Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Caution: These Books May Be Dangerous

For many years, the American Library Association has designated the last week of September as Banned Books Week,
"an annual event celebrating the freedom to read and the importance of the First Amendment . . . Banned Books Week highlights the benefits of free and open access to information while drawing attention to the harms of censorship by spotlighting actual or attempted bannings of books across the United States."
Most of the books highlighted weren't actually "banned," but the alliteration of banned books week sounds much better than banned or challenged books or books somebody tried to get removed from the library week.

So this is Banned Books Week! I've created an eye-catching display of books in the library's collection that made ALA's "Top Ten Banned or Challenged Books" list at least once in the past five years. Lots of students, parents and teachers have stopped to read the information, and several have asked more about it.

I'd say we proudly own about 75% of the 40 or so books in those lists (a few repeat often, as they get challenged somewhere every year), and many many more that have been challenged somewhere. Many of them are popular books for teenagers -- a subversive group if there ever was one, and only the popular books (the Twilight series, Lauren Myracle's TTYL series, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, and good ol' Catcher in the Rye) get enough notice to inspire opposition. The most recent firestorm erupted just last week over Laurie Halse Anderson's Speak, popular since its publication in 1999.

The nature of our school is such that (knock wood) we've never had a formal challenge to any of our materials, though from time to time a parent will question why a certain book is in the collection, or why it's taught. We do have a materials collection policy that states why and how we add items to the collection, and should it ever be needed, a formal challenge policy and procedure.

The whole issue of censorship, the Freedom to Read, and the First Amendment is complex and tricky. As a private school library, we have a lot of freedom to select and not select, and a specific, well-defined community to serve. I spend time thinking about the "right" mix of ideas and viewpoints for our students. The Paideia community and approach to education means that many of the books challenged in more conservative communities are books that are perfect for our collection, such as those that present sexual orientation and identity questioning in a positive light. Author Lauren Myracle, whose TTYL books have hit the banned big time (on the Top 10 List 3 years running, #1 in 2009) has twice visited Paideia to talk to students.

But we don't have a collection of Christian fiction, or memoirs of notable conservative politicians, or more controversial and "other" side books like Holocaust denials or anti-global warming treatises. Should we? Where is the line between the librarian's responsibility to create and maintain a diverse range of viewpoints, and the responsibility to develop a collection that reflects the community's values and information needs? Many many kids have checked out The Geography Club, but not once have I ever had a request for Ann Coulter's books. Is it an appropriate use of school resources to buy a book if it won't ever get checked out?

This last week of September is a good time to be thinking about the freedom to read widely and diversely, how best to serve a diversity of opinion among a community, the courage to confront opposing and possibly repellent points of view, and the challenges of supporting everyone's Freedom to Read with the responsibility of upholding the rights and safety of the community.

Some of the library's most recent additions will be available in the Library Donation Sale this Saturday during the Fall BBQ & Dance. Please come visit, or browse the entire library collection using the online catalog. See you there!

More Banned Books Week reading:

15 Iconic Movies Based on Banned Books (Huffington Post)

Twitter: Banned Books New Best Friend
(NY Times)

Banned Books: Does Censoring a Kid's Book Remove Its Prejudices? (Huffington Post)

The Dirty Dozen: Twelve Books Guaranteed to Turn (Almost) Anyone into a Censor

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