Saturday, October 20, 2007

Banned Books

I know, I know, you were hoping for a post by JRL, but he's way behind on his book group Shakespeare so it's me again. This morning I set up a little Banned Books display (a little late to the party, since BB Week was in September) in the book store window, full of the usual: Huckleberry Finn, Harry Potter, In the Night Kitchen, etc. Minutes after I'd finished, a guy came marching in, asking, "So WHO tried banning Harry Potter??" Erm, I didn't know, so I had to Google it for him. Someone in Zeeland, Michigan, it turns out. Oh, also a lady in Pennsylvania. "Hmm," he said, before striding out again, umbrella beneath his arm. Perhaps he was disappointed that it wasn't George Bush, or the mayor of Ithaca.

It makes me wonder if maybe we're giving the overwrought, book-fearing loonies of the world a bit too much attention. Asking a school to remove a book because it shows a cartoon penis (as in the case with Sendak's In the Night Kitchen) maybe be ridiculous, galling, and even offensive, but it's hardly a human rights crime*. If a crazed librarian decided to stock my kids' school library with hard core porn and copies of Soldier of Fortune magazine, I might raise a teeny objection. Not every book is suitable for children, in fact, and it isn't surprising that not everyone agrees where the line is. My own mother once complained to my school about the book A Taste of Blackberries, in which a character is stung to death by bees, because I cried for a week after reading it (and still can't see the book today without feeling a bit queasy). I'm glad my poor mom never showed up on those lists.

The real problem, of course, is parents trying to impose their religious values onto public school systems. Such impositions should not be allowed to happen, and fortunately they rarely are. But the Banned Books discussion is not framed that way; instead, the misguided attempts to remove books with too much (or the wrong kind of) sex or witchcraft or swearing are described as violations of intellectual freedom. Perhaps they shouldn't be given so much credit.

The Cities of Refuge project (formerly Cities of Asylum) gives refuge to writers who really have been banned -- Ithaca is currently hosting Sarah Mkhonza, who was threatened and assaulted in her native Swaziland for criticizing the government in her newspaper columns. Iranian writer Reza Daneshvar, here from 2003 to 2006, was jailed for writing a novel about the 1953 coup. Other exiled writers are staying in Las Vegas, Pittsburgh, and Santa Fe. It would be a great thing if other cities followed suit and brought even more writers here to have some time and space to write freely.

*Anyway, there's an easy solution to the cartoon penis, as the librarian at my elementary school discovered: she cut out a tiny pair of paper undies and taped them onto the naked child in the school's copy of In the Night Kitchen.


5 Red Pandas said...

At library school we've discussed this issue at length since it will affect all of us future librarians, especially the LMS's (school librarians). One of the things that should be pointed out, and has been brought up, is that Banned Books is a misnomer. It should actually be called "challenged books" because that's what they are. The books have not been banned in the US, they were all challenged. This happens when someone in the community feels that a book is not suitable for that library and they lodge a complaint. All (or most) libraries have a review system for choosing books that go into circulation, and they also have a policy and system in place for people to formally challenge a book's place in that library's collection. The real problem comes when concerned citizens decide to take matters into their own hands and eschew the system in place and instead of making a formal challenge of a book, they take the book hostage. These people refuse to give back the book because they feel they are protecting the public. No thank you! I will protect myself by not taking the book out, you don't need to do it for me or my hypothetical children. Still, this happens. Certain religious groups actually advise their followers to take certain controversial books from libraries with the intention of taking the books hostage. This is done systematically, and in a way is effective because it forces the libraries to either buy a new copy, or decide not to re-purchase it. If a library has enough problems like this, that library might think twice about adding potentially controversial books to their collection, though most librarians are actually pretty adamant about supporting intellectual freedom.

Which in retrospect, regarding JRL's Mailman character, it's actually less likely that the librarian would have kicked him out of the library for looking at porn on the computer if he was discreet about it. Most libraries support unfiltered Internet access. The govt' passed legislation that said that libraries that don't filter the 'net cannot received federal funding so if a library is hard up, they will filter, but most of the library culture does not support filtering. (At least the ALA doesn't.) Now, while most librarians probably wouldn't relish the prospect of people coming in to check out porn on the library computers, most, in theory, support your intellectual freedom to do so. That's why some libraries have installed special screens on their computers so that their patrons may browse the internet with relative privacy. So maybe JRL's character would have been thrown out because of his porn surfing, but from what I've been learning in library school, that would go against the beliefs of library culture.

Librarians are often a lot more radical than their reputations. Of course you have some who do not agree with the ALA's guidelines but I haven't yet met any who do not.

Anonymous said...

Ha! Poor Mailman would have been delighted to know that his rights were being violated... ;-)

I hadn't heard about that book-hostage-taking tactic--and I agree that it's nasty as hell, and cowardly to boot. I am with Rhian about school libraries--personally, I think they should be able to "ban" whatever the hell they please. But if public libraries cave in to people like the ones you describe, we will have a real problem.

We are not strangers to the radicalism of librarians--our locals put up extremely large anti-Patriot-Act posters, back in the day. (That is, back in the day when creeping totalitarianism still seemed shocking.)

5 Red Pandas said...

In regards to school libraries, it's less about banning and more about choosing what's appropriate for a particular age level. I don't think a librarian, whether she's a school librarian or not, should decide to "ban" information on say, abortion, if she is against it. Now should that stuff be in an elementary school library? No, and it most likely isn't, but it's totally appropriate in a high school library. The main thing is to have information on both points of view available. Having information on both points of view doesn't mean you endorse either.
Again, school districts have a review process and librarians add to their collections within those guidelines. Depending on the geographical area, what is added to the collection varies based on the criteria set forth by the school district.

That book hostage thing has happened in school libraries too. A girl and her grandma thought a YA novel had too much sex and they wanted to protect the other high school kids from the book. In my mind they should have just expressed their unique opinion and allowed others to come to their own conclusions.

rmellis said...

When I was a kid all the witchcraft books mysteriously disappeared from our public library. I was very bummed. My mom and I suspected a certain librarian who was known to be a bit evangelical.

Those librarians also gave me grief for getting murder mysteries out before I had my adult card. I just lied and said they were for my mom. Ah, good days.

the individual voice said...

I have no recollection of a cartoon penis in In the Night Kitchen. And I assure you I read it many, many times. I'm just so jaded. And lived in a house full of males.

the individual voice said...

It therefore also interests me, as a psychologist, about the mindset of the people who DO notice a little penis on a naked child in a children's book and think dirty thoughts enough to "ban" it, or even put underpants on it. What exactly are they thinking????

5 Red Pandas said...

Here's a link to the current ALA code of ethics guideline on a child's rights in the library:

This only holds if that particular library adopts the ALA's code of ethics as their own, but under this guideline young Rhian would have been able to borrow all the mysteries she desired without any raised eyebrows.