For Librarians, Banned Books Week Is a Chance To Discuss Censorship, Intellectual Freedom With Students

While decorative banned books displays draw attention to censorship, there's a deeper opportunity for meaningful conversation about the issues.

Illustration by Mark Tuchman

School librarians looking for ideas on how to mark Banned Books Week (Sept. 22–28) can do a quick search on Pinterest and come up with hundreds of examples of elaborate displays to catch a student’s eye. There are books covered in brown paper, “Wanted” posters for frequently challenged books such as The Diary of Anne Frank and the “Captain Underpants” series, along with lots and lots of flames, perhaps to hark back to the days of book burning or to convey a sense of danger surrounding these titles.

But do these displays alone do enough to teach students about censorship? Also, how can librarians make sure the Banned Books message isn’t lost or misconstrued?

“I think we always have to bring the idea back to our constitutional rights,” says Mary Keeling, president of the American Association of School Librarians. “What’s important about this isn’t the sensationalism of a banned book; the importance is our freedom in a democratic society to listen to and read and think the ideas we want to think. That concept is essential to democratic discourse.”

She calls for librarians to work with social studies teachers during this week to focus on the freedoms afforded to students by the First Amendment and to clearly illustrate the nuanced difference between a book that’s actually been banned and one that has merely been challenged. A book that is banned has been removed from either a library or a curriculum at the request of an administrator or a school board. A book that has been challenged has faced complaints by parents, students, or community members, and may have been subjected to a campaign to have it banned. A challenged title may face an official process to determine if it’s appropriate for students.

When Keeling was starting her job as a supervisor of library media services in Newport News (VA) Public Schools about 14 years ago, she heard from a parent who was upset by a Banned Books Week display that included books locked away in cages.

“She just felt that words and ideas should be free, and that for books to be locked up in a library was wrong,” says Keeling. “The message that had been intended was completely misunderstood by that particular parent, and she perceived that the librarians were in effect censoring the books that had been put on display.”

Keeling points to a study published in the July 2019 issue of The Library Quarterly that questioned whether the public was clear about the fact that the American Library Association (ALA) doesn’t ban books. The question has come up so frequently that it’s even addressed on the organization’s website.

Still, many call the week a massive success in its current form. Banned Books Week began in the early 1980s in an effort to raise awareness about book challenges and calls to ban books.

“If the purpose is to call attention to something, it is by far one of the most successful public programs ALA has offered,” says James LaRue, the former director of the Office for Intellectual Freedom (OIF) at ALA. “The pages on the ALA website that have to do with Banned Books Week are, after the landing page, the most-visited pages that ALA has.”

OIF’s newsletter, “Intellectual Freedom News,” is a roundup of current incidents involving intellectual freedom challenges and censorship. Book burning still, in fact, occurs: An Iowa man who videotaped himself burning four children’s book with LGBTQ themes last year was recently fined $65, the August 9, 2019 newsletter reported.

LaRue left his position at ALA last November and now works as an independent consultant. He’s often called on to speak about intellectual freedom, social justice, and censorship.

He says some school librarians are doing an excellent job of using the week to teach their students about censorship, but others are held back by fear.

“There are many school librarians [who] feel threatened and have stood up for various kinds of intellectual freedom rights in the past, only to be kind of slapped down,” says LaRue. “In areas where the school librarian has been punished, or there is no school librarian, or there are policies but nobody knows them and nobody follows them, there is, I would venture to say, a rising tide of censorship.”

Many librarians are self-censoring due to concerns about how their school community would react to certain titles, LaRue adds. He cites the 2016 Controversial Books Survey by SLJ, which found that the overwhelming majority of elementary and middle school librarians have refused to purchase a book because it might be controversial.

“Many school librarians say, ‘If I do anything that’s seen as controversial it makes parents angry, it makes the administrators angry, and they take it out on me,’” says LaRue. “And so, I believe that in places where you don’t talk about censorship, it’s more likely to thrive.”


Elementary concerns

Carolyn Vibbert doesn’t talk to her young students at Sudley Elementary School in Manassas, VA, a suburb of Washington, DC, about Banned Books Week. That’s because she hasn’t been able to figure out how to fit it into the curriculum, she says.

But over the last couple of years, Vibbert has been supporting the mission of the week by adding LGBTQ-affirming titles to her collection. For her, this started by purchasing This Day in June, a Stonewall Award–winning picture book about a pride parade.

Since Vibbert knew this title could face challenges, she sent her principal and school counselor reviews of the book and invited them to read it before adding it to her collection.

“I didn’t want to set it up to be a me-versus-you kind of situation,” says Vibbert. “I really wanted to advocate for teamwork in this approach.”

Both approved of her decision to add the book, and over time she’s added more titles with LGBTQ themes, including George, a middle grade novel about a transgender girl who’s frustrated that everyone sees her as a boy.

Both George and This Day in June made ALA’s list of the most challenged books of 2018, with George taking the number one spot. In fact, six of the 11 most challenged books last year contained content concerning issues around sexual or gender identity and/or included same-gender couples. Others were challenged for things such as profanity, sexual references, the depiction of drug use, violence, themes related to suicide, as well as concerns about stereotyping minorities and encouraging disruptive behavior.

Vibbert says librarians often feel isolated when making decisions about books that might cause controversy.

“When I purchased This Day in June and then George, I contacted all the librarians in my district, and I said, ‘I own these books. If you’d like to read them, I’ll loan them to you. You won’t be the only one. You won’t be the first one.’ So if somebody in the community does notice or does question it, you can say, ‘Hey, this book is in five other school libraries.’ ”

Vibbert says a few librarians took her up on the offer and ended up purchasing the books. But she can understand how limited budgets and fear of offending administrators might hold some librarians back.

“When it comes down to making choices, it’s just easier to buy safe books that you know kids will read and really love versus ones that might go home and somebody might question,” says Vibbert. “So I think fear does hold us back, and fear still holds me back. I don’t put up a display that says, ‘Hey, LGBTQ books here.’ I don’t booktalk them. I don’t promote them specifically.”

Vibbert admits that might be why she’s been able to avoid any challenges.


Teen engagement

Librarians often feel more confident discussing the issues brought up by Banned Books Week with older students.

Every year, high school librarian Jamie Gregory confronts the threat of censorship head-on with her students at James F. Byrnes High School in Duncan, SC, a small town in the state’s northwest region.

Her school has an annual writing contest that relates to the ALA’s annual theme for the week (this year, it is “Censorship Leaves Us in the Dark: Keep the Light On!”), and the winners get to pick a frequently challenged young adult novel as their prize. Students are also encouraged to answer daily trivia questions related to censorship, and teachers are invited to bring their students into the library for a gallery walk with eight different stations about the history surrounding book bans, challenges, and other forms of censorship.

“There’s a lot you can tap into with students if you’re trying to find something they might be interested in,” says Gregory. “You can get into song lyrics and politics and all kinds of stuff. There really is just no lack of materials that you can find for them to research and read about it. New things are happening every year related to censorship, so it’s not hard to keep it up-to-date and fresh.”

Gregory, who currently writes for ALA’s Intellectual Freedom Blog, has always been passionate about the topic and might go a little further than most of her colleagues when it comes to addressing it.

Most of her students come to high school knowing little to nothing about efforts to ban books.

“They often have pretty strong reactions,” Gregory says. “They get pretty indignant about the idea that there are some places that would restrict what you can check out as a student.”

Miranda Doyle is the district librarian for the Lake Oswego (OR) School District and the intellectual freedom chair for the Oregon Library Association.

She recommends clearly defining censorship for students and explaining what it means for a book to be banned. Doyle says they’re often surprised to hear that books they’ve enjoyed such as The Hate U Give have been removed from some school districts.

Doyle says concerns about a library book in her district come up a few times a year and usually involve gender identity or LGBTQ themes.

But in recent years, more and more classics have faced challenges for language that many modern readers find offensive or for outdated ideas. For example, parents in several districts have asked that To Kill a Mockingbird be excluded from the curriculum because of its liberal use of the n-word.

Doyle says that’s an issue librarians continue to grapple with as they examine their collections.

“We should keep any books that fit the library’s collection development policy— even if the books have dated language and attitudes,” says Doyle. “We can and should add diverse books to the library collections, but I don’t think we want to remove books with literary and historical value.”

Doyle has also weeded some titles “because they are both outdated and no longer popular,” she says. “This is a great argument for having credentialed school librarians qualified to make these judgments, who can both deselect and select materials with diversity, inclusiveness, and literary value in mind.”

“However, I would never weed a book that was still popular and also met my collection development criteria,” she adds. “That would be censorship.”

Marva Hinton is a contributing writer for Education Week and the ReadMore podcast host.

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