I Hate Banned Book Week
Okay, I do not hate Banned Book Week as much as I do not know what the aim Banned Book Week is, and I suspect that few who celebrate it could give a good account of it either. That is not to detract from the main result of Banned Book Week, richly deserved praise and attention for libraries, but potentially nefarious ramifications lurk behind the seemingly lofty principles of this innocuous looking festival.
The stated ideal of Banned Book Week is to promote “free and open access to information” to the community and the “freedom to seek and to express ideas”. The bugaboo for supporters of this movement is censorship, and this boogeyman is avoided by adopting a position of censorial libertarianism (or perhaps laissez-faire would be more apt): no book should be censored or banned is the presumed takeaway. The emphasis seems to be squarely on the books- they shouldn’t be banned. Who, where and how the books are provided is less clear.
From the outset, though, this formulation is problematic. Would any librarian really agree that no book should be banned? How about the golden test case for censorship The Anarchist’s Cookbook? I think even the most libertine of librarians would agree that a book detailing how to build pipe bombs should not be available in secondary school libraries. Apart from sensitive information, what else would a librarian be uncomfortable providing to secondary school students? How about a book that’s just the N-word over and over for a hundred pages? Surely that is both irredeemably offensive and devoid of literary merit. These examples may seem like obvious omissions, but every exception opens cracks in what was presented as an absolute principle.
Even if a librarian would go so far to say that there is no book that they would outright not allow, the limitation of physical space (or, more recently, digital licenses) constricts book availability. Library space tends not to be infinite and many books will be necessarily omitted. Most books are de facto “censored” by not being made available. The decision of what books are included then seems of greater importance than what books are “censored”. In that case, the furor over banning books turns reality on its head. The real power is in the groups selecting the books. Even a request to remove a book is a selective veto at best. It seems disingenuous, then, to rail against the anti-intellectuals wanting to remove certain books while crafting your own preferred collection- while simply omitting undesired works- with unimpeded acquisition power.
A poster boy for Banned Book Week is The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which contains some offensive words such as the aforementioned N-word. What is the difference between Huck Finn and the previous case? A great deal, but nothing that could be summed up in a neat, objective definition. The difference requires the judgement of local librarians and communities. A judgement that an uncritical embrace of the apparent aims of Banned Book Week would seem to strip from communities.
The animus against banning or censoring books seems to stem from an idealistic view that as long as everything is open and free, the truth will out. This view, however, neglects two realities. First, as I hinted before, a library collection, like a news agency, cannot be purely neutral, no matter how well intended its acquisitions. Left unscrutinized, you cannot but expect a library collection to drift towards the natural prejudices of its curators (which is not necessarily a bad thing.). Second, the education of young minds requires careful guidance and cannot be left to the chance of willy-nilly, uneven encounters with various books. Neither of these issues can be addressed by only a consideration of banning/not-banning, but requires discussion and scrutiny of both inclusion and exclusion of books.
No doubt nearly all participants in Banned Book Week seek more free and open information resources. I have not yet uncovered a dastardly cabal of librarians seeking to control the world. Nonetheless, promoters should be aware of the whole issue. A movement for free information should not be misused to instead stifle debate.