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?

Banned Book Week 2010

I got inspired by the new “iPad is” ad so I made a riff on it for Banned Books Week. I hope people enjoy it. (Details about the video are on the YouTube site.) What is hilarious to me about it is that I had the option of encoding in High Definition 720p so I went for it. It’s so deliciously low tech that it couldn’t possibly hurt to make it crystal clear, right?

At any rate, I was re-reading what I wrote last year at this time, an entry entitled “Banned Book Bullshit”. Oddly enough, even with the difference of a year’s experience, I stand by what I wrote. I don’t know how others still might feel about it, but that’s where I am: still standing where I was before.

Banned Book Bullshit

Photo by DML East's Branch/Flickr This past week was Banned Book Week, a time for the library community to celebrate intellectual freedom and the right to read and explore topics. In terms of library traditions, it has the same feel as Black History Month; once a year, there is an extra emphasis placed on those who would seek to move or remove materials from the library and the people who defend against such challenges. Librarians hang “Police Line – Do Not Cross” tape like Christmas garland on displays of books that have been seen, at various periods of time, as immoral, despicable, corrupting, blasphemous, and/or indecent. The stories are retold of the books of the past that were challenged, on what grounds they were objected to, and what books are the current target of challenges. Librarians as a whole take stock as to how to meet these challenges and identify where the points of controversy lay. Overall, it is the essence of a very noble cause to defend the views of others for the sake of freedom of expression.

Right at the start of Banned Books week, this opinion article from the Wall Street Journal came across my Google Reader. It begs the question that I have had for awhile: is a book truly banned when it available by other means? While it may be removed from a school or public library, the advent of online book sellers have made all titles widely accessible. What the author fails to consider is that this whole event would not exist without people taking their self censorship and applying it others. Librarians only really care when someone or something gets between a person and their ability to select materials. But the author is correct in pointing out that books are rarely completely removed from the shelves of libraries. Even the collected statistics by the ALA have shown that most book challenges fail to remove a book from the shelves in the documented challenges. (By their own research, the ALA thinks that for every challenge reported, there are four to five that go unreported. So, for last year (2008), there were 517 challenges (1.4 per day), meaning they estimate 2,068 to 2,585 challenges (5.6 to 7 per day) went unreported. To me, that seems a bit high or making the definition of ‘challenge’ too encompassing, but I’m not privy to the research they are citing yet do not provide.)

But that’s not the point,” one might retort. “This is about the principles of intellectual freedom.” Then, my question would be this: why vilify the challengers? Not every challenge is a motion to remove; some are for reconsideration of location. And even for the challenge to remove, it presents an excellent opportunity to educate the meaning of banning and censorship, the First Amendment, and how the mission of the library to provide all with equal access (even for those ideas that we do not agree with). We should not only be grateful for book challenges, we should welcome them.

Challenges to library materials should be seen for what they are: a win-win scenario. First, they bring publicity and attention to the library in question. Nothing like a good controversy to bring people into the library to see what all the trouble is about. While they are in the library, we can show them all of the “good and decent” materials we have for those who support the challenge and all the “naughty and awful” stuff we have for those who oppose the challenge. There is no such thing as bad publicity! In fact, I would go a step further and demand that a universal symbol of a book challenge being developed that we can post in the window, hang on the flagpole, or otherwise display in a prominent location. Something that just screams (possibly literally) that “Hey, there is a book challenge here and you should come and see what all the fuss is about!”. It’s the ultimate in book discussion groups; not only can you talk about the context, the themes, and the characters presented, the outcome of the group can potentially change things in the library. And I bet dollars to donuts you can fill up your program room with people who will want to say something on the matter.

Second, it brings attention to the material in question. You know what happens to books that are challenged? Their sales and checkouts go through the roof as people, being the curious creatures that they are, want to find out what the big deal is about (or show their support for the book by buying it). I cackle with glee over this simple irony: book challenges push greater awareness for a library title and create a result that is opposite what the book challenger generally intends. I would even lower the bar for how a book can be challenged just to invite more attention to books that would otherwise go unnoticed.

Third, as the expression goes, sunshine is the best disinfectant. What we can bring out into the open allows for more transparency in the discussion and the process. This is about respecting viewpoints that are contrary to our own and extending the same courtesy to those who feel strongly enough about a piece of library material to ask that it be re-evaluated. We cannot hope to have someone recognize the right of others to intellectual freedom while engaging in basic name calling by referring to the challengers as bigots, zealots, or otherwise ignorant. While the calmness of the rational mind is not always forthcoming from a book challenge, it is here where we can make our case for materials easily over loud and ill conceived challenges made with little or no objective merit or support. For those with well reasoned grievances, we can provide an equally well reasoned rebuttal where we consider the scope and magnitude of all potential outcomes.

Fourth, there is nothing to fear from a challenge. We may not win them all, but on a long enough timeline, the books that have been banned or challenged in the past have endured. Whether they are classics or contemporary, their presence in collections have outlived those who would see them censored. They have never been truly gone, only temporarily removed. Librarians need to look at this on a longer timeline than their tenure. History has proven that it is a matter of time, so like in other aspects of our lives, patience will see us through.

For whatever reason, this reminds me of the Edward R. Murrow quotation talking about Senator McCarthy and his hearings on communism.

“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.”

Good night and good luck.