By Lon Maxwell, Reference Department
Librarians have their own holiday week. We call it Banned Books Week and this year it runs from the 24th through the 30th of September. This is a week where we look back at classics and other printed works that have been challenged and outright banned in communities around the United States and the rest of the world. We celebrate this week not because books are banned, but because despite attempts to remove books from the public arena, these questioned titles remain available for us all. This is because we are citizens of a country that enjoys the freedom of speech.
Of course, when I say librarians I really mean the American Library Association (ALA) and when I say banned books I mean books that have been banned by or challenged in state sponsored institutions. And what is “challenged,” you say? According to ALA, “[a] challenge is an attempt to remove or restrict materials, based upon the objections of a person or group. A banning is the removal of those materials.” The ALA and its partner in organizing Banned Books Week, Amnesty International, created this week to bring awareness to the masses that censorship still exists around the world and here at home as well.
Motivations for banning or censoring books usually start out with a desire to do what is perceived as good. These are not the 1933 Nazi cleansings, the burning of books that challenge a political ideal. They are usually attempts to protect a segment of the population from concepts and ideals that some feel may be harmful to others. Nevertheless, an unwillingness to accept ideas outside of our personal world view is still censorship, protective nature notwithstanding.
Banning books in the public domain, most often schools, leads to damage to our students according to an article called “The Effects of Censorship.” “While the attempt to keep children pure for as long as possible is admirable, it takes the form of leaving gaping holes in their education, if not academically, then about life.” The author goes on to explain that missing out on knowledge that is gained from materials some might find offensive can lead to a lack of knowledge that most feel is essential.
The fear of censorship itself is also a form of censorship. Many education professors speak of the self-censorship that teachers impose on themselves. The fear of having a choice they made questioned (or getting them into trouble with the institution) leads to the avoidance of a book or topic altogether. However, one of the most important parts of education (and reading) is to study and read about both sides. First year composition courses tell students that they need to understand both sides of an argument before you can write a persuasive essay. You cannot refute an argument without understanding its underlying motivations. What we do not know, we do not know. What gaps do we all have that we are unaware of because some piece of information was denied to us?
Evelyn Hall, in her 1906 Work The Friends of Voltaire, wrote, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” Basically, the standard for protected speech cannot be defined by a person’s personal beliefs. That is the attitude taken by the ALA when it comes to banning books, going so far as to quote Noam Chomsky on their web site “If we don’t believe in freedom of expression for people we despise, we don’t believe in it at all.” Book challenges don’t know political exclusivity. They come from right and left. Banned books isn’t some week designed to just speak out on the unjust persecution of books we like, it is a time for us to stand against all censorship. Just remember, if books you find offensive are banned, what’s to stop the books you approve of and enjoy from being banned?
Banned Books Week is a celebration. It is revelry for the written word in which we can see our brightest heights and darkest depths, laid out before the world, to be seen, commented upon and preserved so that they may be remembered and judged by the future. And I am proud to live in a country that leaves its written testimony open and bare for all to see.
P.S. – The biggest thing to look for every year at this time is the top ten list. These are the most challenged books of the last year.