Annoyed Librarian
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Celebrate "Banned" Books Week!

On Monday I must have gotten as confused as the ALA. Here I was writing about Band Books, and the whole time I should have been writing about "Banned" Books, which is what the ALA prattles on about. "Banned" Books are those books that are widely available everywhere in the country that the ALA gets so excited about. Anyway, sorry for the confusion, on both our parts.

What’s sad about the ALA "Banned" Books Week is the lengths they go to in order to make themselves more important than they actually are. It’s nice that they care about books one week a year, because it gives us a respite from hearing how gaming is going to save libraries, but it’s not like we’re in any danger of censorship in any meaningful sense. As a comparison, think about the stupid suicide book in Australia. It seems that book was actually censored, and that kind of thing just doesn’t happen in America. To defend the presence of some stupid kid’s book in a classroom against some rube in Bumflap, GA is one thing, but to claim that by doing so you’re fighting "censorship" for our freedom is just sad.

A kind reader sent on this article criticizing the "banned" books nonsense. Some of the arguments sound eerily familiar, since I’ve been making them on the blog for years. Note this criticism: "In the common-law tradition, censorship refers specifically to the government’s prior restraint on publication. None of the sponsors claim this has happened; the acts they have in mind are perpetrated by private citizens."

"Government’s prior restraint on publication": that’s pretty much what everyone except the ALA thinks censorship is. A government doesn’t allow a book on suicide to be published without revision – censorship. A mother thinks a teen novel about rape is inappropriate for her daughter’s 5th grade classroom and complains to the school – not censorship. The school principal deciding she’s right and removing the book from the curriculum – still no censorship going on. The book’s available all over the country. Hard to see even how that book has been "banned" in any sense that warrants a national organization taking any notice.

Check out the odd "terms and definitions" from the ALA’s own website. According to the ALA, censorship is, "A change in the access status of material, based on the content of the work and made by a governing authority or its representatives." It’s obvious that this definition is designed to support theALA’s skewed meaning of terms. This definition doesn’t even account for the definition of censorship as "government’s prior restraint on publication," which is a basic meaning of censorship that everyone but the ALA understands. "Change in the access status of material," in addition to sounding like it was written by a tone deaf committee, does not cover cases of the government refusing to allow a book’s publication. In other words, it doesn’t cover cases of actual censorship. A state censoring a book doesn’t "change its access status." It keeps the "access status" exactly as it had always been.

It’s only saving grace as a definition of censorship is that it does acknowledge that the agent of censorship must be "a governing authority or its representatives." But this is undercut as the absurd definition continues, "Such changes include exclusion, restriction, removal, or age/grade level changes." Grade level changes? Oh, goodness, apparently "governing authority" doesn’t mean what most people would assume it means, i.e., the government. You know, those people who govern and who have authority. A school principal, for example, is only a "governing authority" in the most limited sense. A public library isn’t a "governing authority" or its representative at all in any sense you could give to it. Yet if a book in a public library were challenged as inappropriate for the children’s section and it was reclassified into the adult section, the ALA would have to say the book had been "censored."

Of course they have to alter and restrict the definition of censorship deliberately to exclude cases of the government restraining a book’s publication. That’s because if they go by this common definition of censorship, they have absolutely no cases to discuss. Since there is no actual book censorship in the United States, there’s not much need for a group crying out against it.

We have stepped through the Looking Glass. "’When I use a word,’ the ALA said, in a rather scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.’ ‘The question is,’ said AL, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’" The ALA’s definition of censorship has no relationship whatsoever to what everyone else in the entire world understands by the word. It’s incoherent and self-serving. That hasn’t stopped plenty of librarians for going along for the ride. It’s a little dispiriting, because there’s no point in having intellectual freedom if there is no intellectual capacity.




  1. Describing the ALA as “self-serving” is an understatement. It’s website is a gargantuan, unorganized commercial … full of product ads and links ALA documentation that is generally incoherent or outdated.

    On her blog, the new ALA president cites help “moving around within the ALA structure” as a primary membership benefit. And again she pitches the product… Camila Alire writes:

    “There are many benefits to joining and working within ALA. You develop a network of colleagues who can help you in career advancement and in moving around within the ALA structure. ALA and its divisions offer a lot in terms of staff development and continuing education — special conferences, workshops, programs as conferences; webinars, etc.”

  2. If the ALA can make this kind of local suppression into censorship, then a collection development librarians’ systematic refusal to purchase books on particular topics also constitutes censorship. See Tomeboy, who has a number of examples of this kind of thing by the ALA, e.g. “Bias by design,” “How anti-censors censor the truth about censorship,” “Left out, liberal censors you never hear about.”
    It makes me wonder whether ALA was aware of this practice when they worked up their definition of censorship. The definition assumes that the book is already in the collection, so that a book which the collection development librarians elect not to purchase, or refuse to add, though donated by a member of the community, is not considered censorship.

  3. the.effing.librarian says:

    glad you can still find your inner grump after all these years of blogging the same topics. maybe one day, one librarian will have the courage to display an empty table with a sign: “banned books. yeah, this is america; we don’t do that here.”

  4. Maybe I’m just being naive, but is starting a discussion like this that may lead to people picking up a book such a bad thing?

    I think it’s important to differentiate between books that have been challenged in some capacity and books that have been censored (as in, a governing body nixing their accessibility) in other countries. But, at the end of the day, when one of my college students becomes interested in a book because it has been challenged – or joins in a discussion on intellectual freedom – I’m happy.

  5. Great article in the WSJ last weekend about BBW:

    Taste: Finding Censorship Where There Is None
    By Mitchell Muncy
    1027 words
    25 September 2009
    The Wall Street Journal
    Copyright (c) 2009, Dow Jones & Company, Inc.

    “‘To you zealots and bigots and false patriots who live in fear of discourse. You screamers and banners and burners. . . .” These are the opening lines of the official Manifesto of Banned Books Week, which starts tomorrow. This annual “national celebration of the freedom to read” is led by the American Library Association (ALA) and co-sponsored by a number of professional associations and advocacy groups. Events and displays at “hundreds” of libraries and bookstores will “draw attention to the problem of censorship” in the U.S.”

  6. I Like Books says:

    The ALA considers even labeling materials to be censorship. E.g. placing stickers on the spines indicating violent or sexual content. Because a person might hesitate to take it and read it, which changes the access status. It’s much more embarrassing to be seen with a book that has a little sticker on the spine than one that says “Gay Witchcraft” in big letters on the front…

  7. Psssst! I have some banned band books over here, kid. Wanna see?

  8. Needs a 'nym says:

    Maybe I’m just being naive, but is starting a discussion like this that may lead to people picking up a book such a bad thing?

    Yes, it is. If we want to promote intellectual growth and development, we can’t engage in such intellectual dishonesty. If we want to promote critical thinking and information literacy, we can’t base our national holiday around a demonstrated deficiency in both. And if we want to help create a better society in general, we can’t join in the scaremongering that makes people believe the world is more dangerous and hateful than it actually is.

    I really hate Banned Books Week.

  9. Dan Kleinman of says:

    I just blogged this:

    Annoyed Librarian Rips ALA for Banned Books Week “Nonsense” and for an “Incoherent and Self-Serving” Definition of Censorship

    Well done, AL. Brava!

  10. librarEwoman says:

    If it were called “Challenged Books Week,” it would be much more accurate, but also much less catchy and edgy. Technically, “banned” could be an accurate word to use, if the books actually have been banned from a library somewhere. But I do agree that “censorship” is not an accurate word to be tossing around.

  11. Greatings, to GoogleReader!
    Have a nice day

  12. There’s no prohibition on corporate censorship, and that is increasingly what we will be dealing with.

    See for example, The pirates and the mouse: Disney’s war against the counterculture (Fantagraphics, 2003), and, for foreign examples: The late age of print : everyday book culture from consumerism to control (Columbia University Press, 2009).

    There was also the recent case called Amazon Fail, where GBLT books in Amazon’s database were masked from searches by any but title.

    I think it’s fair to say that the definition of censorship as being wholly and only the work of governments does not quite match the current state of our government’s… separation of the public’s interest from its largest donors’.

  13. West Bend Citizen Advocate says:

    This post truly made my day. Kudos! Just blogged it!

  14. I laughed when I read about taking time off from gaming. I had just received an e-mail regarding National Gaming Day @ Your Library. And haven’t we had enough years of @ Your Library? I always wanted to do Find It Yourself @ Your Library.

  15. Auntie Nanuuq says:

    We now have jewelry for Banned Books Week:
    carolynforsman com

    A necklace made of mini-book covers such as: “Go Ask Alice”, “Howl” & “Huckleberry Finn”.

    Myself, I prefer diamonds, rubies, pearls, or emeralds.

  16. Oh, thank you thank you thank you for articulating what I always thought in my heart of hearts but was afraid to say in the company of other librarians.

  17. Not sure what AL is for, just all the things he/she is against.

    Not sure why AL is still a librarian since we are all such idiots.

  18. Mr Tadakichi says:

    I’m with the AL on this one-c’mon, people, this is America. Rather than focus on a non-existent negative (so called Banned Books), why don’t we turn it around and make it an Exercise Your Freedom To Read Week? And then put out all the books that would offend people-the GBLT stuff, the suicide books, etc.
    Mind you, accentuating the positive does look kind of Pollyannish, and it doesn’t get much media attention, but it would be a little closer to reality.

  19. I wish ALA would pay more attention to the actual challenges to intellectual freedom that exist today, such as resisting selling libraries’ souls part and parcel to corporate publishing. If it ain’t available through B & T, it doesn’t exist?

  20. While what is said about ‘Banned Books’ being a misnomer is correct, the lack of perspective and elitist bias force me to pull away from taking this seriously.

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