A recent Harris poll on attitudes about book banning and school libraries revealed that out of the 2,244 U.S. adults surveyed in March 2015, the percentage who felt that certain books should be banned increased by more than half since the last similar study conducted in 2011. In addition, more believe that some books deserve to be banned than movies, television shows, or video games.
In 2011, 18 percent of adults surveyed answered yes to the question “Do you think that there are any books which should be banned completely?” In the most current study, published July 8, 28 percent answered the same question in the affirmative—a ten point increase—with 24 percent of those surveyed unsure. This means nearly half of those surveyed are still convinced that no books should ever be banned, but the implications of the findings still deserve attention. “While it’s still a minority perception…I felt that from 18 to 28 percent in just four years was rather surprising growth,” said Larry Shannon-Missal, managing editor at the Harris Poll.
Americans are more tolerant of other types of media, it appears. Only 16 percent of those surveyed felt that any movies or television programs should be banned outright, with nearly a quarter holding video games to similar standards.
“The fact that people are concerned about books speaks to the fact that people still believe in books and words as powerful things, that they have the power to change hearts and minds,” said Deborah Caldwell-Stone, deputy director of the American Library Association (ALA) Office for Intellectual Freedom (OIF). “However, it does reflect a concern of [OIF], that the easy idea that we simply ban a book we don’t like reflects on our civic education in the United States—that we’re not talking about, teaching about, thinking about the Bill of Rights and the First Amendment.”
RATINGS AND GATEKEEPING
A full 71 percent of those surveyed believed books should be subject to a rating system similar to the one used for movies, with 35 percent agreeing strongly. The same proportion expected librarians to prevent children from borrowing age-inappropriate materials. And many wanted to see books with controversial subject matter excluded from school libraries altogether. Sixty percent felt that children should not be able to get books with explicit language from their school libraries, and half said the same for books with references to violence. Yet only 43 percent mentioned books with references to sex, and 37 percent said the same for books with references to drugs or alcohol. (A full 36 percent, however, would ban books that included vampires.)
A third of respondents did not believe children should be able to access the Koran at school libraries, and another 29 percent would disallow the Torah or Talmud—and 13 percent of those surveyed would exclude the Bible. Some 26 percent thought that school libraries should not contain books that question the existence of a divine being, while 19 percent said the same of books discussing creationism. It was not noted whether any of these sets of responses overlapped, but it would seem that American adults strongly believe that librarians should serve as gatekeepers to their children’s information: some three-fifths of the respondents thought that children with access to ebooks outside of a library setting would be more likely to read inappropriate material.
However, in an interesting postscript to the survey, three in ten respondents said they would be more inclined to read a book if it had been banned—and that number increased to 40 percent if a book was considered “controversial.” Out of those numbers, more than half—53 percent—were in the 18-36 age group.
The survey’s results would seem to show a rise in conservative attitudes toward censorship, especially in the context of school libraries. But Peter Hart, communications director for the National Coalition Against Censorship, cautioned LJ, “We have to be careful about the conclusions that can be drawn from it because the questions are so overarching. I think what they’re registering is a…reaction that is indicative of something, but might not be as definitive as the results seem to indicate.”
Caldwell-Stone pointed out that the survey’s questions about school libraries reflect a different set of attitudes from those surrounding public or academic libraries. Coupled with the broad nature of the questions, this could encourage a less nuanced range of answers. For instance, the children’s “Curious George” series contains references to alcohol, and To Kill a Mockingbird contains an explicitly violent scene. “It’s easy to say ‘violence is a bad thing’ from a broad perspective,” she noted, “but when we get down to actual facts and cases about particular books…would these 2,200 people ban To Kill a Mockingbird from school libraries? I think we would get a far different response on the survey if we actually got into the weeds and started talking about what books [people are] talking about.” The number of book challenges reported to OIF, said Caldwell-Stone, has remained relatively stable over the past few years, although many challenges are not reported to the agency or are reported in the press instead.
In addition, the idea of a rating system for books has no real parallel in other media, said Caldwell-Stone. The U.S. motion picture rating system, established in 1968, is advisory in nature only, with no force of law behind it. “A private movie theater owner might bar a young person from seeing a movie if they’re under 16 and it’s R-rated,” she pointed out to LJ. “It’s not the government taking that action.” There are numerous places people can turn to in order to make informed decisions about books, including Library Journal and School Library Journal, said Caldwell-Stone, “so parents have a multiplicity of resources to turn to, and librarians are perfectly willing to point these out or help parents find them…so that they have an idea of what books are about when their children are picking them out or reading them. The fact that it might take a few more minutes to read a review or a paragraph about a book speaks to the fact that books are complex, and they deal with ideas in different ways.”
This perception of librarians as monitors “could, in fact, be driving some of the changes in attitudes toward whether any books should be banned in general,” speculated Shannon-Missal. “With the rise of electronic books… some people are concerned that this takes the gatekeeper out of the equation, and makes certain inappropriate books more available to children.”
Hart would like to see a follow-up survey examine attitudes toward different types of books and subject matter in order to drive the conversation further. “We thought it would be helpful to ask questions that would try to draw people out a little bit. You say that you are in favor of banning any kind of book—well what about…The Great Gatsby? How do you feel about The Diary of Anne Frank? Or Beloved?… Who knows what someone has in mind when they’re answering that question? A terrorist how-to guide? Are they thinking literature?”
Shannon-Missal, too, hopes to follow up on the 2015 research “with some attitudinal questions layered in about…what is moving the needle on American opinion—see if we can dig a little deeper.”
Censorship and institutionalized ratings are easy answers to difficult questions, said Caldwell-Stone. “I think it circles back to the fact that we don’t talk about these issues from a civic standpoint,” she told LJ. “We don’t talk about the Bill of Rights anymore, and our commitment to educating students about civics has really declined in the last few decades.” However, she noted, “There’s always that other old adage that there should something in every library to offend someone.”