The Corner

Banned Book B.S. Cont’d

Elaine Magliaro, a guest blogger at Jonathan Turley’s site, comes to the rescue of the Banned Book Week crowd and the effort is entirely underwhelming. There’s a great deal of nonsense here. I’ll focus on just a few points. A big chunk of her response restates my op-ed while casting her incomprehension as if it’s a rebuttal. She writes:

Evidently, Goldberg thinks that books which have been removed from the shelves of public and school libraries “due to pressure from someone who isn’t a librarian or a teacher” don’t count as “banned books.” He appears to believe they can only be considered banned books if they have been banned on a national level. So what if books are removed from school and public libraries? One can always get a copy at a book store or from Right?

Goldberg got into the numbers of challenged books to demonstrate how “overhyped” stories about banned books are. He wrote that reported challenges had dropped from 513 in 2008 to 348 in 2010—and that the “historic norm is a mere 400 to 500 bans or challenges” a year. He said there are almost 100,00 public schools in this country educating approximately 50 million students—as well as 33,000 private schools and 10,000 public libraries. According to Goldberg’s math—if there were “500 parent-driven ‘bans or challenges’ in a given year in public schools, that would mean for every 200 public schools, or every 100,000 students, at least one parent even complained about an age-inappropriate book. What an epidemic!”

Reported challenges…a mere 400 to 500 bans or challenges…only one book challenge per 100,000 students. What’s the fuss all about? Why should people be concerned? Maybe the American Library Association, public libraries, and schools in this country should only begin to worry when the censorship, challenging, and banning of books becomes an epidemic. Why address the problem when the numbers are so small?

Well, one could conclude that many book challenges aren’t reported. As noted on the ALA website: “We do not claim comprehensiveness in recording challenges as research suggests that for each challenge reported there are as many as four or five that go unreported.” And I have little doubt that there are many librarians, teachers, readers, and defenders of the First Amendment who feel that an historic norm of 400 to 500 challenges a year are a few hundred too many.

The insinuation that the book-banning threat is a much bigger problem because of all the cases the ALA doesn’t know about is incredibly lame (land shark attacks are statistically very low, even non-existent, but that’s no argument for complacency given all the cases we don’t know about!).

The ALA has been saying this for decades, even as the annual rate of reported cases has remained remarkably constant — and low! — for about a quarter century. Moreover, many of the reported cases listed by the ALA are little more than disputes over whether a book is age-appropriate. These disputes don’t end in books being pulled from shelves. They are merely “challenges” — which the BBWers lump in with “bans.” If your seven-year-old comes home with a copy of Lady Chatterley’s Lover and you complain that it’s not age appropriate, your “challenge” gets lumped in with the total number of ominous “bans and challenges.” 

Then there’s this:

 “When a library removes a book from its shelves because someone disapproves of the ideas or opinions contained in the book, that is censorship. When it is done by publicly funded schools and libraries — government agencies — it is a violation of the First Amendment.”

Raphael said we should remember that when a book is removed from a library it is an act of censorship that affects an entire community—not just one individual or one family. She also said that public libraries “serve everyone, including those who are too young or too poor to buy their own books or own a computer.” She added that the reason librarians and library users celebrate BBW is as “a testament to the strength of our freedom in the United States. We celebrate the freedom to read because we all know that we are so fortunate to live in a country that protects our freedom to choose what we want to read. If you doubt this, just ask anyone from a totalitarian society. That is why we draw attention to acts of censorship that chill the freedom to read.”

Ultimately if you find this treacle persuasive then there’s little I can say to convince you otherwise. If you want to call it “censorship” to pull a book from a library that’s unsuitable for kids or that doesn’t deserve shelf-space compared to a better book, fine call it censorship. But if that’s the case, then there’s nothing unwholesome, dangerous, or sinister about censorship whatsoever. As to whether it violates the First Amendment, that strikes me as nonsense too. Librarians have somehow convinced themselves that they are the final constitutional authority about what should or should not be in libraries, often including relatively unfettered access to online porn.

Oh, and to answer Magliaro’s question, my answer is Yes, I think it might be a good thing if there were more challenges to librarians’ judgment about what books kids should be reading. Newspapers have a much more obvious and direct connection to the First Amendment, but we don’t consider harsh letters to the editor — i.e. “challenges” to editorial policy — to be censorious. But when a parent questions the judgment of a librarian that’s supposed to be an ominous threat to free speech? That’s bunk.

To me, it’s a sign that parents are actually engaged in what their kids are learning at school. Any such engagement will fuel disagreements. Bullying parents by claiming that any disagreement with a librarian is censorious does no one any good.


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