This week is Banned Books Week. The American Library Association, who founded the event in 1982, states that "The goal of this weeklong event is to keep the concept of literary freedom at the forefront of Americans' minds." The topic has been discussed and debated on nearly every book blog I've read, and this article on The Bumbles Blog got me started thinking about what it means for a book to be "banned".
"Year after year, a select minority become offended by a book they find on their library shelves or on their child's assigned reading list at school. So they challenge the book's appropriateness or worth and ask that it be banned and removed. What this does is to allow a small handful of people to restrict what the rest of the community is able to access." This quote from Mrs. Bumble struck two chords with me. One, I agree completely - no one person or group should be able to restrict what others in the community can read, and since a public library serves all residents, banning books within our walls is especially egregious. But - here's where my mind started shooting out thoughts like a roman candle - can a small handful of people dictate what materials a library offers against the desires of the majority? Read on to see why I ask.
Our library is funded by county tax dollars and I am entrusted to spend that money according to the people's wishes. Fair warning - I'm going to be pretty blunt here. We live in the southwest corner of Kansas. This is Conservative Republican, Christian Fundamentalist Central. If I were to purchase children's books about homosexuality, they would not get checked out. On the adult side, books containing gay characters are more accepted, but not widely, so buying those books is not the responsible use of our limited funds. Am I, in essence, "banning" books?
Mrs. Bumble went on to say "Generally, books that show up on the banned or challenged list each year are books that cover things that are uncomfortable. Books that speak about parts of the past that are not pretty. Books that speak about parts of the present that aren't widely accepted or understood." Absolutely right again! Racial issues, slavery and "the N word" usually top the list of objections to banned books. However this is pretty much a non-issue here. According to the most recent statistics I could find, our county is less than 1/2 of 1% black. With a county population of about 2500, that's twelve people. As you can imagine, with this demographic it would be unlikely that we would get removal requests on those grounds.
But here's the flip side. With that demographic, books featuring black characters or focusing on issues that pertain mostly to black or urban populations would largely just sit on the shelves unused. By not purchasing these books, am I being racist or just practical? Personally, I would take issue with being called racist, but I also take issue with wasting precious library dollars, not to mention shelf space, on materials that will not be touched until they are weeded ten years down the road.
How about banning for political or religious reasons? We have a large Christian fiction section and frequently buy works by Christian non-fiction authors such as Max Lucado or Joyce Meyer. We have only token books on Buddhism or Islam. These resources are used occasionally, most often for a school paper, but not often enough to justify a large cash outlay for more books. Political books are similar. The county is 77% Republican (or so says the statistical website I consulted) so I only buy books written by prominent Democrats if and when they are requested by a patron and can not be borrowed from another area library. In the interest of full disclosure, we buy very few political books of any slant and get very few requests for them.
Speaking of requests, that brings me to the saving grace of the small library: Interlibrary Loan. We can borrow from thousands of libraries within Kansas and nationwide and we deny no request on any grounds other than it not being available. I have always felt that offering this service made up for not having a wider cultural/political variety of books on the shelves. But am I wrong? Do librarians, even small-town librarians, have a responsibility to expose their readers to a broader world by placing more varied reading material in front of them? Or is our higher obligation to fiscal accountability?
Many thanks to The Bumbles for getting my brain sparking on this topic. And I'll leave you with this comical take on banning books from A Librarian's Guide to Etiquette:
As librarians celebrate intellectual freedom during Banned Books Week, it is important that they also celebrate their right to boldly and unapologetically ban terrible books from their library's shelves. (Yes, I am talking about you, Harlequin Romance's Stories Set in the World of Nascar.)
What books do you think should be banned from your library?