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Even Banned Books Week has its detractors (surprise?)

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I wasn’t sure what I was going to write about Banned Books Week until I read this somewhat-maddening column in The Wall Street Journal that paints the American Library Association as a well-funded, reactionary bully attempting to silence “a few unorganized, law-abiding parents.”

Yes, those awful, awful librarians!

The opinion piece, by Mitchell Muncy of the Institute for American Values, goes on to characterize citizens who challenge books as underdog patriots “petitioning the government for a redress of grievances” — granted, a poem by challenged YA author Ellen Hopkins provided the fuel — while librarians hand down “hidden verdicts” as they stigmatize any who dare oppose them (presumably while rolling, Uncle Scrooge-style, in a money-filled room).

Oh, and then there’s the whole table-turning moment, when Muncy asks who’s actually the censor: the mean librarian or the ordinary citizen. Hey, it’s to be expected. You don’t win sympathy, or rouse the faithful, by portraying yourself as Goliath (no matter what your cause is).

What really irked me, though, is this part: Without a hint of irony, Muncy tsk-tsks the ALA’s use of “loose language,” then asserts that books aren’t truly banned in this country because if you can’t find a title at the local library or bookstore, you can always track it down elsewhere: “Not even the most committed civil libertarian demands that every book be immediately available everywhere on request — though in the age of Amazon that’s nearly the case.”

If I were playing Muncy’s game, I might portray him as a big-city elitist with little appreciation for the child whose small town may not have a Borders, and whose family budget may not permit participation in “the age of Amazon.” For that kid and others, the forced removal of a book from the local library is, truly, a banning.

More outrageous still is the implication that the wishes of the complaining party take precedence — hey, let everybody else be inconvenienced — and that having a book pulled from the shelf is an acceptable alternative to monitoring what your child is reading and explaining why a title might not by appropriate for that child.

Banned Books Week continues through Saturday. Celebrate by going to your local library and checking out a title on the ALA’s frequently challenged books list. While you’re there, donate some books, and thank a librarian.



Kevin said:

“…the child whose small town may not have a Borders, and whose family budget may not permit participation in “the age of Amazon.” For that kid and others, the forced removal of a book from the local library is, truly, a banning.”

Kevin, it’s all about keeping the poor and downtrodden from becoming less ignorant. An ignorant citizenry is easier to control.

I had to stop myself from a)reading “news” sites covering banned books and b)reading the comment threads on the articles. For the Love of Pete, DO NOT read the comment threads. They will drive me mad faster than any Lovecraftian horror. Thank you for the warning about the WSJ piece; I’m not clicking on any links to the WSJ for a few days. (I’m a librarian, for the record, and paid ALA dues for a couple of years. Go ALA!)

Institute for American Values plus Wall Street Journal… what did you expect?

I have been a dues-paying member of ALA for more than 25 years. Any time any individual or organization tries to dictate their viewpoint over that of the entire community and try to force the removal of a book from the PUBLIC library, they act as censors. Everyone is free to control their own family’s reading habits (but really, what good are they doing?), but a public library has to serve the entire community, not one individual or one organization. That’s what gets me about people who challenge library materials. One of my mentors said that an excellent public library will have something to offend everyone.

Sounds like the kind of stuff you used to hear from a group called “Family Friendly Libraries” — they had a nice name, and they put out pretty nice PR about themselves, but they were an explicitly pro-censorship and anti-library organization.

They got a major hate on for the ALA because they wouldn’t let them get away with banning everything but the Bible — at one point, their founder came right out and admitted that they didn’t believe anyone should have a right to read.

Regarding Banned Books Week, no books have been banned in the USA for about half a century, so these resources may also be of interest:

American Library Association Shamed,” by Nat Hentoff, Laurel Leader-Call, 2 March 2007.

Banned Books Week and the ALA,” by Dennis Ingolfsland, The Recliner Commentaries, 4 August 2009.

“‘Censors’ Are So Scary,” by Annoyed Librarian, Library Journal, 6 October 2008.

National Hogwash Week,” as coined by Thomas Sowell. And this resource has a long, updated list of BBW-related articles.

US Libraries Hit Back Over Challenges to Kids Books,” by Sara Hussein, Agence France-Presse [AFP], 6 September 2009.

Various Humbugs Regarding Banned Books Week, by Mateo Palos, Mateo Palos, 27 September 2009.

Excuse me, but books have definitely been banned from at least certain libraries and school systems. In the town where I live, the public school system can no longer shelve Avi’s Fighting Ground, a Newbery Award winning title (this means it was considered the best book for young readers for the year of the award). That’s banned in my book, sir.

The Roman Catholic Church decreed that no RC school could carry the His Dark Materials trilogy; that’s banned, sir. I work in a RC school library, and I was ordered to remove the books from the shelves and delete them from the catalog. Definite banning activity there.

These are two examples I KNOW to be true, because I experienced them.

Many books are challenged but may be successfully defended by libraries or schools. That does not negate the importance of defending our freedom to read what we want.

Incorrect Librarian

September 30, 2009 at 2:44 pm

BBW is big business for the ALA. Why should they strive for accuracy when exaggeration attracts more attention? It suits their purposes to paint a Manichean world of good (them) and evil (others).

Misunderstood and Sometimes Maligned Books Week might be more accurate.

In the schools, at least, most often challenges to books arise when teachers assign books from an inappropriate (higher) age level or are just plain seen as trying to impose their (superior) moral code over that of the parents.

ALA then jumps in to accuse the parents of being bigots. Neat, huh?

Thank you, Mr. Melrose. You are much more articlulate than I was this morning when I read the WSJ column and began sputtering and yelling at my computer. Absolutely maddening. Of course he has the right to his opinions, but people who willingly and gleefully embrace ignorance are downright scary.

Banning books is more than attacking individual volumes, it attacks the very idea of a free and open society served by libraries equally open and free. I’m waiting for public libraries (and maybe state universities) to be attacked for being socialistic organizations. Public libraries are very hateful to those who dislike socialism because public libraries are one of those rare cases where socialism works rather well. Not perfectly, but well.

If you work in a Roman Catholic-supported school, and the religious staff in charge say to remove certain materials, then out go the materials. Call it censorship or think of it as themed collection development. Does the school’s 290’s section have plenty of material on the Koran and guides to Islamic worship? If not, would you say these materials been censored?

The New York City Public Library subscribes to “Playboy”; the Salt Lake City Public Library does not. Is this surprising? But is it censorship? Does it make the citizenry of Salt Lake City seem bigoted or small-minded?

Or does striking a balance of community standards and community expectations actually work?

I’m a librarian, but stopped paying my ALA dues circa 1993. Too much of a one-sided political agenda pushed; and they have a knee-jerk reaction whenever a patron issues a concern over material he or she thinks is not appropriate for a child.

The opinion piece was well written and it’s facts readily available for comparison. The slant was surely against ALA but does that make it something worth attacking? Freedom of thought and speach means anyone can say whatever they like, right wrong or indifferent. I saw nothing wrong with his piece. I’m somewhat ashamed of ALA members’ reactions to it. It has a “nuh uh … you’re the dumb one …” schoolyard feel to it.

Well, sure, freedom of thought and speech means all of that. But it also means that those who disagree with, say, an opinion piece are permitted to say as much.

“[…] while librarians hand down “hidden verdicts” as they stigmatize any who dare oppose them”

I must admit that the mentioned WSJ article made me angry for the most part, but the impression I got from it with regards to the above sentiment was less about the actual banning of books, and more about the fact that, when it comes down to it, the librarians are the ones who choose what books come in to the library.

While they may be influenced by patron preferences, in the end it is the librarians who order the books and not all of those books are necessarily going to fit the reading preferences of the majority. In a good public library, there should be a reasonable distribution of books of both types. What’s the good of having a point of view if it’s never challenged?

I feel like those who focus on trying to get books banned from the public library should instead ask if the library can order a book that reflects their point of view to go alongside it.

Banned Books Week is probably a phrase that could be freshened up a bit…some people (librarian colleagues included) probably don’t give a thought to censorship or think it is no longer a problem in the age of the internet. Couldn’t be further from the truth. The internet is the perfect editing/censorship tool for content. Take Google/China for example:

Frankly Speaking

October 1, 2009 at 8:05 am

The WSJ piece is interesting for showing those of us deep within the groupthink of libraryland how our parochial concerns look to the real world. BBW is an overblown exercise in self-righteous hype, as in “OMIGOD THE BARBARIANS ARE AT THE GATES AND ONLY WE BRAVE LIBRARIANS CAN STOP THEM”. Ah, it’s hard to be heroic, but ALA will sell us the posters and buttons necessary to lead the charge against prejudice and ignorance!

The citizens who pay the taxes that support the schools and libraries surely have a right to express their opinions and seek redress of their grievances. That’s in the Constitution, ALA. To count every complaint, and act like the sum reflects a vast tide of repression, when the great majority of these are by ALA’s own admission dismissed makes the self-congratulatory drama all the more misplaced.

Note: those citizens bringing these complaints do vote on school and public library millages. If you alienate enough potential users by patronizing and sanctimonious dismissal of their concerns, don’t be surprised if they vote you down in the future.

As an ALA member, an IFRT member, a fan of Nat Hentoff since I read one of his essays 15 years ago, and someone who is quite pleased to have gotten to attend presentations by Judith Krug on two different occassions, I have to admit that I agree with Muncy that while Banned Books Week is a very catchy marketing slogan, I haven’t always considered it accurate. There is a world of difference between parents and others who exercise their First Amendment rights to challenge materials and when something is actually removed from the shelves.

On the other hand, I don’t know where Muncy came up with the idea that censorship is only “prior restraint on publication.” Stopping the flow of information the way that China, Iran, and Cuba have with the able assistance of companies like Cisco is definitely censorship.

And one last note on Pullman: I wouldn’t blame any library for not carrying his works. It took me two tries to get through the Golden Compass and I really wish I hadn’t bothered. Not unlike Dan Brown, Pullman is much better at marketing through controversy than at actually crafting prose worth reading.

A lot of college students and young people don’t have a clue as to the history of censorship in America, both in the recent past and the ongoing practice of information being filtered out by corporations (media) and governments today. Just a few decades ago for example a Supreme Court decision sent Ralph Ginzburg to prison for publishing a magazine called EROS. Though I’m not defending the merits of EROS, this wasn’t about some parent expressing outrage that Harry Potter books were teaching witchcraft to children. Furthermore a lot of younger Librarians probably don’t even know who Lenny Bruce was and what happened to him. The idea of history repeating itself may be a cliche worth noting once a year. In the Global environment of the internet, censorship anywhere can become censorship everywhere.

Libative Republicrat

October 2, 2009 at 6:29 am

This seems to me like a kneejerk reaction to a kneejerk article. As a librarian myself, I found the WSJ article to have some relevant points, particularly about the fact that 90% of the episodes of banned books were actually “challenged books” that didn’t result in the removal of the books.

Truth is, as public libraries, how many of us subscribe to Hustler and Penthouse? They would certainly get used. Whenever we choose one material and choose not to purchase another, we are indulging in a form of censorship.

Kat Kan wrote, “In the town where I live, the public school system can no longer shelve Avi’s Fighting Ground, a Newbery Award winning title (this means it was considered the best book for young readers for the year of the award).” The Fighting Ground by Avi did not win the Newbery Award (though it appeared on several recommended book lists). Avi won the Newbery Award for Crispin and received Newbery Honors for The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle and Nothing But the Truth.

Burning a Book
By William Stafford

Protecting each other, right in the center
a few pages glow a long time.
The cover goes first, then the outer leaves
curling away, then spine and a scattering.
Truth, brittle and faint, burns easily,
its fire as hot as the fire lies make–
flame doesn’t care. You can usually find
a few charred words in the ashes.

And some books ought to burn, trying for character
but just faking it. More disturbing
than book ashes are whole libraries that no one
got around to writing — desolate
towns, miles of unthought-in cities,
and the terrorized countryside where wild dogs
own anything that moves. If a book
isn’t written, no one needs to burn it–
ignorance can dance in the absence of fire.

So I’ve burned books. And there are many
I haven’t even written, and nobody has.

William Stafford
An Oregon Message
© 1987, NY, Harper and Row

ALA admits its own problem with the title of its list. They are stuck with “Banned” Books Week — because that’s how they started and that’s what the media (and blogs) salivate for. But the ALA’s list is “Challenged Books” — because that’s what happens — and the books always win — especially in sales.

Come to California — where we have 80% of our school libraries without librarians. Where we have half the public libraries of the national average. We know how to deny access to books. And it ain’t one at a time.

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