How Book Banning Works

The first thing you have to realize is that there's a difference between book banning and collection development. There is no library that owns every single book. The Library of Congress, with its 838 miles of bookshelves, does not own every single book. So, each library has to develop a process for choosing the books it will offer.

The way libraries typically do this is by looking to the needs and interests of their unique communities. Every type of library - public, school, law, college, etc. - has a different kind of community; likewise, every individual library will have its own special flavor of community. My public library's community, for instance, is not the same as your public library's community, although the two will be more similar, generally speaking, than Tulane's libraries' communities, or the local elementary school's library's community. So, the goal of every library is to cater to its own community's needs and interests. Every library has its own way of determining how best to do that, and most will offer ways for the community to have direct input into collection development - for instance, by offering purchase requests, so that any item the library does not have but a community member wants can be procured.

This is extraordinarily important for understanding a basic issue with book banning. Just because my public library does not carry Tailchaser's Song (one of my absolute favorite books, and you should all go read it) does not mean that book has been banned from my library - it just means no one thought the patrons would be interested in reading it, and no one has asked the library to buy it. Likewise, we can expect that books written for audiences not included in the library's community will not be considered for purchase - elementary school libraries, for instance, are not likely to include A. N. Roquelaure/Anne Rice's The Claiming of Sleeping Beauty.

Occasionally, however, a member of the library's community will think that a book contains ideas or imagery that is inherently dangerous or otherwise harmful to other members of the community. He or she will officially request that the book be taken out of the collection and made inaccessible to the community. When that happens, we say the book is "challenged." Every library ought to have a process in place for handling challenges, and it usually includes a committee or board that will review the book and the complaint and decide whether to remove the book or not, along with a justification for their decision. If the book is removed, we say the book is "banned."

I do believe that community members asking that a book or books be banned are acting with the best of intentions - they are not evil people. They honestly believe that Mein Kampf encourages antisemitism; that  The Giver desensitizes children to euthanasia, suicide, and infanticide; and that The Adventures of Captain Underpants teaches kids to be disrespectful to authorities (and have bad grammar). In order to protect readers from insidious ideas, they want to remove the source of the problem - like preventing the spread of disease through quarantine.

I have three big problems with this belief.

One, I think they have too little faith in the abilities of others - particularly children - to understand the nuances of the story. Yes, the boys in Captain Underpants are pranksters - but kids can see how the prank goes wrong, and understand that it wasn't a smart thing to try. They also understand the difference between the real and fantasy worlds more than they're often given credit for - Coconut, for instance, was quick to point out that one can't actually buy a ring that will hypnotize someone. And he's younger than the book's target audience! Swicky, on the other hand, was more interested in correcting the grammar in the boys' comic book. Likewise, I think even young readers of The Giver are going to understand that the story's portrayals of "release" are a sickness in the Community - they are more likely to be horrified by the institutional acceptance of infanticide, euthanasia, and suicide than desensitized to it.

Two, I believe we lose an avenue of understanding history when we lose access to literature - both fiction and nonfiction. Reading Mein Kampf gives one insight into Hitler's thinking that can be a valuable tool for understanding World War II. Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, written in response to his fears that McCarthyism might lead to book burning, offers a great perspective on the dangers of institutional censorship. Heck, anyone looking to understand the concerns of Thai anti-coup protesters today might want to start by reading one of the books they're often flaunting - George Orwell's Nineteen eighty-four.

Three, and related to the previous two very strongly, is that I firmly believe it is more dangerous to limit access to books than to deal with the ideas they present. Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye humanizes racism and its effects on children - why would we not want high school aged kids to think about this ongoing and serious issue in a compassionate and visceral manner? Robie H Harris's It's So Amazing! is a thorough, tactful way to introduce elementary school aged kids to sex, pregnancy, and different types of families. Worries that such a book will "ruin their innocence" will lead, at best, to embarrassment and shame when they face changes and desires they don't understand, and, at worst, leaves them vulnerable to attacks through manipulation into situations they don't know are dangerous.

There are a couple counter-arguments I want to discuss, as well, but I'll do that tomorrow - I don't want to overload you all in one day.

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