Talking About Censorship: A Primer

Leila Roy

Staff Writer

After a lengthy stint as a children's bookseller, Leila Roy took a step sideways into the library world. There, she does the same thing she did as a bookseller—matching people with stories in any and all formats, whether print, audio, film, comic, or some newfangled hybrid—but doesn't have to deal with changing the tape on the cash register. She lives in Maine with her husband, where she runs her small-town library and occasionally tries to rescue wildlife from her cat, who is a murderer. In addition to talking books at her long-running blog, Bookshelves of Doom, she's a weekly columnist at Kirkus Reviews. Blog: Bookshelves of Doom Twitter: @bkshelvesofdoom

According to a recent survey conducted by the Harris Poll, Americans are more comfortable with the idea of banning books than in the past:

In just four years, the percentage of Americans who believe there are any books that should be banned has increased by more than half: 28% believe this to be the case today, vs. 18% in 2011.

Before we get super-worried, though, let’s take the words of Peter Hart, communications director for the National Coalition Against Censorship, into account:

“We have to be careful about the conclusions that can be drawn from it because the questions are so overarching. I think what they’re registering is a…reaction that is indicative of something, but might not be as definitive as the results seem to indicate.”

Regardless of whether or not we’re due for an uptick in book challenges, it’s always worth thinking about how we talk about them. About the language we use during debate and commentary; about whether or not said language facilitates conversation or shuts it down; and if we’re actively listening to and communicating with one another, rather than simply slinging sick burns back and forth.

I’ve kept a close eye on censorship news for over a decade now, and in that time, the following ten points have served me well:

1. There’s a difference between a book challenge and a book banning. A challenge is when a person or group takes issue with a book’s inclusion in a library or a school curriculum and formally requests that it be removed. A ban is what happens when that challenge succeeds, and said book is removed from the library or curriculum as a result of that challenge.

2. This is different from, say, a person asking for their own child to be given an alternate assignment, or even from a person expressing their distaste/disapproval for a book—the key is in whether or not they’re trying to restrict someone else’s access.

3. Collection development—how a library decides to fill its limited space and spend its limited budget—is not the same as censorship. Collection development is about inclusion, censorship is about exclusion. The same goes for curriculum development.

4. Just because a library doesn’t have an item on hand doesn’t mean that they won’t try their damnedest to track it down for you. That’s what interlibrary loan is all about.

5. As a public librarian, it is ABSOLUTELY not my place to tell any patron—regardless of age—what is appropriate reading material. I’m a facilitator, not a gatekeeper.

6. Looking to avoid specific topics or content? I will absolutely do my best to answer your questions and to find the right books for you or your family member.

7. None of this is to say that schools and libraries are infallible: Questioning the inclusion of an adult novel on a third-grade reading list isn’t remotely the same thing as demanding that an adult novel be removed from an AP literature course. And again, simply asking questions isn’t the same as attempting to restrict access.

8. It makes for great headlines, but slinging the word “ban” around willy-nilly can be interpreted as hyperbolic and inaccurate—I don’t use it as a descriptor unless I’m talking about a challenge that has actually succeeded.

9. For censorship to generate sales, there has to be a LOT of publicity, and according to the American Library Association, “research suggests that for each challenge reported there are as many as four or five that go unreported”. In other words, the idea that censorship promotes sales is a fallacy:

10. Name-calling is never helpful.

Other suggestions?