Posted by: biblioglobal | October 3, 2012

How many books are banned?

It’s Banned Book Week sponsored by the American Library Association and I’ve been seeing a lot of posts with ALA lists of most frequently banned or challenged books (in the U.S.) and so on. I’ve found that I have surprisingly mixed feelings about Banned Books Week.

First off, let me say that I fully support the goals of the ALA in reminding us of the importance of our freedom to read and the need to continue to protect that freedom. I want to look at this from a different perspective though.

Number of books banned by the United States: 0

Number of books banned by states within the U.S.: 0

The book banning that that ALA is talking about is the removal of books from particular public libraries and school libraries. They publish prominently that there are thousands of challenges  where individuals or groups request removal of a book, but it’s a bit harder to figure out how many of those challenges actually succeed. I went through their report for 2010-2011 and counted the following:

Books removed from public libraries in 2010-2011: 0

Books removed from a school library or curriculum in 2010-2012: 9

It seems to me that calling the removal of books from school libraries book banning is a bit strong. These books are widely available. It is legal to print these books. It is legal to sell these books. It is legal to read these books. It’s important to remember that there are countries where these things are not true and books really are banned.

The Satanic Verses by Salman RushdieEarlier this year, authors who read aloud from The Satanic Verses (probably the most banned book of modern times) at the Jaipur Literature Festival in India had to flee the city to avoid arrest. American Psycho can’t be sold on bookshelves in Australia. In March, Russian courts  banned the publication and distribution of Dianetics and other books on scientology. These are just a few examples.

To conclude, in the United States our freedom to read is quite robust! While we should continue to support our librarians as they work to keep controversial books available in our libraries, we should also remember that in other parts of the world, books really do get banned.

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Responses

  1. How interesting. I never thought to look at how many of the complains actually stuck. I had a parent who didn’t want her child to read the class book, but it didn’t end up with the book being taken from the curriculum.

    • It certainly must be challenging to deal with those sorts of situations as a teacher or librarian.

  2. When I clicked on the link you gave for the 2010-2011 brochure, I counted more than 9 instances of challenges to books. Are you counting only a certain subset of them? Furthermore, as the brochure says, many challenges go unreported. While I agree that our degree of “book banning” isn’t extreme compared to some other countries, I wouldn’t say our freedom to read under the First Amendment is as robust as it should be (see ACLU v. Miami-Dade School Bd, 11th Cir, 2009). For children whose families expose them to a wide variety of books, it might not be a big deal if a book is removed from their school libraries or curriculum. For children who come from more sheltered backgrounds or from less literate backgrounds, it’s a much bigger deal.

    • I was counting the number of times that a challenge was successful and a book was removed, not just the number of challenges. Part of what I was trying to say is that even though there are a lot of challenges, most of them fail. We are quite successful at protecting our freedom to read. I’m guessing that cases where books are removed are least likely to go unreported, but there’s a good chance that some were missed.

      Your point about children from backgrounds with fewer resources is a very good one. One of the most disturbing cases in the brochure was a sex-ed book which was removed from school libraries in Texas. That’s important information to be denying to kids. I do think however that there is an important qualitative difference between removing a book from a school and banning it more broadly.

      • Thanks for the clarification! I agree that when it comes to reported cases, we have been fairly successful at defeating attempts to “protect” children from literature. In my opinion, part of that success comes from the attention the ALA and others have given to the issue. Hopefully, we will continue to defeat these types of challenges, but the courts have definitely weakened First Amendment rights by giving greater deference to school boards that want to remove books from library shelves. For some kids, such a removal is essentially a ban because they won’t be exposed to that material any other way.

      • You’re much more an expert on the law than I am. I was familiar with the standard of school boards not being allowed to remove books because of objection to the ideas contained in the book but I wasn’t familiar with the newer case. The ACLU vs Miami-Dade decision certainly does look like cause for concern that school boards could get away with suppressing ideas under the guise of removing inaccuracies.

        (And thanks for the challenge to my ideas, I was definitely intending to generate discussion with this post.)

  3. You are correct in stating that the banning of books is an issue of global concern, but there are still places in the United States where removing books from school curriculum and school libraries is a problem. Tuscon, AZ and the state of Texas are just two examples.

    • Your Texas example shows me that my count from the ALA list was clearly too low and removal of books from schools is clearly more common than I estimated. Thanks for the additional info.

      I’d argue that the Tuscon case is something a bit different. Tuscon canceled its Mexican American studies classes and as a result, the books associated with those classes were moved out of the classroom. Following some of the links in the article, I learned that those books are still available in school libraries. The cancellation of those classes is highly questionable in a lot of ways, but I don’t think it is the same as book removal. (On an unrelated note, it looks like a great reading list and there are lots of books on it that I would want to read.)

      The thing about book removal from schools is that it is clear that there do exist books which probably don’t belong in school libraries, particularly below the high school level. An obvious current example would be Fifty Shades of Gray. That produces a situation where reasonable people can disagree on where to draw the line. Do Dean Koontz books belong in a middle school? Maybe. I don’t know the answer to that. In looking at the specific cases, my opinion is that almost all the removals are unreasonable and it’s important to highlight that. But I still see a big difference between removal of a book from a school or a school system and banning it entirely.

  4. I agree completely with you. I think it’s an amazing marketing ploy by the ALA and the publishing industry. But I also feel that it is important for the reasons you mention at the end of the post. I find it sad when there are books that can’t be read or published around the globe.

    • A marketing ploy is exactly right. This is why I have mixed feelings. They are highlighting an important issue and I support that. But I also feel like their marketing exaggerates the issue. Of course, they get a lot more attention that way.

  5. Reblogged this on Anakalian Whims.

  6. You can actually get American Pyscho in bookshops down here–it’s just shrinkwrapped. Which probably does sales some good, I’d say. The question is why anyone would WANT to buy that book…

    • Yeah, my understanding was that it wasn’t allowed to be on the shelves- you have to go ask for it at the counter. You’re probably right about the effect on sales!

  7. Interesting. It’s good to have debate on this topic. But the ALA does report very clearly whether a book has been removed from a library or school (and by definition to prohibit or censure is to ban something) or challenged (but not removed). I’m ok with people’s right to “challenge” and debate a book (but not have it banned) – and I think it’s great that the ALA keeps track of all this information and makes it public. Finally, when it comes to degrees of “book banning”, isn’t it a slippery slope? We in democratic countries should not forget that our rights and freedoms are not guaranteed–they are hard won. We need to keep it that way, and I think the ALA does a great job of keeping this debate alive. Thanks for the thought provoking post!

    • It definitely is good that ALA tracks and publicizes book challenges and removals. My mixed feelings arise because they equate book removal with book banning. A ban is a legal prohibition. That’s different from deciding not to actively provide copies of a book. Certainly there can be a slippery slope between the two, but if we don’t differentiate between them, I think that we lose perspective on where we are on that slope.

      Thanks for your thoughts!

      • Good point…and transparency is no good without accuracy. Without it, such campaigns lose their credibility. I think the ALA is good on this, but could perhaps be better in how they define their terms?

      • I do think the ALA is clear in defining the removal of books from schools or libraries as banning. I just disagree with that definition. At the same time, I see why they use it. They get a lot more attention by using the stronger wording.

  8. […] year during Banned Books Week I wrote a deliberately semi-provocative post about the number of books actually banned in the United States. (Hint: The answer is zero.) I think that’s important to remember and celebrate. There were […]


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