books Week brings the library community together like one giant intellectual freedom loving dysfunctional family. Gathering around the proverbial communal dinner table, an unavoidable recurring conversation gets raised about what the week actually means in this day and age. The usual questions are trotted out (Can books really be banned anymore? What does censorship actually mean? And why do we call it Banned Books Week anyway?) like old family quarrels, acting as the fodder for print and online commentary. Whether used to snipe at each other or provide the starting point for actual meaningful discussions, the conversations (and some shouting matches) provide an intriguing insight as to how librarians relate to intellectual freedom as a value. Just like an familial eavesdropper at this family function, I find some of the positions expressed to be rather interesting.

Take the one about the name itself: Banned Books Week. It’s a misnomer, they will say, because what books get banned these days? It’s a position that is completely blind to the historical timeline and context of the event. The event was created as a response to a rising number of book challenges and removal in 1982. Considering that it was created during in this pre-internet-as-we-know-it and digital nascent age, the number of alternate venues for books were limited (especially for rural communities). What options, if any, could an individual have? Yes, I’m sure that if they really wanted the book they could track down a copy , but let’s not kid ourselves as to the effort required to do that. It might as well be banned, even by our modern take on the term.

In keeping the name, I would cite tradition as a powerful motive for doing so. While it may not address the issue of banned books as it once did, it does still celebrate intellectual freedom by defending the right to read as one wishes. Just as there no serious effort to rename St. Patrick’s Day (a religious feast day celebrating a Catholic saint) to something more accurate (“We All Pretend to Be Irish and Drink Green Beer Day”), Banned Books Week embodies an ideal more than a manifestation of its name. And, to paraphrase another commentator on the subject, “Challenged Book Week” just simply does not roll off the tongue like “Banned Book Week”. Nor does it provoke the same emotional response ot the finality of the word, “banned”. Keep the name, dump the quibbles over it.

Speaking of quibbles, I am not without my own for the event. An overly broad definition of a challenge casts the widest net to include reasonable people who challenge on the basis of maturity (otherwise known as age appropriateness). Should a parent who has believes that a second grade book might be more appropriate for fourth or fifth grade be included as a foe to intellectual freedom? Common sense tells me no, of course not. The people who rate the age appropriateness of books may be experts in their field, but they are not infallible. It’s a reasonable request for reconsideration and should be treated with due diligence. Get a second grade teacher and a fourth grade teacher (and possibly another educator if you need a third opinion) and figure it out. If the person is making a reasonable request, then they should be able to accept a reasonable answer as to why the book is being kept at second grade or moved to a higher grade. To me, situations like this don’t arise to an actual threat to intellectual freedom.

However, at the opposite end of such reasonable objections, there exists a particularly unreasonable side to the book challenge and removal equation. It’s the grotesque vitriol surrounding book challenges in places like West Bend and Stockton that stand in stark contrast to the aforementioned concerned parent of the previous paragraph. Anecdotally, it is the accounts of library directors and librarians that come under enormous pressures from politicians, oversight committees, community members, and outside groups to “do the right thing” while having their moral, intellectual, and personal beliefs and principles (and sometimes employment) questioned and/or attacked both privately and publicly. If the estimate offered by the Office of Intellectual Freedom states that only one in four book challenge or removals are reported is true (and I accept that number on the basis of my own research into the matter), then I can only grimace and wonder as to the true number of library staff out there who are suffering this unfair onus in silence right now. Whether they hold their tongues because they lack the backing to fight for the book or under the duress of losing their employment, I believe they represent a truly silent minority in this book challenge and removal equation. For myself, it is this unreasonable condition that lends gravitas to the event; it is why I think that taking a week to reflect on the depth and ramifications of book challenges and banning is important to the library community and one that should remain.

In the end, Banned Book Week does retain that Thanksgiving family feel to it for it collects the librarian community together under one roof for a brief moment of time every year. It should remind us on the things that we as a profession agree on: that access to materials is important, that people can and should be allowed to make their own choices (even questionable ones), and that freedom of expression is a human aspect that should be celebrated. As Thanksgiving remains a tradition in different parts of the world, so too should Banned Book Week remain a library tradition and an anticipated annual event. It is one that we can be proud of, that we can still argue and fret over, and act as a reminder of the underlying reasons and principles that bring us together in the first place.

[This post is somewhat related to my previous blog entry, Banned Book Bullshit, that I wrote back in 2009. At least, I feel this entry is a good companion piece. -A]

Book Challenges at a Group Rate

From USA Today:

Parents have long raised concerns about school and library books — children’s and young adult books, and sometimes dictionaries — often for inappropriate content. The number of reported challenges in the past 30 years has hovered between about 400 or 500 each year, says Deborah Caldwell-Stone, an attorney with the American Library Association.

Whereas challenges once were mostly launched by a lone parent, Caldwell-Stone says she has noticed "an uptick in organized efforts" to remove books from public and school libraries.

It’s a good article on how book challenges are gathering strength through organizing. Perhaps the profession should take a lesson from such an idea.

This article reminded me of something I have seen in book challenges in past. I find very interesting is how people will generally gloss over the fact that challenges is not limited to social conservative or religious types. There are book challenges originating from the other end of the spectrum from the overly egalitarian and liberal end for depictions of issues and characters considered racist, homophobic, xenophobic, or otherwise (for lack of a better word) unhappy depictions of life situations. For all the grumbled commentary about superstitious morality freaks, there is an unequal amount of outrage for challenges that emerge from the politically correct socially sensitive end.

If you mock the rationale of one group of people for wanting a book removed yet ignore reasoning from groups that are ideologically similar to yourself, then you’re doing it wrong. A book is a book, folks. You can’t win all the battles to keep them on the shelves, but don’t surrender to those you would otherwise consider to be kindred spirits.

The Future of Digital Speech

This commentary in the Chronicle of Higher Education is about speech controls in the hands of business (specifically, companies like Google, YouTube, Facebook, and the bulk of social media), but I cannot help but think of how it relates to other challenges to collection materials that libraries in general receive over time. The United States government is (generally) not the source of censorship; it is the private interests (either individual, group, business, etc.) that represent the bulk of challenges to free speech and expression. From the article:

Americans, who have long mistrusted government, are acutely aware of and sensitive to public censorship—more so, perhaps, than any other nation. There is a strong First Amendment tradition in the courts. But Americans tend to be much less concerned with the danger of private censorship. That’s too bad, because the greatest dangers to free speech in the future will come not from government interference but from speech monopolists. That has been true for much of the 20th century, and while it seems hard to imagine now, it could become the fate of the Internet.

Back during Banned Books week this year, Stephen Abrams made a comment in his posting of my Banned Book video. He said:

Now if libraryland could only just be more outspoken about banned websites and e-resources. If most books, magazines, video and other materials go digital, then who’s going to speak out for freedom? What about the blocking of certain whole categories like streaming video, social networks, etc.? Will the systemic banning of certain e-items be water under the bridge and standard practice by the time we all notice and want to do something about it?

With a digital future looming on the horizon, the importance of speaking out and securing free speech online is rapidly becoming paramount. There cannot be a free speech equivalent of the digital divide where the physical items are defended for their content and the digital versions are not. (This is another way in which I differ with Dean Marney. At his libraries, why can I pick up a book on sex education and yet be potentially denied access to a website with the same information? My post on his article here.) There cannot be a gap in material availability by medium lest we spend our days arguing about how something is worthy of defending in print over digital or vice versa. There has to be a universal defense made for the materials.

Stephen is right: why isn’t libraryland more outspoken for those sites that find themselves on the wrong side of the filter or the business prerogative?