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Celebrate “Librarians Trying to Make Themselves Feel Important” Week!

A year sure goes by quickly. It’s Bland Books Week again, the week when librarians and the ALA spew blatant nonsense all over the country about how virtuous librarians are protecting the country from censorship that doesn’t exist. We librarians sure are heroic!

It should just be called “Librarians Trying to Make Themselves Feel Important” Week, because that’s about all it does. Or maybe it should be called “Librarians Make Themselves Look Illogical” Week, because it does that, too.

If you want to see a good example of bad reasoning, look no further than the ALA page About Banned and Challenged Books. I was almost going to skip talking about Band Books Week, but reading through that page irritated me so much I couldn’t resist.

It starts out well enough, explaining the difference between a book being challenged and a book being banned from a library. Unfortunately, after the first paragraph, the page descends into gobbledygook.

After reading the very sensible explanation of bans and challenges, we then get this:

Books usually are challenged with the best intentions—to protect others, frequently children, from difficult ideas and information…. Censorship can be subtle, almost imperceptible, as well as blatant and overt, but, nonetheless, harmful.

From a book being banned from one library, which rarely happens and which almost always concerns a book being removed from a school library,  to censorship. That’s the unjustifiable logical leap that annoys me every time. There isn’t one shred of argument to defend the claim that removing a book from one library is censorship. Not one.

Instead of any argument linking book removal to censorship, there’s a totally irrelevant quote from John Stuart Mill. Here’s part of it:

If all mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind.

It’s a great quote from Mill, only it has absolutely nothing to do with book banning or book challenges. Removing Slaughterhouse Five from a grade school library, for example, silences the expression of nobody.

Now I’ll agree that silencing people’s free speech is censorship, and that it’s a bad thing. And because it’s a bad thing, I’m really glad I live in a country without censorship, instead of a country like North Korea.

We get another great quote as well, from Supreme Court Justice William Brennan:

If there is a bedrock principle underlying the First Amendment, it is that the government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea itself offensive or disagreeable.

That quote is from Texas v. Johnson, a case where Johnson’s right to burn the American Flag was upheld by the Supreme Court. I agree with it completely. Can anyone show how that quote or that case is relevant to book challenges? No, you can’t, because book challenges have nothing to do with prohibiting expression.

Ideas are expressed. Books are published. Books are widely available. Thus, the government hasn’t prohibited the expression of an idea, and there is no censorship. It’s so simple anyone but a librarian could understand it.

Looking at the list banned and/or challenged classics the ALA provides is hardly frightening, either. While the list includes the occasional work that was censored somewhere decades ago, it’s hard to find many books that have actually been “banned,” thus putting the lie to “Banned” Books week. “Challenged Books Week” doesn’t have the same ring to it, I guess.

Here’s the entry for Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises: “Banned in Boston, MA (1930), Ireland (1953), Riverside, CA (1960), San Jose, CA (1960). Burned in Nazi bonfires in Germany (1933).”

Censorship rears its ugly head! And Nazis!

Gone with the Wind: “Banned from Anaheim, CA Union High School District English classrooms (1978)”. Oh my, I hope those Anaheim high school students, Class of ‘78, survived that “censorship.”

Slaughterhouse Five: “Removed as required reading for sophomores at the Coventry, RI High School (2000) after a parent complained that it contains vulgar language, violent imagery, and sexual content.” “Removed as required reading.” Wow. Brutal oppression and censorship. The Nazis won another round.

The Lord of the Rings: “Burned in Alamagordo, NM (2001) outside Christ Community Church along with other Tolkien novels as satanic.” So it wasn’t banned or challenged and has nothing to do with libraries, but it sure makes for a good story. A librarian should have plucked that book out of the fire!

But wait, there was a book “Burned by the East St. Louis, IL Public Library.” The Grapes of Wrath, in 1939.

In some ways it’s a ridiculous list, since it lumps together vastly different categories of book challenges, from some like Ulysses that were actually censored to others that have merely been challenged by some parent as appropriate required reading at Podunk High School.

The ALA has to do that, because if the list were confined to books that had actually been censored in the United States, it would be such a short list that even the OIF might be embarrassed.

This annoying lunacy has even spread across the pond, as we can see in this ludicrously titled news article from Britain: Libraries lift ban on ‘too controversial’ books.

It profiles a library that is displaying “banned” books, which have been “taken off library shelves across the world.” That’s right. They’re not even books that were “banned” in Britain.

Oh well, nobody expects librarians to be smart or reasonable, and pretending that librarians are heroes fighting against the censorship bogeyman makes a lot of them feel better about themselves.

At least during “Banned” Books Week, librarians actually talk about books, a subject generally banned from conversation by librarians most of the time.

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Comments

  1. Josh says:

    Perhaps you should cure your irritation by consulting a reliable dictionary? Censorship simply means evaluating items for the purpose of determining whether or not they are objectionable and should thus be removed from a book/collection of books, a news story, a radio broadcast, or dinner conversation with your in-laws. A school library removing a book from its collection because it is seen as inappropriate is censorship on a micro level. A government deciding that a book or class of books will not be published in that country because it threatens the state is censorship on a much larger level, and is arguably more alarming. But both are still censorship.

  2. Amused says:

    This seems like much ado about nothing, both on your part and ALA’s. My favorite story about “banned books” is about a teacher who passed out a list of books to her class, with the sole comment, “These are the books I’m not allowed to assign you to read.” The best outcome would be that circulation of those books went up just after that happened, no matter which library the kids got the books from.

  3. teetop says:

    “Removing Slaughterhouse Five from a grade school library, for example, silences the expression of nobody.”

    BS. It stifles the educators who wish to teach that book, and it creates a chilling effect on them taking up another work that may be controversial. Moreover, it deprives the students what may be their sole real opportunity to be introduced to the work. A student may find the book in college or be referred to it by an friend later in life, but especially for most of those who will be heading into the workforce without continuing formal education, middle school and high school is the last chance most of them will have to encounter this type of literature. It’s fun to be snarky, and ALA can be pompuous…but so can you.

  4. Anonypotamus says:

    Making a stink about banned books is the library field’s way of whoring itself out to a low bidder.

    I agree that the books are not banned in any real sense. Maybe they’re ‘banned from a particular library’, but that’s not significant. Small libraries ‘ban’ far more books simply by not ordering them.

    None of this amounts to censorship.

    If we’re specifically referring to school libraries, they exist to support the curriculum of their school. A school’s unwillingness to teach a book can more generally be attributed to poor judgment rather than censorship.

    To be sure, there is censorship in schools, but it’s more pernicious. It’s in history text books, which don’t get banned. But that’s another issue, and not one that libraries have dealt with.

  5. annoyedlibraryworker says:

    “At least during “Banned” Books Week, librarians actually talk about books”

    This is precisely why, even though I agree with many of your sentiments, I put a banned book display up every year. Many of these “banned” books are really great books, and if it encourages a typical Danielle San-evona-robert-son reader to perhaps read outside their comfort zone for a change, it’s worthwhile.

  6. Boozehound says:

    I like talking about censorship and freedom of ideas, but I agree that librarians go about this whole thing very foolishly. I think that we can use our efforts to promote attention to the fact that in the not so distant past (and really in most of recorded history) books and ideas were censored or outright “adapted” to suit the stories that were deemed acceptable. Take a look at the history of the Native American, slavery or the immigration struggles that continue unto this day. Pointing this out and promoting debate on these issues is a good thing to do if done right.

    That said, the fact that we continue to exclaim how books are regularly “banned” given the current age seems trite in comparison to the very real evidence of what came before. Most librarians would be well served to remember the difference.

  7. Rosa says:

    Perhaps the Annoyed Librarian should talk to Michael Moore about his book “Stupid White Men.” Hey, I’ll even be helpful and include a link to a story about how he “attributes the publication of his book to the efforts of a lone librarian” – http://www.slis.indiana.edu/news/story.php?story_id=443

    Not all censorship is ancient. And it still goes on, more and more, it seems. Try having a kid in public school, and finding out what they won’t allow in the few school libraries that still exist these days.

  8. AL, compare the ALA’s joke of celebration to the serious opposition to true censorship as celebrated by Amnesty International:

    Banned Books Week 2011,” by Amnesty International.

    The difference between how Amnesty International treats Banned Books Week and how the ALA treats “Banned” Books Week is striking. Wouldn’t it be nice if the ALA start treating the issue seriously, instead of doing what you described in this post and many others.

    And the OIF marches on. Exactly when will ALA members stop the OIF from making a joke of the ALA. Amnesty International BBW = serious. ALA’s OIF BBW = “pretending that librarians are heroes fighting against the censorship bogeyman.”

  9. KSC says:

    I recently became the teen librarian at a public library. When I was talking with the former teen librarian, she told me that she would not buy books that dealt heavily with homosexuality. She had had a bad experience over 20 years ago with a book challenge and she didn’t want to go through that again so she avoided buying anything “controversial.” I had another recent discussion with a librarian who refused to recommend LGBT books to parents with teens. She was afraid of creating a “controversy”. This isn’t happening in “podunk high schools” but in upper-middle class Chicago suburbs.

    I agree a lot with what you say here and I might recommend that instead of congratulating ourselves this week, we should be discussing how we censor ourselves and own collections. This would be a nice opportunity to remind everyone that we live in a free society and should not be afraid of potential book challenges. Patrons rarely go all the way with challenges and it’s even rarer for the books to be banned from the library. We shouldn’t be worrying about this.

  10. Roger Verdi says:
  11. Tom says:

    Book challenges are usually cast in the form of government censorship. Someone petitions a school or library board to remove a book from the shelves or the curriculum. Just because a government agency doesn’t initiate the process, the idea is that the government (in the form of a governing board or public employee) shall enforce the views of the petitioner. People wanting to remove books from shelves target libraries because they know that it’s relatively easy to get the power of government on their side. The same people organize boycotts and protests at bookstores with laughable results.

    These books aren’t “banned” in the traditional sense in that they are still readily available elsewhere but you have to wonder why the challengers continue to make the effort if they also know that they’re ultimately not successful?

  12. teetop says:

    @Dan–You do understand that Amnesty International and the American Library Association are very different organizations with very different missions, right? They should approach this and other occasions with differently targeted campaigns. International government repression is rightly AI’s focus, whereas the ALA is correct to highlight issues facing American Libraries. When they focus on things going on in other countries, it tends to be mocked in places such as this blog.

  13. Elena says:

    It’s a slippery slope. Gone with the wind was taken away from a smattering of kids in 1978? Probably not in therapy today I am sure. But that’s the wrong thinking. On a big picture level there is always the possibility of these things gaining momentum. Turn your back and yea. There’s Hitler, a two-bit artist in Austria, who somehow got bigger and bigger. Glad we do highlight these silly little things.

  14. JimBob says:

    The real moral of the story is not whether these books should be on our shelf or not, but whether librarians need to pay any attention to the ALA. I can’t wait till they go the way of the dinosaur.

  15. Me says:

    I went to Coventry High School in RI. It isn’t “podunk”.