Banned Books Week, held the last week of September each year since 1982, is an opportunity for libraries and bookstores to draw attention to censorship with challenged books. In the 29 years since the first Banned Books Week, more than 11,000 books have been challenged, including 348 reported to the American Library Association's Office of Intellectual Freedom in 2010 alone. They estimate that 70-80% are never reported.
The idea of banned books often brings to mind The Catcher in the Rye, one of the most banned books in the US, for its language and sexual references. But censorship is a broader matter than age-appropriate fiction. For example:
- Dr. Seuss' The Lorax was challenged by the logging industry for how it was portrayed.
- Another children's book, Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See, was banned in Texas last year because the author, Bill Martin, Jr., had the misfortune of having the same name as a philosophy professor who wrote a book titled Ethical Marxism: The Categorical Imperative of Liberation.
- Also just last year, the Merriam Webster dictionary was pulled from fourth- and fifth- grade classrooms in a California school district for excessively explicit definitions. It was returned to the shelves, but parents were given the option not to allow their children to use it.
Simply put, censorship is directly contrary to openness and sharing of information, as evidenced by the way even book challenges can change over time. When The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, published in 1884, was first challenged, it was because Jim was shown as too heroic. Today it is challenged because the same character's treatment is considered demeaning to African-Americans. Censorship restricts knowledge to one viewpoint and obscures the search for truth--a search that should be made easy by one of our oldest and dearest forms of sharing: the local library.
“While we firmly support the right of every reader to choose or reject a book for themselves or their families, those objecting to a particular book should not be given the power to restrict other readers’ right to access and read that book,” said Barbara Jones, director of ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom.
The American Library Association believes firmly in the importance of access to information for everyone, stating:
Libraries are major sources of information for society and they serve as guardians of the public’s access to information more generally. The advent of the digital world has revolutionized how the public obtains its information and how libraries provide it. Libraries help ensure that Americans can access the information they need – regardless of age, education, ethnicity, language, income, physical limitations or geographic barriers – as the digital world continues to evolve. Core values of the library community such as equal access to information, intellectual freedom, and the objective stewardship and provision of information must be preserved and strengthened in the evolving digital world.
Joan E. Burtin, Executive Director of the National Coalition Against Censorship, wrote at Huffington Post in 2009 about why, although it seems like an issue that was a bigger problem in the past, we still need a Banned Books Week in the US: "For a country that venerates its First Amendment guarantee of freedom of speech, the United States tries to ban books with alarming frequency....In our diverse society, it is inevitable that people will be offended by something they see, read or hear, and that some will respond by advocating the suppression of what they dislike. Demands for censorship come from both ends of the political spectrum and all points in between."
"Free speech will remain free only as long as we are willing to fight for it," she concluded.
And that fight is happening in libraries across the country with Banned Books Week events.
This year, the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library in Indianapolis, IN is offering free copies of Slaughterhouse-Five to students at a Missouri high school where the book was removed from the curriculum and school library after a complaints from Wesley Scroggins, a Missouri State University associate business professor, who lives in a different district and homeschools his children. He called for a stop on textbooks and materials "that create false conceptions of American history and government or that teach principles contrary to Biblical morality and truth." The book was later restored to a "secure location" in the school library where parents can check them out, but it is still banned from the curriculum.
You can take part in Banned Books Week by finding a local event or reading one from the Internet Archive's collection of banned books, created during Banned Books Week in 2010. Or you could get involved in an open source project--specifically, Open Library. Its goal is to create a webpage for every book every published. The software, data, and documentation are all open and ready for contributions. In the four years since it began, the project has acquired more than 20 million catalog records and provided access to 1.7 million scanned books--but there's still a lot of work to do. As they put it, "If you've ever read a book, you can help build the Library. All you need to do is hit the EDIT button and start filling in the gaps."