By: Rebecca Slocum
It’s now September, which means a few things: the weather is shifting to cooler temperatures (unless you’re from the South — sorry, y’all); NFL football is about to start, which, if your house is like mine, is a big deal; and we’re about three weeks away from Banned Books Week, which takes place this year from September 23rd to 29th.
What is Banned Books Week?
Banned Books Week is an annual awareness event that takes place each year during the last week of September. It began in 1982 by the long time director of ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom and all around awesome librarian, Judith Krug. She, in conjunction with the Association of American Publishers, wanted to draw attention to the increase in number of book bans that year. 36 years later, Banned Books Week is still celebrated by librarians, publishers, booksellers, teachers, and readers throughout the country. The week highlights books that have been challenged or banned, as well as authors who have experienced their work being censored. Additionally, the American Library Association and the event’s other various sponsors, hope to draw attention to the dangers of censorship and the importance of the freedom to read. The week is celebrated in a variety of ways: libraries construct creative displays to promote previously banned books; bookstores host banned and challenged authors or sometimes sponsor events where a passage from a banned book is read aloud.
Of course, not everyone agrees with the message of Banned Books Week. Most notably, conservative organizations often challenge the event, disputing the message that concerned parents objecting to books they consider to be inappropriate is equivalent to censorship. Mitchell Muncy argued in The Wall Street Journal that Banned Books Week is unnecessary and even misleading because books are not censored in the United States. He points out that many of the books highlighted during the week are not actually banned or removed, but merely challenged; and if they are removed, the books are still available in bookstores. Additionally, Muncy contends that since these challenges primarily originate from concerned parents and community members, not the government, they don’t count as censorship; rather, it is considered “petitioning the government for a redress of grievances.”
Why Banned Books Week is Still Important
Respectfully, I disagree. What critics of Banned Books Week may not realize is that oftentimes, removing a book from a library collection is, for some, tantamount to a straight-out ban. The library serves as a community information center, providing free books and resources for all citizens to utilize. Yes, patrons could still go buy the book, but what if their only way of reading new books is at the library? Assuming that everyone can just run out and purchase a new book, or even a discounted used one, is a privileged way of looking at the world. Additionally, we all, including children, have the same fundamental right to intellectual freedom: to read, discover, learn, and most importantly, form our own ideas based on this information. Removing books that contain diverse views removes the opportunity for our society to do so.
So how can parents protect their children from material they consider inappropriate? Ah, I’m so glad you asked. You can protect them by arming them with information. We all want to raise our children to be intelligent, kind, and thoughtful citizens of the world. To do so, they must be exposed to what’s happening in the world: the good, the bad, the easy, and the difficult. What better way to do that than through books? Instead of trying to avoid or ban books containing difficult topics, be proactive and read them together. Thankfully, there is an increasing number of inclusive books by and about people of all backgrounds and written for all age levels. Listen. Let your child ask questions. Give children the ability to seek, understand, and be open to new ideas and ways of thinking. If that sounds familiar to you, it’s because that’s the very point of Banned Books Week.
True, the United States has laws against prior restraint, so we’re not experiencing censorship in that sense. And true, these books are not being banned, where they are overly difficult or even dangerous to attain. So why are we still celebrating Banned Books Weekk? As Maddie Crum discusses in the Huffington Post, without calling attention to these often quiet attempts to remove a book from a library collection, these efforts could escalate into increased demands that a book should not be taught in school or even available due to any objectionable topics. And that is dangerous.
However, I’d argue that one of the reasons our country doesn’t experience these dangerous laws is because of the perpetuation of the importance of intellectual freedom by hardworking librarians. I believe the reason we have access to and the freedom to read all books, even controversial ones, is, in part, because of awareness campaigns like Banned Books Week. Crum sums up this point nicely:
“The point [of Banned Books Week] is not to rank inflammatory books like game highlights. It’s to remind readers that information hasn’t always been free, and that we have librarians to thank for its freedom.”
Rebecca Slocum has worked in education as a teacher and library consultant for the last 5 years and is a recent MLIS graduate student from the University of North Texas. She is interested in issues involving intellectual freedom, censorship, and collection development in school libraries. In her spare time, Rebecca enjoys reading, writing, running, and roaming the world. Currently, she stays at home caring for her son and writes at her blog, The Dewey Decimator. Find her on Twitter @bcslocum.