This week is the 30th anniversary of Banned Books Week! Banned Books Week is the national book community’s annual celebration of the freedom to read. Book stores, libraries, literary communities, and schools celebrate this freedom by drawing attention to censorship as well as to books that have been challenged or banned. Banned Books Week was created in 1982 and since its conception over 11,300 books have been challenged (Banned Books Week, 2012). When thinking about censorship I think many people think about it as sort of idea that takes place far away that doesn’t affect their life – it’s something you see in the movies, not at your local library. But I think it hits closer to home than many would think and it’s something that shouldn’t be brushed aside. This celebration is one that should be celebrated everywhere with balloons, displays, pamphlets about freedom of speech, all while shining a light on the books that have been challenged due to small-mindedness, but it is also one that I have not been allowed to celebrate at my library.
My director has the attitude that, “We don’t want to draw attention to books that have been banned…it will just make kids seek out these books that are inappropriate for them.” To me, this is the biggest form of censorship, not to mention close-mindedness. When addressing censorship as an issue you must first realize what actually is censorship and what is not. One of the most important factors to consider, especially in a public library setting, is that there is a vast and very important difference between censorship and selection. Censorship is denying access; selection is making choices to utilize funds for the widest possible audience.
Censorship exists when librarians, educators, and government officials choose to deny access to a material or carry a material in their library or classroom due to personal feelings or offense with a specific material. Selection is choosing which materials best fit the community you're trying to serve and will be the most utilized. I don't believe that I, as a librarian, have the right to say what a person can and cannot read but I do have the task of choosing materials for the library and placing them in the right department. Most parents put far too much responsibility for the items their child brings home on the shoulders of their librarians. It is not our responsibility to monitor what their child reads. It is our responsibility to provide items that will appeal to them and categorize items according to their target age group. When librarians determine where to place a material we consider level of writing, age of characters, story, and even font size.
One aspect of librarianship that tiptoes on the line of censorship is that there is a lot of consideration for "community need" in libraries when selecting materials. Most of the time I feel this is addressed appropriately in my library, but I often feel as if some of the other employees step over into censorship. And I don't think it's entirely their fault. I think it’s partly to do with the conservative community in which we work. I, for the most part, don't believe that a kid is going to read anything they're not ready to read. They'll either realize it's not appropriate for them and put it away or they'll become disinterested and stop reading. I recently had to review a book because a patron complained that it talked (not explicitly, mind you) about high school kids skinny dipping and drinking a few beers. I accept that this was probably not appropriate for her daughter, but I think that rather than complaining to the library about the book and having it reviewed she should have taken the time to talk to her daughter about what's appropriate for her to check out, what's not, and how the daughter can gauge that for herself. She needs to realize that section headings of the library are not “one size fits all” for specific age groups – they’re merely guidelines.
Here's my philosophy on running the YA section of the library: I feel as if it is my responsibility to represent everybody in that section. I don't want any person, especially teenagers, coming into the library searching for something to relate to or something to show them that there are others out there experiencing what they're going through, and not be able to find something on my shelves. That will only make them feel even more alienated. Thinking about that and how I would feel if that happened to me, causes me to push the boundaries of the YA section a little bit. At ULA a couple of weeks ago I attended a seminar on intellectual freedom that was being taught by the author Chris Crutcher and he said this, "If you ban the book, you ban the kid. You're telling them that they're not wanted in the library, that they're not welcome." This quote by him is the motto I not only work by, but also live by. Nobody’s problems or issues are any less important than anybody else’s, nobody’s experiences are singular, and nobody deserves to be considered less than – but all censorship does is say that they are.