Shining a Light in the Darkness: Celebrating Banned Books Week

By Donna Forbis

Each year, the last week in September is designated as “Banned Books Week,” a time to reflect on the history of censorship and a time to actively fight those who would stymie the free flow of information in today’s world.  As librarians, we sometimes have a love/hate relationship with Banned Books Week.  Our hearts want us to shout from the rooftops, “Everyone should read these books!”, but our minds fret over whether drawing attention to questionable content that may be lurking on our shelves will offend some of our more conservative patrons.  How do we approach this tightrope and successfully cross it, even without a net?

I once worked in a small, rural library whose patrons consisted mostly of pre-teens and retirees.  We operated on limited funds, and accepted many book donations from our patrons.  Our patrons were young readers who devoured everything in our Juvenile sections, and older folks who gravitated toward biographies, thrillers, and cozy mysteries, so those items tended to dominate our shelves.  The number of patrons who read cutting edge fiction were few and far between.

One day, a patron came in, gushing about the books she was reading, and why didn’t the library have them?  She reached into her bag and withdrew the second volume of the 50 Shades of Grey trilogy.  The head librarian remarked that she had not read them herself, but acknowledged their popularity.  The conversation drifted to other topics, but the patron returned the next day with one copy of each of the three books, stating that she was donating them to the library.  She also mentioned she had told several neighbors she was donating the books, so the word was already out on the street that they would soon be available.

After lengthy discussion, the head librarian announced that these books would be added to the catalog, but not shelved with the regular fiction.  They were to be kept behind the desk, available only upon request.  We began checking them out, but shortly thereafter, they mysteriously “disappeared.”  A second set of books showed up to replace the first “missing” set, but those also disappeared.  When the entire catalog was digitized, it was confirmed that none of the books were anywhere in the library, behind the desk or otherwise.  The elderly head librarian had taken it upon herself to graciously accept the donation from one patron, but then remove the books from the catalog so as not to offend any others.

Maybe that head librarian though she was acting in the patrons’ best interest by not making the books available, but her argument was weakened by the lengthy wait list of patrons wanting to read them.  It is just this kind of thinking that leads to books being challenged or banned – well-intentioned people with misguided actions deciding to be the arbiters of taste and decency for those around them.  When we choose to take a stand against the censorship of the printed word, we are acknowledging that these books may not be for everyone, but there may be truth in some of those pages that our patrons desperately need to hear.

I think about the young girl, without a good female role model, who can benefit from the wisdom and practical information on feminine hygiene imparted in Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.  Somewhere there is a teen, questioning their own sexual identity, that will benefit from reading about Alex in the Magnus Chase series.  Ironically, one of the most frequently challenged books is Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, set in a dystopian future where books are banned and the job of the Fireman is to burn them.  All of these books, and more, have something to offer their readers, whether it is reassurance in their own questionings, or strength to stand up for what is truly in one’s heart.

This brings us back to our desire to celebrate Banned Books Week.  Once again, I am working in a semi-rural library district, where some books just aren’t part of our catalog, but mostly due to space considerations and the availability of titles through inter-library loan from nearby, larger districts within our metropolitan area.  As I was going from branch to branch, wrapping books in brown paper and adding colorful emoji stickers to represent the reasons for each book’s challenges, I was greeted with a mixture of reactions, but almost all positive.  By displaying our “questionable” material in this manner, it highlighted the theme of the week and created a conversation starter for our librarians and patrons to discuss the problems related to censorship.  My favorite reaction came as I was wrapping a copy of Stephen King’s Cujo (offensive language, sexual content, and violent content).  The librarian became giddy and gleeful, declaring that she was happy to see “that book covered up.  I hate that cover, with the snarling mouth and dog fangs!  Can we keep the brown paper on it, even after Banned Books Week is over?”  She had nothing against the content, only the illustration on the front!

Whatever you do to celebrate Banned Books Week, make sure it is more than just, “Here are some controversial books.”  Make it a point to talk to your patrons, engage them on the topic of censorship and freedom of expression, and explain why it is so important to draw attention to challenged books.  You will not get everyone to agree with you on the topic of censorship or book banning, but you will learn more about who your patrons are, giving you greater insight in to how to balance on that tightrope between freedom of intellectual expression and alienation through offense.