I’m generally a pretty even-keeled guy with a live-and-let-live attitude. I also hate getting into political discussions because most of the time they are like religious discussions: people too often stop discussing their points and start trying to convert me to their point of view–which annoys me.
But one topic that really chaps my flat, luminescent, butt is censorship–and its correlation to the role of public libraries in a democratic society. As both a librarian (currently academic, formerly public) and a writer (currently unpublished, formerly active), my love for the freedom to read in this country is pretty high. And the culmination of this love is the annual Banned Books Week celebration sponsored by the American Library Association. That’s why editorials like this one (and this follow-up) by Jonah Goldberg of the National Review tend to get under my skin.
Goldberg’s main peeve seems to be that in promoting Banned Books Week, ALA is engaging in “propaganda”, primarily because it combines both banned and “challenged” items in its figures and that even by their counts there are not as large a number of instances of censorship as ALA contends. Essentially, in his eyes, this is a non-problem that the ALA cooks up for some nefarious purpose that he never really defines–other than the implication that all librarians want to do is check out inappropriate books to children. Goldberg does laud the idea of making reading “subversive” as a way to attract young readers but also believers that focusing on book challenges “denigrates the United States as a backward and censorial country.”
First of all, there is nothing nefarious about ALA combining “banned” and “challenged” numbers. This is clearly stated on all of their promotional materials, and has been since the early 1980s when this tradition started. Even Mr. Goldberg refers to the fact that “when the American Library Association talks about censorship of books, it invariably refers to ‘banned or challenged’ books.” To imply some form of deception is a bit disingenuous. Further, highlighting an issue does not “denigrate the United States”. It shines a light on a problem that many people are all-too-willing to ignore (including Mr. Goldberg) so that it can be addressed to the benefit of our country.
But that’s the rub. For Mr. Goldberg, there is no problem. Even setting aside the statistical argument, which is valid (a few hundred challenges out of thousands of institutions per year is not an epidemic) but misses the point; I believe the philosophical point is what is truly at stake.
Goldberg cites this quote from Molly Raphael (president of ALA) from a blog by Elaine Magliaro defending Banned Books Week:
Raphael said we should remember that when a book is removed from a library it is an act of censorship that affects an entire community—not just one individual or one family. She also said that public libraries “serve everyone, including those who are too young or too poor to buy their own books or own a computer.” She added that the reason librarians and library users celebrate BBW is as “a testament to the strength of our freedom in the United States. We celebrate the freedom to read because we all know that we are so fortunate to live in a country that protects our freedom to choose what we want to read. If you doubt this, just ask anyone from a totalitarian society. That is why we draw attention to acts of censorship that chill the freedom to read.”
Goldberg categorizes this as “treacle” and goes on to take both Raphael and Magliaro to task for making this a First Amendment issue. While the First Amendment issues are important here (and we are talking about public, state-managed institutions here so the First Amendment is certainly a factor), I think they take a back seat to the more salient point: removing books from public institutions (and school libraries, while they have a narrower mission, are public institutions) affects all members of that service community–be it a school, a town, a city, or a county. Protecting your child from materials you feel they should not be exposed to is your prerogative as a parent–protecting another parent’s child, or even protecting fellow adults, is decidedly not.
While Goldberg’s point that many of these “banned books” are available in bookstores or online is correct, the point of publicly supported libraries is access for all–not just those willing and able to fork out the cash. In a free and open society, libraries not only should, but must, be just that–free and open.
According to Mr. Goldberg, the problem is that there are not enough challenges to books in public institutions (“I think it might be a good thing if there were more challenges to librarians’ judgment about what books kids should be reading.”). In fact (according to Goldberg), it is librarians that are the problem, “bullying” parents into complacency as their children are given access to materials that they shouldn’t have.
“If you complain that your 8-year-old kid shouldn’t be reading a book with lots of sex, violence or profanity until he or she is a little older, you’re not a good parent; you’re a would-be book-banner.”
This isn’t true. For this statement to be true it would have to modified:
If you complain that your 8-year-old kid shouldn’t be reading a book with lots of sex, violence or profanity until he or she is a little older, and you try to make this decision for every parent and every reader by having the book removed, you’re not a good parent; you’re a would-be book-banner.
Book banning and challenges (which are attempts at book banning) generally come from people not trying to protect their own children (which they are perfectly capable of doing without affecting anyone else) but from people trying to make those decisions for others. And this is why, as public institutions in a democratic society, libraries must be vigilant against this type of reasoning.
Banned Book Week helps to illustrate this point, a point that often gets lost in the shuffle of everyday life. A point that sometimes gets lost in assumptions that many people make about their libraries. The fact that we still have materials being challenged and banned in a free and open society, even if it is a relatively small amount, is a fact worth highlighting. Perhaps it is efforts such as BBW and other events like it that keep those numbers down, that ensure that we do not start gliding toward the other end of the spectrum.