Thursday, September 26, 2013

Librarians and Banned/Challenged Books

The ALA (American Library Association) does not ban books. In fact, it kind of does the opposite. It keeps track of bans and challenges from around the country and makes that information available to anyone, and it does what it can to support librarians who choose to keep challenged books on their shelves. It even sponsors Banned Books Week, a celebration of reading (not banning) banned/challenged books.

What's the difference between banned and challenged? Basically, banning is when a challenge is successful. When someone complains about a book and wants it banned, that's a challenge; when the school or library that has been complained to removes the book, that's a ban. Sometimes they go even further; there have been instances of book bans in schools that not only remove a certain book from a reading list and/or the library, but won't allow students to carry or read that book on school grounds. But we aren't really talking about governmental bans, because I'm discussing the ALA, which deals only with the USA, where we do not ban books at the governmental level. (That's sort of a big part of why we have the First Amendment.)

So who does challenge books? Parents of school-age children, mostly. A parent will notice a particular book in their child's possession, and that parent will take offense to it. Maybe someone told them terrible things about it; maybe they read a few pages out of context and found something offensive; or maybe it's a book that disagrees with their religious or political beliefs. They complain to the school or library that made the book available to their child, and demand that it be removed from the shelves or the reading list.

The thing is, parents who make challenges like this are trying to apply their opinions of what is right for their child to all the children in their child's school or community. That's one of those things we use the First Amendment to stop. You shouldn't take away everyone's access to something just because one person finds it offensive or inappropriate.

It gets trickier with reading lists for classes, because that's like telling a kid "you have to read this book." If a parent is opposed to a book on a reading list, that parent's child is usually offered an alternative book to read, or a transfer to another class that doesn't require that book. That way, the child can still learn the basic skills being addressed by reading the book (usually critical reading, vocabulary, history, literary devices, etc.) and the school isn't contradicting the parents' wishes or taking the selected book away from other students whose parents are completely fine with it.

But lots of schools - I mean, a ridiculous number - will remove a book from the school's library because one parent is offended by it. A lot of these challenges happen with middle schools, and it has a lot to do with parents who have difficulty accepting that their children are growing up and learning to think critically, form their own opinions, and explore topics that most parents don't want to think about their kids exploring (sex, violence, drugs, etc.)

The top three reasons for challenging books, according to the ALA, are:
"Sexually explicit" material
"Offensive language"
Materials that are "unsuited to any age group"
Do you really think a lot of adults are going to challenge books intended for adults based on naughty words and nudity? In that context, what does "unsuited to any age group" even mean? Nothing, really. That's the category for "this book isn't okay for a child of X age to read!" It's extremely rare to find a challenge intended to keep a certain book away from adults.

(The only solid example of book-banning attempts meant to keep a certain book away from adults that comes to mind is The Anarchist Cookbook, which has step-by-step instructions for all manner of explosives and other nefarious devices. If you've never seen it in your local library, keep in mind: there's a big difference between librarians choosing not to purchase a book and librarians banning a book from their shelves. And based on what I know about the book, it is not only controversial and dangerous, but extremely poorly written, which means it has little literary value. It was also published in 1971, so a lot of the information is outdated. These are always good reasons to not purchase a book for collection development.)

And librarians - as a general rule - aren't okay with banning books. They welcome the right to challenge books, because it's another form taken by the First Amendment (we have the right to stock the book, and you have the right to complain about it). But removing books from a public or academic library* is not nearly as easy as getting one removed from a school library*. That's because public/academic libraries serve a MUCH larger group than a 30-student class, and everyone else in that group has a right to have access to whatever books you find offensive.

*Academic libraries are college/university libraries; school libraries are K-12.

After all, as Jo Godwin said:

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