Monday, September 8, 2008

Banned Books Week seems early this year...

The annual Banned Books Week is coming up Sept. 27-Oct. 4, but the presidential campaign has created some unusual attention for the issue of book banning in public libraries. The Sept. 4 Wall Street Journal reported:
[Gov. Palin] floated the idea of pulling books she considered offensive from a local library.
Published reports have led to a flurry in the biblioblogosphere and political blog world. The Ongoing War Against Reason has an interesting post about the controversy:
I have been reading some blogs where people are making quite a fuss over some books that Sarah Palin wanted to ban. What I am confused about is why are people getting so upset. I think Ms. Palin is a better judge of such matters than most people are. ...

Hopefully Ms. Palin can implement a nationwide program that will get these books removed from all the nations libraries. There has a to be a clause in the Patriot Act that can give legal precedant for such a move.

While one may or may not enjoy such tongue in cheek humor, there are a couple of unfunny things at play:
  1. Vice-Presidential candidate Sarah Palin, as Mayor of Wasilla, did pose questions -- perhaps only theoretical or rhetorical, but apparently on more than one occasion -- about removing some books from the public library collection.
  2. Hysterical anti-Palin postings to the contrary, there is to date no actual published evidence of any attempt on her part to ban or remove any particular titles. The circulation of bogus lists of titles she supposedly tried to censor does a disservice to Gov. Palin and the truth.
In a time of high ideological conflict, such as this presidential election, it's important to stay level-headed, and remember that too often "truth is the first casualty of war." That being the case, I appreciate librarians like Jessamyn West, who have worked to stay even-handed. When someone posted the list on her blog, Jessamyn noted "there appears to be no truth to the claim made by the commenter, and no further documentation or support for this has turned up." Many other commenters noted the lack of a source and the danger of unsubstantiated allegations.

I appreciate neutral sources like which give a factual perspective. I do not enjoy reading Michelle Malkin's comment: "This time it's hysterical librarians and their readers on the Internet disseminating a bogus list ... looks like some of these library people failed reading comprehension." Why feed potential criticism that we're hysterical -- even when we're not? To her credit, Malkin credited Jessamyn West for doing the right thing. While I haven't run into hysterical library people, I have noticed people trying to capitalize on the controversy.

Those who feel themselves locked in a culture war may be too willing to sacrifice facts to serve their ideology, but for librarians to do so in any case is to subvert our own professional ethics. Thankfully, I don't find this to be generally true of librarians, but some people may have been too willing to uncritically repeat spurious information that accords with their prejudices. It's like the credulous friends who send you the emails that begin "forward this to everyone you know." We ought to know better, though sometimes our feeling outruns our thinking.

Politics aside, let's remember the real issue for libraries. It's vital that public libraries represent a variety of values and points of view in their collections. Government should neither interfere with the availability of content and viewpoints, nor with parents’ rights to determine what values they teach their children.

Parents can tell their children what they can and can't read, but not my children. Book banning, family values, and reading decisions are for families -- not mayors or governors. Free people need free access to ideas and information, not what "the authorities" deem acceptable. Most libraries will have something to offend everyone. Librarians need to select and deselect things for their quality as library resources, not their ideology, and be mindful of the often subjective nature of offensiveness.

We should welcome the opportunity to responsibly discuss the importance of our freedoms.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I'm just sure I have read banned books but I would be hard pressed to name even one title. I take it for granted that I can read any book I want, which is probably not wise because, incredibly, there are people who think they have the right or the "moral duty" to try to prohibit the circulation of certain books. We must never let this happen -ever, ever, never. Libraries take a leadership role in promoting freedom of reading any darn thing one wants to read - just one of the many ways that libraries support our citizens, our democracy and our Constitution.