Jeff McCall recently wrote an opinion column for The Hill regarding the American Library Association’s annual event “Banned Books Week,” held every September. I strongly disagree with Prof. McCall’s points on how this celebration is “shrill Chicken Little-like panic about the supposed evil forces in America that want to censor reading material and diminish a person’s right to read what he pleases.”
McCall mentions that the books on ALA’s top ten banned books list can be purchased through online and through bookstores. A reader can simply go and buy a banned book. This is extremely problematic, and not so simple, as it assumes that a reader has the money to buy books in the first place. Libraries provide access to books relatively for free. I grew up in a small Appalachian rural town, where there was no public transportation. However, what did exist was a bookmobile, which was driven through the hollers and mountains of southeastern Kentucky and brought books to those who didn’t have the means to make the trek to the library. The library is an Internet access point for the homeless and those who live below the poverty line. How would it be possible to buy a book, let alone one that was banned, in those circumstances?
This opinion piece also states that banned books are available in numerous other libraries, and that just because it is not in a particular one it is not indicative of being banned. This may be true, but it is also because of the hard work that librarians have done to make controversial books available in the first place. Fighting against censorship, especially on the local level, is a valued tenet of the library profession.
Unpopular ideas today may be commonplace tomorrow, and it is important that librarians curate and protect this. Take for instance Garth Williams’ The Rabbits’ Wedding, where a black rabbit marries a white rabbit. This book was banned in Alabama (state-wide!) in 1958 because it promoted interracial marriage. It’s important to never forget that anti-miscegenation laws were on the books up until 1967. Loving v. Virginia really wasn’t that long ago.
“Community standards” is another point that McCall argues and that a public dialogue should be had in order to determine what books should be in a library’s collection. This too creates numerous problems. Numeros books had been banned or made controversial simply because they weren’t read or they were taken out of context. The book Belly Button Defense was banned because of title alone even though it’s a story about basketball. Huckleberry Finn was banned because of the racial slurs and how Jim was treated throughout the story. This was reflective of the times in which it was written; slaves were looked down upon and treated horribly. The book had also been banned because it depicted the friendship between a white boy and a black man. Like the confederate statues that were erected in the times of eugenics, desegregation, and the civil rights movement, decades after the end of the civil war, it’s important to note that same historical context in which why these books were banned.
I’m not saying that library shouldn’t listen to the community it serves, however, I don’t believe that communities should take away the option of reading a book just because they disagree with it. Libraries serve a wide variety of people. As with any educational institution, libraries are there for people to ultimately learn. There is no greater learning process than that of learning out of conflict. Challenging one’s personal beliefs, ideas, and values, out of something they’ve read is a gift taken for granted. Ellen Johnson, former chair of the Arkansas Library Association’s Intellectual Freedom Committee said, “Libraries serve a wide range of interests, and the library needs to provide materials for more than one group of people. It’s hard for people trying to censor books to understand that in a public situation, you can’t serve one group only.”
I suggest that Prof. McCall should visit his college’s library and attend next year’s Read-Out in order to challenge his own views.