Sunday, November 3, 2013

Assault on the Librarian High Holy Days

If you are at all attached to the library world, you know that we celebrated Banned Books Week about a month ago--and the word really is celebrated.  It’s no exaggeration to say that the seven days at the end of September are the high holy days of the desk set, a time when we are positively aquiver with the energy of intellectual freedom and democratic values.  My rhetoric here may be verging on the parodic, but as a new librarian of less than a year I can tell you that I’m being completely sincere.  Banned Books Week is the time when the librarian’s public duty comes into crystal focus, and when we are able--encouraged, even!--to shout it out to the world, rather than toil in obscurity, as is our usual habit.

I was surprised, then, while perusing my usual online literary haunts and their enthusiastic Banned Books coverage, to find a disturbing undercurrent of suspicion and resentment towards librarians in the comments sections.

One level of this opposition to our message I can kind of understand--it amounts to a matter of branding.  We call it “Banned Books Week” but much of what we talk about at the end of September every year is actually book challenges.  Of course we cover the bans as well, and in great detail, but the week is about pushing back against all forms of and attempts at censorship, and “Banned Books Week” is quite a bit pithier than “Banned and Challenged Books Week.”  Frankly it’s surprising that librarians, as  a usually persnickety-with-accuracy body, hasn’t insisted on renaming it “Banned and Challenged Media Week,” since we certainly don’t limit ourselves to concern only with the censorship of books.

I think the persistence of the Banned Books name is a testament to the historical importance of drawing attention to the anti-intellectual, anti-democratic process of book banning, often manifested in earlier decades by that most egregious of acts, the book burning. Fact of note: well-known enemy of intellectual freedom Anthony Comstock, usually citing a prohibitively broad definition of ‘lewdness,’ is responsible for the burning of some 15 tons of books.  (  Think about how many that must be, and under what loose strictures they were allowed to be snatched from public use in actions sanctioned under federal law.  There’s no more effective way to ban a book than destroying it.

This is the cultural and social context librarians are drawing from when we set aside a Banned Books Week. The intensity of the rhetoric is commensurate with the importance of the cause.

Just because one form of book banning is more destructive than another is not to say that degrees of censorship must be recognized, but that is a notion that seems to inspire another thread of protest among the uninitiated.  In a comment to an article recalling a Canadian school’s ban of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, some readers took issue with the idea of glorifying a struggle against a seemingly minor instance of censorship.  One said, “Being taken off a library shelf, or out of a school, really doesn't count as 'banning'. Can't we reserve Banned Books week for works that suffered actual and serious censorship?”  And another: “I have to agree with @4 and @6 about the meaning of banned books. The kids at the school which decided not to carry H2G2 still had legal and easy access to the book through their city/county library and through bookstores. It may be that looking at books that were ‘banned’ on a large scale in North America does not turn up sufficent [sic] candidates? In which case, we can celebrate the freedom of expression we have instead of trying to invent cases of censorship.”

These, then, are criticisms based on scale--the appearance that anecdotal instances of book banning and challenging do not warrant the attention librarians lavish on the issue; the idea that these piddling cases of intellectual violence just prove how well our democratic access to information is proceeding, giving us cause to celebrate rather than to despair and militate.  

While seemingly reasonable at first blush, I have to push back against this.  As the author of the piece, Alex Brown, wrote in response to these critics, “I don't think you can argue that one book is ‘more banned’ than another. If it's banned, it's banned, no matter the scale. The refusal to allow access to material, regardless of the size or perceived level of importance of the library, is what's key here.”  Exactly.  There’s no such thing as “major” and “minor” censorship.  The damage that could be caused by the removal of a single book from a single free, publically accessible source is incalculable because it is unknowable.  Critics speak in the same article response thread of the option of finding a school-removed book over at the public library or the bookstore and possibly (though unmentioned by these folks) online--but we must not make assumptions about the bereft student’s ability to travel to a different library, or to pay for a commercially-available copy, or to search for a digital copy.  Many of us are lucky that these considerations are not prohibitive to us, but it’s a failure of basic human decency to assume the guy next door has the same capacity as we do.  This is to say nothing of the fact that a book removed is a book torn from the universe of browsable, serendipitously-discovered material.  A reader is obviously not going to seek an alternate means of access to a material he did not know he was looking for in the first place.

All of this is to say, in short, that yes, a single book removed from a single institution is a big deal in ways we cannot truly quantify.  All assaults on the intellectual freedom represented by access to materials, whether in a single library, a library system, or across a nation, are equally destructive.

Even more frustrating to me are those sly commenters who insinuate that librarians have some sort of anti-religious, and specifically anti-Christian, vendetta afoot which we prosecute via manufactured outrage over book bans and challenges.  As if all the challenges made on moral grounds are somehow our fault and we only publicize them in order to--what, pull the veil off religious zealots’ attempts to ban books under the radar of public attention?  Sorry, I find it funny and ridiculous to be blamed for documenting actual phenomena by the perpetrators of said phenomena, but I digress. I’ve lost track of the comment that leveled this charge--maybe it got deleted?--but there was more than a whiff of self-righteous indignation to it.

Anyway, I feel like this is a case of methinking thou art protesting too vociferously--revealing more about yourself than the group you’re feeling persecuted by.  ALA doesn’t keep tabs on the religions of the people lodging complaints about books--I’m quite sure most librarians in the wild don’t ask--so you really needn’t worry about one librarian-blogger’s (very perceptive and I’m sure anecdotally correct) offhanded observation about the moral motivations of a not-insignificant number of library challenges.

Maybe instead of worrying about witch-hunts at the hands of the dreaded librarians, you might chat with your co-congregationalists about how better to handle the palpitations caused by the third-hand discovery that Neil Gaiman used the word “whore” in a YA novel that one time.


  1. Yes. This.

    (You make good rhetoric, and I appreciate you the more for it.)

  2. I agree. Totally. Banned is banned.