I was inspired by Kristin Pekoll, Assistant Director of the ALA Office of Intellectual Freedom, who spoke at the Intellectual Freedom Luncheon at this year's Tennessee Library Association conference, to write this column on challenged books.
We as librarians do a great job marketing and speaking out about “banned books.” We have an entire week devoted to "celebrating" banned books—-well, celebrating reading banned books, or really just the act of reading-—and most reasonable people find it objectionable to fully censor and outright ban books. Banning books is one of the most extreme examples of infringing on free speech and the right to read. As a note, anytime this article mention censorship, it’s not limited to only books, but includes all forms and types of media that express thoughts and ideas.
Perhaps to our own detriment, we focus too much on the word “banned” and not enough on the word “challenged.” Even when we speak of banned books, we rarely even mean books that were removed. The books we celebrate during Banned Books Week are usually books that have been challenged, not banned. Maybe “banned books” just sounds better to the ears—who doesn’t love alliteration?—and the phrase “banned books” stirs our souls and creates a rallying point for librarians and free speech advocates.
What we need to be more aware of and focused on is the series of steps and microaggressions that lead up to removing books from the shelf. Banning a book is the final step of a challenge. The ALA (“About Banned & Challenged Books,” n.d.) defines a challenge as the “attempt to remove or restrict materials, based upon the objections of a person or group,” while banning is the removal of that work.
Books can be challenged for many reasons and are often done so with the best of intentions: to protect children, teens, and young adults. According to the ALA, parents are the top initiator of challenges ( “Statistic,” n.d.). Common reasons include: racial issues, encouragement of “objectionable” lifestyles choices, blasphemy, sexual situations/dialog, violence, witchcraft (thanks, Harry Potter!), religious affiliations, political biases (thanks, Obama!), and content that is age inappropriate (Butler University Libraries, 2015). Of course, as reasonable people we realize that witchcraft and politics existed long before the gentlemen mentioned previously.
We should be careful to note that parents and guardians always have the right and responsibility to choose what their child has access to. This is categorically different from challenging materials. Challengers seek to remove the material from a school curriculum or library, thus limiting everyone’s access, not just their own child's. In "Free Access to Libraries for Minors: An Interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights," the ALA (2004) holds that “librarians and governing bodies should maintain that parents—and only parents—have the right and the responsibility to restrict the access of their children—and only their children—to library resources.”
Please always report challenges to the ALA Office of Intellectual Freedom (OIF) http://www.ala.org/bbooks/challengedmaterials/reporting and please also notify the TLA Intellectual Freedom Committee (http://www.tnla.org/?114). The ALA OIF has dedicated people to work with you when it comes to reporting a challenge and if you attended this year’s Intellectual Freedom Luncheon at TLA’s annual conference, you heard from one of them! The ALA has, even recently, notified TLA when they needed our assistance. You can notify the OIF of challenges online, by fax, or you can call their office at (800) 545-2433 x4221 when you want to keep your name “off the record.”
Work with your library and institution to make sure you have written policies in place on how to handle challenges to materials so you know what steps to take.
American Library Association. (n.d.). About banned & challenged books. Retrieved from http://www.ala.org/bbooks/about
American Library Association. (n.d.). Statistics. Retrieved from http://www.ala.org/bbooks/frequentlychallengedbooks/statistics
American Library Association. (2004). Free access to libraries for minors: An interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights. Retrieved from http://www.ala.org/Template.cfm?Section=interpretations&Template=/ContentManagement/ContentDisplay.cfm&ContentID=8639
Butler University Libraries. (2015). Banned books: Reasons for banning books. Retrieved from http://libguides.butler.edu/c.php?g=34189&p=217686