Observed annually during the last week of September, Banned Book Week promotes the benefits of free and open access to books while also shining a spotlight on the perils of censorship. Christine Jenkins, a professor of library and information science at the University of Illinois who studies censorship and intellectual freedom issues, discusses banning books in an interview with News Bureau reporter Phil Ciciora.
Our country values intellectual freedom. So why do some people think they get to decide what books and information everyone else has access to?
There's something about a book - that is, a traditional print-on-paper text - that really gets people going. Probably the permanent nature of the book itself, in that every time you open it up, it says exactly the same thing. In saying that this or that book shouldn't be in a library, people may be expressing a sort of reverence for books as physical objects. They think that if information is printed in book-form, that makes the knowledge that much more valid or official.
Many adults see books as automatically instructional or didactic for young readers. According to this perspective, children can only respond to books by imitating what they read. If, for example, a book tells a story about a child getting lost in a store and getting an ice cream cone when they are finally found, young readers will respond by heading for a store so that they can get lost and have ice cream cones too. Children really have much more complicated minds than that - they aren't just passive vessels. Books are really just one piece of their whole world.
People also confuse the availability of information with its approval by the community. A library should represent a community. One metaphor that's been used is that the ideal library should be more of a window than a mirror. That is, a library's collection gives us a window into the reading interests and information needs of the whole community.
Books are usually banned for vulgarity, racism, sex and violence - nothing that would be unfamiliar to viewers of the evening news, prime-time television or even readers of the Bible. How do book-banners square that with their actions?
Yes, it's puzzling. Again, I think it's the permanence of print. Even today, when you can watch YouTube videos over and over again, people still think of that sort of media as fleeting and ephemeral, as opposed to something that's printed.
Clearly, it's about control. You can delete an offensive file in a couple of keystrokes. That's easy. It's a lot harder to get rid of a book.
Why do books like "Uncle Tom's Cabin" and "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," classics of American literature classic that were published more than 150 years ago, still get put on banned book lists?
For a book like "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," one that is still studied by young people, the objection isn't so much its presence in library collections, but that the book is being taught in class. Some of the characters - including Huck Finn, the book's
narrator - use racial epithets that were once commonplace, but are now viewed as highly insulting and thus no longer used in civil discourse. Of course, Samuel Clemens was being extremely ironic when he used that kind of language. He was holding a mirror up to society to show how incredibly racist it was. And yet, to many young people today, those same words are still very hurtful, which is understandable.
I don't have a problem saying, "Let's study another book instead of 'Huck Finn.' " But that doesn't mean it should be banned from libraries or reading lists, or no longer read as a significant book in the development of American literature.
In an era when just about all of the world's collective knowledge is at our fingertips, what does book banning hope to accomplish?
Individuals and groups that go after certain books or certain authors probably don't think of themselves as censors, but as protectors of children or defenders of morality.
Do they really think that no copies of "The Catcher in the Rye" will be coming into the community as a result of the book's removal from a library or classroom? No. The act of banning a book is taking a public stance to intimidate potential readers. It's almost as if they're saying, "Read this, and you will meet with our disapproval." It's definitely more of a symbolic act, in the same way that flag burning is a symbolic act. Nevertheless, it's a scary symbolic act, one that people don't do lightly. At least, I hope not.
How can librarians act as advocates for intellectual freedom?
During the early Cold War years of McCarthyism, when the Red Scare was at its peak, many librarians - including children's librarians - were actively resisting censorship.
Back then, (U.S. Sen. Joseph) McCarthy and his allies were deeply distrustful of anything that hinted of internationalism, which was equated with being "subversive" and "soft on communism."
However, promoting international understanding has always been one of the core values of children's librarianship. They didn't stop awarding the Newbery or Caldecott Medals to books set in different countries or including books about the United Nations in their collections.
During the early 1950s, McCarthy's supporters campaigned to rid the library of "subversive" periodicals, such as The Nation and The New Republic. Yet libraries continued to subscribe to them. For libraries, creating and defending collections that reflected many points of view continued to be business as usual.
If librarians think a certain book should be in a library's collection, they shouldn't hesitate to acquire it. Nor should they hesitate to put it on display or recommend it. When someone refers to their library as "my library," that's a good sign, but actually, it's not "my library," it's "our library." A community's library is everyone's library.
Librarians need to be fair, impartial brokers of information, not censors. Every book doesn't have to be neutral. You want to show people a variety of perspectives. If a library user complains, "You don't have enough Christian fiction," then the librarian can ask, "What titles do you suggest?" You want to make it a welcoming place for everybody.
Teachers and librarians can use Banned Book Week as a teachable moment to talk about censorship, free expression and the First Amendment, and the marketplace of ideas.
It's also a teachable moment in that it helps people see that there are many different perspectives out there, and that it doesn't have to be frightening that others may disagree with your beliefs or perspective on things. I think it's good when someone's worldview gets broadened.