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Born in 1982, the American Library Association’s “Banned Books Week” is an annual opportunity for libraries to focus on freedom of information, anti-censorship policies, and defense of a patron’s freedom to read. Rather than sitting back and defending library materials when under attack, the Banned Books Week event becomes an offensive tool, deployed by the ALA and by librarians across the country to emphasize the importance of literary freedom.
It’s a tactic that has drawn fire — the Wall Street Journal recently published a critical piece on the concept. In it, writer Mitchell Muncy criticizes the ALA for including legal challenges to books whether or not they successfully lead to the removal of a book in their banned book statistics. He states that 90% of book challenges do not lead to the permanent removal of the book in question, and therefore the low rate of successful challenges is evidence that an event like Banned Books Week is unnecessary and “overblown”.
In refutation: the fact that 90% of challenges fail is a credit to Banned Books Week and the substantial advocacy the librarian profession engages in. It is evidence that the event and the activism it represents is successful and should continue. I would also contest his assertion that censorship only exists when directed by the state:
“To examine in order to suppress or delete anything considered objectionable.” – Merriam-Webster Dictionary
The very definition of the word fails to mention government. It’s my understanding that censorship can come in many forms, not only from the state, but from community groups, teachers, individual parents, or neighborhood gadflys. Anytime pressure is applied to remove information (be it a book, film, or even the forced retraction of a public statement) in such a way that it would deny access to others, it veers into the dangerous territory of censorship.
Muncy’s too casual assumption that it’s only censorship if it’s driven by the state, and that the success of the ALA in defending controversial materials is somehow an argument against its continued activism are faulty premises.
Long live Banned Books Week. If nothing else, it’s a great chance to celebrate the controversial, confrontational, and vital books that change our world one reader at a time.