A Few Thoughts on Book Challenges and Book Banning in America

Academic Freedom, ALA Top Ten Most Frequently Challenged Books, Banned and Challenged Books, Banned Books Week, General Interest, National Library Week, Office for Intellectual Freedom

By: Robert Sarwark


Last week, the Top 10 Challenged Books of 2017 were announced by the Office for Intellectual Freedom. Following that announcement, the Banned Books Week Coalition posted a great article on this blog summarizing some of the included titles in anticipation of this year’s Banned Books Week, September 23-29, 2018.

Like past years, the majority of this year’s 10 most challenged books (nine) are written for either children or teenagers. What all of them also share is that they address issues (e.g., suicide, sex, racism, gender fluidity) that many parents or other adults may deem too mature, complex or, perhaps, too morally ambiguous or confusing for a minor to comprehend and/or navigate. And, of course, others still might just believe that certain books are plain evil.

While some of us might disagree and feel that such folks are overreacting, prudish, or otherwise wrongheaded, it’s clear that they feel motivated enough to take action towards attempting to remove materials from public consumption for, in their minds, the good of the community, school, etc. They sincerely believe that they are doing the right thing. That in itself is proof to me that these issues of censorship/banning are almost never as clear-cut as “all book banning is bad!”

BANNED image from COM (College of the Mainland) Library


An instructor at the college where I work recently asked me about the Catholic Index of Forbidden Books soon after I posted about it on this blog. “What makes people act like that?” she asked. “What made them try to suppress so many great books?” I thought about it for a second and responded, “Fear.” I stand by this and also agree with the insights of Office for Intellectual Freedom Director James LaRue on how to help others cope with this fear and other related emotions. Through his lectures and writings, he advocates strongly for listening to and understanding the emotional motivations of individuals and groups challenging books. We can all relate to that most elemental of emotions, fear. Fear often leads to anger, which in turn sometimes leads to lashing out. If something makes us afraid, we then try to combat, control, or otherwise remove it from our presence. Book banning is no different. And as either librarians, library workers, patrons, or more generally as intellectual freedom proponents, we owe it to ourselves to understand these issues as best we can, from angles we might not otherwise be accustomed to even considering.

Be Prepared

The New Inquisition: Understanding and Managing Intellectual Freedom Challenges by James LaRueSo where does that leave us, practically speaking? I think a few tips from Mr. LaRue’s The New Inquisition: Understanding and Managing Intellectual Freedom Challenges (2007) are helpful when trying to see these other “angles,” especially for public-facing librarians:

  1. Speak personally with the patron;
  2. Find something the patron does want as opposed to something they don’t;
  3. If all else fails, use a “request for reconsideration form.”

This all may seem easier said than done. And LaRue very thoroughly lays out scenarios in which these three steps may not be adequate. But everyone has their reasons, even book challengers. It may not be possible to find a perfect compromise in book challenges, but a little empathy and constructive, respectful communication may go a long way.


Robert SarwarkRobert M. Sarwark is a librarian at the Art Institute of Atlanta and a 2018-2019 Visiting Fellow in Publishing History at Harvard University’s Houghton Library. He is originally from Chicago and enjoys dogs, pizza, and writing bios in the third person. Find him on Twitter @RobSarwark.

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