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Banned Books Week 1997: A Case of Misrepresentation

- by Steve McKinzie (mckinzie@dickenson.edu)

This week (September 21st-27th), the nation celebrates National Banned Book Week, a week-long propaganda fest and consciousness-raising extravaganza of the American Library Association's Office for Intellectual Freedom. The week's promoters parade a list of books that they charge have been banned in libraries and schools across the nation, talk about the importance of First Amendment Rights, and lament the rise of censorship from what they consider to be the ill-informed and malicious enemies of freedom and American democracy -- a group that includes the usual conservatives of various flavors and, of course, that enemy of everything dear to the national consciousness, the Christian Right.

Now to begin with, most Americans have serious problems with the sort of radical libertarianism that the American Library Association (ALA) espouses. Most Americans don't buy into the notion that public libraries should buy anything no matter how pornographic, or that schools should teach anything, no matter how controversial. The majority of Americans believe in community standards, and they stubbornly insist that schools, libraries, and other social institutions ought to support those standards. Even so, the real difficulty with the American Library Association's Banned Book week isn't its philosophy, however much people may question the ALA's anything-goes-approach to building a library collection and managing a school's curriculum.

No, the real problem is the dishonesty involved.

Banned Book Week isn't really what it says it is. The ALA has gone in for some serious mislabeling here. It has misleadingly categorized the week -- a serious charge when you remember that librarians are supposed to be dispassionate and accurate catalogers or labelers of things.

In all honesty, what is the real state of censorship and book banning in America? Well, very few -- if any -- books in this country are currently banned. You can buy almost any title that you want, download tons of information from the Web that you need, and you can check out all sorts of things at your public library. Nor is censorship dangerously on the rise as the ALA is apt to insinuate.

The disparity between what actually is and what the week's promoters claim stems from their exaggerated notions of what constitutes censorship. In the eyes of the ALA and its Office for Intellectual Freedom, any kind of challenge to a book is to be considered an effort at banning and any kind of complaint about a title an attempt at unconscionable censorship. For a book to be labeled a banned book in their mind, someone needs only question its place in a given library's collection, or openly wonder if a specific title belongs in the children's section. To be reckoned a censor, one has only to suggest in public that a book may not be appropriate in a given high school English class.

Kathy Monteiro, a teacher in McClintock High School in Tempe, Arizona complained about her high schoolers' mandatory reading of Huckleberry Finn. She thought the book was racist. Parents in High Point, North Carolina questioned the appropriateness of Richard Wright's Native Son and Alice Walker's Color Purple. They thought the adult themes inappropriate for the grade level. Both these protests were officially recorded as examples of attempted censorship by ALA's Newsletter on Intellectual Freedom. All three titles were placed on the Banned Book List.

Let's get real. Such challenges are not attempts at censorship, and such complaints about books used in a classroom are not efforts to have certain titles banned. The people involved in these controversies about what students are required to read are merely speaking their minds, and no matter how much I disagree with their contentions, (I enjoy anything by Mark Twain and think Richard Wright's Native Son to be something of a classic) they have a right to argue their point. They should be able to speak up without fear of being considered enemies of the Republic or being chastised as censors of great literature.

Parents who challenge the inclusion of a given text in a specific literature class and citizens who openly protest a library's collection development decision are only speaking out about things that they believe in. It is a grand America tradition and one that we should encourage as much as we can. We shouldn't be trying to ban free speech in the name of free speech. Let people speak out about what they care about, without being branded a censor or labeled a book banner.

In short, the American Library Association needs to lighten up. At the very least, they should rename their week. As anyone can see, Banned Book Week isn't really about banned books. It is about people having differing opinions and caring enough to make those opinions known.

The nation could use a lot more of that, not less.

Mr. McKinzie is the Social Sciences Librarian at Dickinson College



NOTE by John Ray

I have extracted this article from the Google cache as it seems to be no longer online at its original source.




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