Books Unite Us: Censorship Divides Us

“A truly great library contains something in it to offend everyone.”  ~Mary Jo Godwin, Librarian

It’s fall again and another Banned Books Week is here, September 26 to October 2. This year’s theme is Books Unite Us: Censorship Divides Us. I have written several posts about banned books in the past detailing why various books are banned or challenged. This year, I would like to take a different approach and talk more generally about censorship, how libraries build collections to serve communities, and how our library system approaches challenges.

Banned Books Week was originally launched in 1982 in response to an increase in challenges to books in schools, bookstores and libraries and to bring attention to the harm of censorship. It involves the entire book industry including publishers, libraries, booksellers, teachers, journalists and readers of all kinds. According to the American Library Association’s (ALA) statistics, 73% of the challenges they received in 2020 were for books and graphic novels. 43%, the largest in ALA’s statistics, were directed at public libraries. 50% of challenges are brought by parents. The topics of concern tend to be towards materials concerning marginalized communities, religion, politics and, of course, sex.

In talking with Kirk Henley, the Collection Development Manager for the Daniel Boone Regional Library, it seems that we receive relatively few complaints about the items in our collection. He said that complaints “usually involve patrons asking that we either remove materials from the collection, move materials to more age appropriate locations or add additional content warnings to materials.” Our selectors do an incredible job, aided by clear policies that are supported by the ALA’s “Freedom to Read”, “Freedom to View”, and the “Library Bill of Rights.”

I also spoke with Elinor Barrett, who is the Associate Director of DBRL and has fielded complaints about meeting rooms and programming such as one group complaining about another group’s use of a meeting room. Once again, we lean on the ALA’s “Library Bill of Rights” which states, “Publicly funded libraries are not obligated to provide meeting room space to the public. If libraries choose to do so, such spaces are considered designated public forums, and legal precedent holds that libraries may not exclude any group based on the subject matter to be discussed or the ideas for which the group advocates.” The library is truly here for everyone.

You can't say that book coverThere are several new books released in the past year or so that address censorship in general. “You Can’t Say That: Writers for Young People Talk About Censorship, Free Expression and the Stories They Have to Tell” edited by historian Leonard S. Marcus was released July 2021. Marcus interview 13 different authors of children and young adult books who speak out about what it’s like to have your work banned or challenged in America today. They discuss why their books have faced censorship — both blatant and “soft” — how the challenges have or haven’t affected their writing, and why some people feel they have the right to deny access to books.

burning the books book coverBurning Books: A History of the Deliberate Destruction of Knowledge” by Richard Ovenden, the Director of the Bodleian Libraries at the University of Oxford, was released November 2020. In this book, Ovenden tells the history of the attacks on libraries and archives over the past three millennia. I know we are all still upset over Julius Caesar’s burning of the library in Alexandria. (Or maybe it’s just me.) But Ovenden’s history continues to current times, examining both the motivations for these acts — political, religious, and cultural — and the broader themes that shape this history.

dangerous ideas book coverDangerous Ideas: A Brief History of Censorship in the West from the Ancients to Fake News” by Eric Berkowitz was released May 2021. Berkowitz examines how restricting speech has continuously shaped our culture, and how censorship is used as a tool to prop up authorities and maintain class and gender disparities. He uses a highly narrative form to ponder censorship from the first Chinese emperor’s wholesale elimination of books, to Henry VIII’s decree of death for anyone who “imagined” his demise, and on to the attack on Charlie Hebdo and the volatile politics surrounding censorship of social media.

banned book club book coverBanned Book Club” by Kim Hyun Sook was released May 2020. The author uses the graphic format to tell her story of going to college in 1983’s South Korea, something that is still not common for women there. This was during South Korea’s Fifth Republic, a military regime that entrenched its power through censorship, tortur, and the murder of protesters. Hyun Sook sought refuge in the comfort of books. When the handsome young editor of the school newspaper invited her to his reading group, she expected to pop into the cafeteria to talk about Moby Dick, Hamlet and The Scarlet Letter. Instead she found herself hiding in a basement as the youngest member of an underground banned book club.

“The truth is libraries are raucous clubhouses for free speech, controversy and community.” ~Paula Poundstone

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