The Challenge: Extending the Conversation About Censorship | Editorial

With the arrival of Banned Books Week, it's important to look for ways to dive deeper than “banning is bad” to prepare our kids to address intellectual freedom issues in an informed and principled way.

BBW-logo_bigWho doesn’t love Banned Books Week? Since it was first created in 1982, the initiative has arrived each year to bring attention to the fight for the freedom to read. And the need to take action is all too real, as efforts to restrict the reading of others continue to occur in our schools and libraries. According to the American Library Association (ALA), there were 311 book challenges reported to the Office for Intellectual Freedom in 2014, and it is widely believed that only a fraction of challenges get reported. If anything, we need much more than a week to do justice to the continuous, often politically complex work required to foster a culture that truly supports intellectual freedom.

This year, the run-up to Banned Books Week, September 27 to October 3, brought a flourish of creativity from the library community that is impressive and stirring. I especially appreciate the many approaches that create a culture of curiosity and inquiry about the forces at work behind book banning. Taking the conversation deeper than “banning is bad” will prepare our kids to address intellectual freedom issues in an informed and principled way.

Such robust teaching takes time, steady attention, and skill development, as not everyone is prepared to cope with a challenge in their local setting. This is abundantly clear when one reads Pat Scales, who writes a column on censorship for SLJ and has previously served as chair of ALA’s Intellectual Freedom Committee. Last year, I had the opportunity to immerse myself in her work as I edited a compilation of her guidance to our readers for Scales on Censorship: Real Life Lessons from School Library Journal (Rowman & Littlefield). That process also gave me great hope that there is real opportunity to improve the ecosystem of inquiry if we keep attending to intellectual freedom as a work in progress that requires vigilance, creativity, and ongoing education.

One thing Scales reinforces time and again is that any and every challenge to a book creates an opening to deepen and extend the conversation about the book itself and the dialogue about censorship as a chilling force in our culture. That chill occurs, of course, well before a book actually gets either challenged or banned. Just the prospect of a challenge can too often inhibit collection development decisions or foster insecurity about bringing a book into a collection or forward for discussion. Knowing that self-censorship can do damage even before any challenge is made should spur librarians to combat that fear—by getting themselves ready, with training if needed, to confidently confront any challenge that arises.

Many concerns about a book can be put to rest before a challenge actually occurs through informative and open communication, according to Scales, and many challenges can be addressed through clear policy and process, in addition to informed discussion. In either case, the response should be aimed not at silencing the concern per se, but rather at creating more understanding about the individual title in question and the intellectual freedom principles involved.

If a challenge goes public, social media can add another level to the discourse, one that can devolve too quickly into knee-jerk rhetoric or even personal attack. True, sometimes the challenger is not interested in learning, but often they can be—and without a generous, informative response, we’d never know. And, as any number of challenges over time have shown, the process of defending a challenge can help identify allies to defend policies and principles. Nothing is served by simply demonizing those who challenge books; that merely helps reinforce a wall of misunderstanding and mistrust that a society bent on free expression strives to break through.

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Rebecca T. Miller Editor-in-Chief rmiller@mediasourceinc.com

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