Banned Books Week always falls in late September (this year it’s September 22-28, 2019), a month that can be particularly busy for academic librarians. My main responsibilities at the Stevens Institute of Technology primarily involve reference and instruction as well as programming and outreach. Due to these responsibilities, and my two little school-age responsibilities at home, September is a lot. However, the issue of literary censorship is one I and my library find important, and I have worked in recent years to observe Banned Books Week (BBW) in a way that works with our busy schedule.
One of our more popular passive programs has been the Question of the Week board, introduced to our library in 2015. We also use another whiteboard closer to the reference desk to promote library events and workshops and to call attention to information we find interesting and/or important (see recent examples of both boards here). Whiteboards are great!
Banned Books Week programming in public and occasionally academic libraries often includes a book display of banned/challenged books, but, as Stevens is a STEM school, the library does not carry a lot of the children’s books and novels that are often banned or challenged. Instead, as of 2016, the Question of the Week board during Banned Books Week becomes an ad hoc book display and a means to informally survey students about books that have been banned or challenged. Using ALA’s yearly lists of most challenged books, supplemented in part by Banned Books: Defending Our Freedom to Read by Robert P. Doyle (ALA, 2014; the 2017 edition is currently available), I develop a list of titles and print out images of the book covers along with ALA BBW graphics, and pose to the Stevens community the question, “Which of these banned books have YOU read?”
I have kept track of these tally marks (primarily left by students, but likely also includes the occasional staff or faculty member) and can tell you that To Kill a Mockingbird (Harper Lee, 1960) was the most popular book in 2016 (total tally marks: 43) and maintained the lead in 2017 (36), but was supplanted in 2018 by the Captain Underpants series (Dav Pilkey, 1997; 34 in 2016, 23 in 2017, and 42 in 2018). The top three have been rounded out every year with The Hunger Games (Suzanne Collins, 2008; 39 in 2016, 35 in 2017, and 22 in 2018).
While overall participation fell in 2018 (total tally marks: 200 in 2016, 193 in 2017, 140 in 2018), the relative consistency of the top three over the past years indicates that the decrease in tally marks might be more an ebb and flow of the books students are reading at the time, and less an issue of declining interest. Going forward, I will make more of a point to emphasize the fact that the books and the week in general is meant to raise awareness of challenged as well as banned books, as not all challenges lead to bans.
The recent news about the banning of the Harry Potter series (J.K. Rowling, first published in the U.S. in 1999) in a Tennessee Catholic school is a great opportunity to bring that series onto the board and see how the students respond to it.
I highly recommend this activity as an easy way for academic librarians to mark Banned Books Week while they are also running around helping students, teaching, planning events, and getting through the day.
Thanks to the Library Director of the Samuel C. Williams Library, Linda Beninghove, for her ongoing support of this program.
Vicky Ludas Orlofsky has been the Instruction & Scholarly Communication Librarian at Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, NJ, since 2013. She has long had a personal and professional interest in issues of copyright, user privacy and intellectual freedom, which has informed her approach to instruction and reference. She lives in New Jersey with her husband and two young children, and in her spare time, such as it is, enjoys bakeries, reading, and coffee.