Every year in late September, libraries around the country celebrate Banned Books Week to encourage awareness about book censorship in the United States. But what exactly is book censorship? Turns out, there’s a lot of different answers depending on who you ask.
Some people might define book banning literally, talking only about books that are forbidden to be published, sold, or even read. This ban might come from the government, like how it was forbidden in the confederacy for bookstores to carry Uncle Tom’s Cabin, or how it was illegal in the US from 1873 to 1959 to mail books containing “obscene” or “inappropriate” material (anything from The Canterbury Tales to anatomy textbooks to all of Oscar Wilde’s works could be banned under this law!). It might also come from a smaller organization such a local school system that not only doesn’t carry a title, but doesn’t allow students to bring a personal copy to school, either. Others might define book banning as any form of discontinuing access, whether that be a library throwing out an old copy of a book and not buying a replacement, or a publishing company discontinuing a controversial title. And throughout history, book banning has taken the form of all of these at some point or another (for more history of book banning, check out this article.
But more commonly, what we mean when we talk about book banning is the modern version, with some level of community involvement, with readers or parents demanding that libraries or schools remove content they personally find offensive or upsetting. If the library retains the title, it’s not uncommon for them to involve more students and parents, hoping to draw enough attention to force the library or school to comply. The person’s intent is usually good: attempting to protect others, often children, from material that they consider to be harmful. But the end result is still that those that make these challenges are trying to limit the access other readers have to choosing what to read. And these requests for removal are not rare, with dozens happening each year in Oregon and hundreds nationwide.
So why does a book get challenged and, if the library agrees, removed? According to the American Library Association, the most common reasons are content that is sexually explicit or contains offensive language, but even that isn’t clear because these can mean different things to different people. For example, the book Drama, by Raina Telgemeier, and the book Fifty Shades of Grey, by E.L. James, have both been challenged for sexually explicit content, despite the first only featuring a kiss and the second being an erotica novel. Making it even more complicated, challenges for sexually explicit content often include books that were not challenged because of the content itself, but the fact that the characters involved were LGBTQIA+. In fact, challenged books are overwhelmingly more likely to be written by or include characters of a variety of marginalized identities. For the last five years straight, eight out of the top ten most challenged books every year were marginalized voices. And while a challenge doesn’t automatically mean it will be taken off the shelf, some challenges do result in the library removing or restricting the title, limiting their patrons access to a diverse array of authors and stories.
Celebrating Banned Books Week is one way that libraries attempt to spread awareness about book censorship, what types of books get banned, and what impact it has on local communities. It’s a great opportunity to encourage parents to have conversations with their children about any difficult or uncomfortable subjects they come across, but it’s also an opportunity for readers of all ages to seek out some of those books that are frequently challenged and decide for themselves what to think.
Jackson County Library Services is celebrating Banned Books Week all month long with bingo, cool stickers, a panel discussion and more. Pick up a bingo card at your local branch to participate, and check out some great book suggestions for Banned Books Week.