Some thoughts on ‘Questioning the Dogma of Banned Books Week’

Banned Books Week, Censorship

By: Kate Lechtenberg

Clip art of open red book with yellow caution tape across it reading "Banned Books Week"I’ve always been uncomfortable with Banned Books Week. Even though I work with the Office for Intellectual Freedom, teach pre-service librarians and teachers about intellectual freedom, and do research related to intellectual freedom, I’ve never taken a mug shot of myself with a banned or challenged book or posted pictures of my banned books displays on social media.

Elliott Kuecker, faculty librarian and doctoral student at the University of Georgia, recently published an article in Library Philosophy and Practice called Questioning the Dogma of Banned Books Week,” and many of his arguments resonated with my long-standing discomfort with the performative aspects of Banned Books Week. Kuecker uses Foucault’s notions of discourse to critique Banned Books Week, and I think it’s important for intellectual freedom supporters to turn a critical eye toward our own work and traditions.

Critiques to Consider

I think Kuecker makes several points that merit consideration, and I hope that reflecting on these critiques can help librarians and intellectual freedom supporters move toward a more thoughtful approach to anti-censorship work.

  • Critiques the focus on performing identities during Banned Books Week: Kuecker argues that Banned Books Week “functions to promote progressive identities of the individuals who take part in the ritual” (p. 2), and publicly proclaiming one’s support of banned books is mostly about asserting oneself as an “evolved” librarian, educator, or citizen.
  • Argues that Banned Books Week is short on action: Kuecker says, “The liberator does not have to take action; they only have to talk constantly about it and shame the censor” (p. 6). While many people do take action during BBW, I think we would do well do recommit ourselves to action, and not just talk.
  • two chess knight chess pieces opposing each otherCritiques the oppositional terms of censor vs. anticensor and war metaphors: Kuecker notes, “The censor and anticensor are described to set up the battle and the friend-enemy relationship” (p. 3). He’s right — we have too much polarizing rhetoric and tribal echo chambers in today’s discourse, and we shouldn’t contribute to this divisiveness.  
  • Calls out language that demonizes censors: I agree with Kuecker that it is important to call out rhetoric that unfairly demonizes censors, comparing them to terrorists (p. 7), cave dwellers (p. 10),  murderers (p. 12). This sort of hyperbole contributes unnecessarily to hostility between book challengers and those opposing censorship.
  • Asserts that banned books lists don’t support truly radical books: Kuecker raises the important point that banned books lists often feature relatively uncontroversial books like Harry Potter and The Giver. He says, Given that some people still complain about books that have mild content, like boys kissing boys, truly advocating for more extreme controversial content would require more of a burden than BBW would want” (p. 14). This point is particularly apt, and I would love to see Banned Books Week feature a more nuanced discussion about how and why adults respond to the portrayal of sex in young adult literature.
  • Reminds us that those who challenge books have that right: Kuecker reminds us that challenging a book “should also be understood as participatory democracy, even if we do not agree with their particular politics” (p. 4).

In short, I appreciate Kuecker’s reminders that supporting Banned Books Week can’t be all talk, and it should not contribute to hostile, polarizing discourse.

Critiquing Kuecker’s argument

However, I also take issue with some of his arguments, as well as some of his own rhetorical choices. And importantly, there are many places where Kuecker’s arguments could have been strengthened or revised had he consulted OIF staff and included the statics on banned and challenged books within his argument.

  • American Library Association Top 10 Challenged Books of 2017 posterMinimizes the impact of banned books: Kuecker repeatedly asserts that “the books featured in the lists of BBW are not actually banned” (p. 2) but he provides no evidence to support this.
    • In fact, his article does not examine any statistics related to attempts to ban or challenge books. True, many of the books on the OIF’s annual Top 10 Banned and Challenged Books lists have been challenged but retained, but I think he would do well to seriously consider the number of challenges and bans reported — and the large number of potentially unreported cases as well.
  • Views banned books lists as manipulating rather than representing instances of censorship: Kuecker notes calls the book challenges and bans that comprise a list “random instances” that are compiled in the list: “Bibliographies have a piling-on effect, especially when arranged chronologically. Ultimately, they do not tell history, they create history.”
    • While certainly, any list is a construction and must be critically analyzed, Kuecker seems to disregard the reality of the individual instances that make up banned and challenged books lists.  Each week the Intellectual Freedom News includes media coverage of such challenges, and these real-life individual challenges eventually lead to the Top 10 Banned and Challenged books lists cited above.
  • Fails to consider self-censorship: Kuecker says that those who challenge books “have little ability to actually censor media,” again, without evidence (p. 2). Yes, the number of people who seek to challenge or ban books may be small relative to the population at large, but there is ample evidence to suggest that all attempts to ban books contributes to a larger culture of fear and self-censorship that restricts access to information.
    • Indeed, later, Kuecker gives an example of a librarian and library branch manager who did not order a book with gay characters because they feared a challenge (p. 14-15), and this is clear evidence that he needs to consider self-censorship when he minimizes the power of would-be censors. OIF bloggers often write about self-censorship, and Kuecker would do well to consider these oft-forgotten consequences.
  • Argues without evidence suggests a financially motivated conspiracy: Kuecker suggests that someone (he doesn’t say who) is “partnering with corporations to promote specific books” and that these partners do “no productive work other than creating identities” (p. 16). Kuecker also claims that “authors and publishers know the formula for how to make a book the right amount of controversial in order to make it on BBW, which helps position a book to become part of the new canon” (p. 2-3).
    • To make this argument, Kuecker draws on Kidd’s (2009) argument in “Not Censorship But Selection: Censorship and/as Prizing” that Banned Books Week has functioned to create an “uncritical canon” of banned books, giving valuable cultural and commercial capital to books publicized as “banned” and to the ALA itself. I’m all for critiquing Banned Books Week and the ALA on economic terms I think it’s important to consider the commodification of intellectual freedom activism; however, I think Kuecker goes too far and has over-extended Kidd’s argument, which does not suggest such corporate partnerships or formulas related to banned or challenged books.

As members of the intellectual freedom community, I hope we can learn from critiques like Kuecker’s, and continue engaging in robust discussions about how our actions reflect or contradict our philosophies. I hope that both supporters and critics of Banned Books Week and other ALA-sponsored anti-censorship efforts will reach out and continue the conversation, beginning in the comments below.

 


Kate Lechtenberg is a doctoral candidate in Language, Literacy, and Culture in the University of Iowa’s College of Education. After working in public schools for fourteen years as a high school English teacher and school librarian, her doctoral research now focuses on text selection, multicultural literature, educational standards, and equity initiatives. Kate teaches a young adult literature course in the College of Education and a school librarian course on print and digital collection management in the School of Library and Information Science. She was also a member of the AASL Standards Implementation Task Force. Find her on Twitter @katelechtenberg.

6 comments

  • Thank you for this post. The concept of “banned books,” as an accepted standard for violations of intellectual freedom is certainly an idea worthy of reconsideration. I agree with you that some of Kuecker’s points should be taken seriously, but you have also explained clearly why he fails to consider the context of making books inaccessible, even if they are not actually “banned.”
    I have noticed inconsistent responses when someone is fired from a t.v. program due to controversial comments, or when a book is withdrawn by a publisher after complaints about its content. Do these equal “banning” books or violating someone’s right to free speech? Sometimes the answer isn’t straightforward. Many Americans have a poor or incomplete concept of when speech or writing is covered by the First Amendment.
    The argument that publicizing banned books makes us feel good without providing any concrete change is an odd one. Raising public awareness of any issue risks this accusation. Of course, we need to follow up with other actions, but publicity campaigns alone still have value.
    It’s really important to discuss this issue, and to be vigilant about keeping books accessible, beyond just Harry Potter. It’s also essential to remember that books may offend some readers and engage others. It’s not enough to claim that a classic book from an earlier era will be hurtful to readers today in order to justify removing it from circulation, any more than it would be acceptable to claim that books which empower marginalized groups may be offensive to those on the right.

  • Thank you for taking a critical look at both the institution and the criticism. This is exactly the kind of discourse we need if we are to move beyond just taking a position and wagging our fingers at the “unenlightened”. I was reminded of the recent brouhaha over the West Virginia librarian who chose not to shelve Bob Woodward’s latest book. I never learned what her motivations were and was shocked to see so many librarians jumping on the “she must be an ignorant partisan” bandwagon. What happened to the professional librarian’s right to create the collection? I regularly ditch the L. Ron Hubbard materials that arrive unbidden and nobody has a problem with that. While hugely popular and on many lists, I didn’t rush to purchase “Fear” as it was following on the heels of a long line of exposees of the Trump administration and didn’t get great reviews. Even though I agreed with the author and he is well-known, it didn’t have much new to say and I wasn’t planning to give it my limited shelf space until several patrons requested it. Censorship or collection development?

  • I would be interested to know if Kuecker has had a irate mother rampaging through his workplace, screaming at everyone while trying to find him in order to corner & attack him. Book challenges are a little unnerving, especially when real threats are made. In my case, the mother specifically asked for a book that was behind the Circulation desk (for a book club for grades 6-9) and checked it out for her 4th grade daughter…then got upset that it wasn’t age appropriate, despite the fact that no library staff member ever told her it would be a good selection for a 10 year old. In the Reconsideration form, that library had a question about what the patron would like the library to do about the problematic book and she wrote that she wanted the library to “burn all copies.” She threatened to attend the book club for the sole purpose of sabotaging it and was calling for me to be fired. For reference, this was 2016. I wasn’t trying to make an enemy out of her but she was threatening both my physical safety and job (& therefore access to healthcare) because of a decision she made as a parent. The assertion Kuecker makes that censors are all conservatives is plain stupid. Censors are just as likely to be liberal — remember Dangerous by Milo Yiannopoulos? Even OIF people did not particularly like the fact that he had a book contract with S&S. Publisher’s Weekly regularly advocated for Milo censorship too.

    It is difficult to focus on the topic of sex as a children’s librarian. Youth BBW displays must be for everyone from newborn infants to 14 year olds. Every parent is different but many in my community would not be cool with their 4 year old stumbling upon a sexuality-themed BBW display. Harry Potter and Captain Underpants are great because while they are not BANNED/are on every Walmart bookshelf in America, I have frequently encountered parents that will not allow their children to even look at, let alone checkout those books. In that child’s eyes, those books are banned for them because they have no access to it, even if others do. The Hunger Games gets more fire than Harry Potter or Captain Underpants these days — “Please tell my child that you have to be at least 10 years old to read Hunger Games.”

    I totally understand the perspective of being wary of BBW because it does sometimes feel like an echo chamber for LIS professionals. Still, one of my favorite moments of being a librarian is working the reference desk while families pass by my BBW display and overhearing them have in-depth conversations about the First Amendment. The displays force children to ask their parents what “Banned Books” means or what “Censorship” is and then they have a conversation about it as a family. It is not just liberal progressive families either. I overhead a very strict Mormon mother telling her homeschooled children about how a lot of people were saying Harry Potter was demonic when it came out but she decided she needed to actually read them before labeling them as such. That is a good family discussion and invites children to use their own brains before judging something. I think that has some value, despite being all talk.

  • I have long thought that perhaps we should have followed Canada’s lead and called it “Freedom to Read Week” but Banned Books Week is catchier. I’ve written in a few places that censorship is a constellation of practices and not just an action that takes place at one point in time and has a single impact. Hopefully, I’ll have time to respond to both Kuecker and this post more fully in the very near future!

  • I have been saying a lot of this for a long time, but I’m repeatedly shut out. I doubt my comment will even be published here. Remember, I recorded a banned book author admitting that ALA OIF fakes the numbers just to promote its own interests. The response is to silence me for reporting that.

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