Annoyed Librarian
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Inside Annoyed Librarian

A Solution Looking for a Problem

Sometimes all the ALA propaganda about Band Books inspires passionate if misguided people to believe books are censored in America. You have to make a lot of unjustified mental leaps to believe that books are censored, but believing in nonexistent censorship doesn’t really inspire action, unless posting a supportive comment on Facebook counts as action. [Homeschooling.]

But some people are inspired to action, and sometimes that action is a little weird. An example of that comes via LISNews in this article: Underground library stands up for books. As titles go, that ones pretty bad. It uses a tired metaphor without even slipping in a bad library pun.

The article applauds someone who:

wants to build a library in our great city. But not just any ol’ library. She wants Milwaukee to have an underground library of books banned in Tucson, Ariz. If she succeeds, and I hope she does, the library will be one of many popping up across the nation.

From Texas to California and all the way to New York, concerned Americans are gathering collections of titles banned in Tucson Unified School District classrooms. These “heinous” titles include such national authors as Sandra Cisneros, Henry David Thoreau and Junot Diaz, recipient of the 2008 Pulitzer Prize in Fiction. The school district even managed to include a few influential playwrights such as Luis Valdez and William Shakespeare.

Can you say, “Something is rotten in the state of Arizona?”

Everything about this is strange.

First, none of these books or authors are “banned in Tuscon, Ariz.” None of them. They’re all widely available at bookstores and the county library system, some of them in multiple formats and translations.

Second, the “great city” in which someone wants to build an underground library is Milwaukee. That makes the “underground library” really convenient for the poor students of Tuscon who aren’t being assigned these books in classes. Instead of heading to the bookstore or their local branch of the county library system, they can conveniently travel the 1800 miles to Milwaukee and use the underground library. And they’ll need lamps because underground libraries don’t have any natural light.

Why protest an alleged book banning in Arizona by collecting some books in Wisconsin? That’s like protesting the inability of Christians to legally proselytize Muslims in Saudi Arabia by putting bibles in hotel rooms all over America. Wait, maybe that’s what inspired the Gideons.

The idea to build an “underground library” full of books that are widely available for free in Milwaukee and Tucson was inspired by “a movement of librotraficantes, a.k.a. “book smugglers,” headed to Tucson to sneak in banned books. They also vowed to create underground libraries to house those alleged coup-inciting books.”

This is such a typically radical librarian thing to do: pretend to be subversive and daring by doing something that’s not remotely prohibited by any law, including some of the apparently xenophobic laws in Arizona. Unless the underground librarians are planning to sneak into classrooms and start teaching kids Sandra Cisneros, all this feelgood drama is completely unnecessary.

It’s like the ludicrous Occupy Wall Street’s “People’s Library.” They brought together some books and provided them for free to people and seemed to think they were doing something equivalent to circulating The Gulag Archipelago in the Soviet Union in the seventies. You could be really daring and sneak into a park to read dangerous literature, or you could just go check it out for free from the public library.

There’s no need for these libraries to be “underground,” literally or figuratively. The books are easily found for free in public libraries in Tucson. Unless it’s to draw attention to yourself and what a good person you are, why waste any time trying to solve a nonexistent problem?

We already have a solution to making so-called banned books available to people. It’s free to everyone, and it’s staffed by often mild mannered, sometimes hard working people who don’t draw a lot of attention to themselves. You want to read Sandra Cisneros for free? Go to the public library. That’s what it’s there for, even in Arizona.



  1. Bingo!

    See also “Thomas Sowell on Banned Books Week – BBW is ‘Shameless Propaganda … Now Institutionalized With a Week of Its Own'” at link under my name.

    AL, what does the ALA gain by lying about book “banning”? ALA should just be honest instead of manipulative. Then the organization would not have detractors like you and me. Until such time as the ALA stops misleading communities, I will continue to point out what the ALA is doing.

    Reading books is a laudable goal. Falsely labeling people as censors so you can push your own way on a community is not. To the extent Banned Books Week gets people to read books, that’s good. To the extent it browbeats people into submission, that is bad.

    • ISmellWonderful says:

      “Then the organization would not have detractors like you and me.”

      The suggestion of oppositional equivalence nearly made me spit out my double latte.

    • @ISmellWonderful, I know you are trolling, but there are quite a number of such people, including Ernest Istook, the author of the Children’s Internet Protection Act; Dean Marney, the NCRL library director who successfully won filtering cases in Washington state and federal courts after exposing ALA “dogma” and forcing Barbara Jones of the OIF to admit filters work and breast cancer is an old excuse for not filtering, Thomas Sowell, who said BBW was “the kind of shameless propaganda that has become commonplace in false charges of ‘censorship’ or ‘book banning,'” and many others, including the AL who has been hammering the ALA on Band Books Week as she called it for years.

      @ISmellWonderful, go troll somewhere else.

    • I’m confused as to who is trolling whom here.

    • You may want to reconsider the practice of using BBW in place of spelling out “Banned Books Week”.

      Unless, of course, you’re testing the efficacy of an internet filter…

    • ISmellWonderful says:

      You put the word dogma between quotation marks. Are you doing that because you’re not sure it’s the right term? Or is it because your definition of dogma doesn’t match the accepted definition of the term? Because when it comes to a set of beliefs that are incontrovertible in the face of opposing facts and reasons, you really may not know what the actual definition of dogma is.

      Unless you think I’m “trolling” you.

    • @ISmellWonderful: I use dogma in quotations marks because I am quoting Dean Marney. Here’s library director Dean Marney’s wake up call to local communities about outdated ALA “dogma”:

      “The outdated tenets about using technology to manage the Internet, promoted by the Freedom To Read Foundation (FTRF) and American Library Association (ALA) Office of Intellectual Freedom, express dogma and fundamentalism and deserve challenge.


      “Filtering offers a technological solution for a technological problem. If your filter is inadequate, find a better one.”

      As it turns out, Dean Marney challenged that ALA OIF dogma, and the OIF backed down and admitted filters work and blocking breast cancer is no longer a valid excuse for not filtering.

      By the way, @ISmellWonderful, what soap/shampoo do you use?

    • ISmellWonderful says:

      [Ed: If you would use the same name and email each time, your comment would automatically be approved.]

      The case around Dean Marney is an outlier. The practice of filtering the entire internet and then slowly unfiltering it on the basis of patron requests stinks of paternalism and wasteful personnel practices. You can’t simultaneously claim that libraries shouldn’t trump community standards and then say that the library knows better when it comes to unfiltering internet sites. That’s the cognitive dissonance of your whole position.

      If Dean thinks it is the best use of his staff to spend time evaluating websites in regards to that absurd policy, that’s a waste of taxpayer money. That staff could be out of the back areas and on a service desk or in a classroom. Perhaps they could teach a class on internet responsibility instead of trying to enforce it on other people.

  2. I don’t get it. Are we saying that Banned Books Week has run its course and that books are no longer being banned?
    I thought the point of the article was that people were opening up a “library” of banned books that weren’t really banned because they were ignorant as to their status (or just being political hooligans). Maybe its like opening up an “underground bar” with “banned beer”, the kind that was outlawed during Prohibition. More schtick than anything.
    on the other hand, I know that books are still occasionally banned such as “Fifty Shades of Grey” in Brevard County in Florida (no longer banned now).
    So the point is maybe: lets keep vigilant in our awareness but moderate in our actions?

  3. Development Arrested says:

    Interesting aside, a former boss was considering banning Fifty Shades of Grey, but it was fine to have someone come in and try to sell a “alkaline water” that was supposedly going to cure cancer. Because, otherwise that would be censorship… *gag*.

  4. It occurs to me that maybe we should look at this a different way.

    At first blush, if someone tells you they’re starting an “underground library,” and you assume it’s a solution to a problem, then you have to deduce the problem. The easiest assumption is banned books – which, as has been said repeatedly on this blog, is not really a problem in los Estados Unidos.

    But what if banned books are not the problem being addressed by the underground libraries? Can you think of any other way of looking at the issue?

    I can…if one instead assumes that the problem is heavy-handed radical conservative political influence in education, then setting up an “underground library” may be an effective means of bringing attention to – and protesting – the issue. And it’s a hard form of protest to counter – there are no pointless marches, no ineffective boycotts, no sit-ins or “occupations.” There’s no one for overenthusiastic police officers to beat up or arrest. There’s no need for “free speech zones” (conveniently located where the media isn’t paying any mind)

    Looked at in this way, these “underground libraries” are a rather subversive way of calling out radical conservatives and reinforcing the narrative that they are censorial, behind the times, and most importantly, the villains of the piece. (After all, in a nation that purportedly values free speech and expression as much as we do, censors (real or imagined) are natural heels, are they not?

  5. Development Arrested says:

    Is the Underground Library going to have zines? It seems like it should have zines.

  6. Pondering Lib says:

    While I agree that a library in another state doesn’t help Tuscon students, I don’t think that BBW is made neglibile by the fact that the book is available in the county library or store. The school may be the only place that a student may read the book due to a variety of issues such as transportation or finances. You can’t assume everyone will have the opportunity to read it. I lived 25 miles out of town as a student far from the public library with a gas station/grocery store. The only books I had were from the school and on the odd trips to town if I was allowed to go to the public library and if I was allowed to borrow a book. We didn’t have the money to buy them.

    Opportunity is not as rampant in the US as we’d like to believe and yeah, that’s just the way it is but these obstacles are what makes a book banned in a community. Not the availabilty but the realistic opportunity for all people to obtain it. The decision to remove a book from any environment should weigh this consequence. I can tell you that those books would never have been available to me as a student and it wouldn’t be just my loss but our loss as a society in limiting the ability to read, learn, and understand others.

  7. This AL post is positively reviewed here:
    “Wherein I Rant About Banned Books Week,” by JoAnna, Pontifex Libris, 3 October 2012.

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