Guest Blog by Stephen Spann, Director of the Vise Library
“Banned Books Week” is an annual awareness campaign sponsored by the American Library Association. It was started in 1982 when the Association of American Publishers contacted the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom with the idea of identifying banned books for the public (Marking, 2006). Its creation was a reaction against an increase in attempted book bans in schools, libraries, and bookstores.
The purpose of the week is to advocate for and celebrate the freedom to read and to highlight books that have been banned. Banned Books Week is not so much a particular concern of academic libraries on college campuses. It is more of an issue for K-12 schools and public libraries. However, academic librarians stand with their fellow librarians in recognizing and supporting Banned Books Week.
PEN America is a nonprofit advocacy organization that promotes the freedom to write, and also tracks book banning. During the first half of the 2022-23 school year PEN America’s Index of School Book Bans lists 1,477 instances of individual books banned, affecting 874 unique titles. Those numbers represent an increase of 28 percent compared to the prior six months, January through June 2022. The vast majority of the bans took place in Texas, Florida, Missouri, Utah, and South Carolina.
Reactions to and further developments about Banned Books Week have occurred. For example, an analysis by The Washington Post found that 60% of the challenges to books nationwide were made by just 11 people (Natanson, 2023). Further, an analysis by The Boston Globe found that a large number of the books on the list were not actually banned, but only received challenges from parents concerned about their children’s exposure to violence and sex in books available in school libraries (Jacoby, 2001).
Challenges to books being held in libraries know no political bounds. Challenges from conservatives on the right are generally made on the basis of violence, sexually explicit material, and LGBTQ themes. Challenges from liberals on the left are generally made on the basis of a lack of 21st Century sensitivities to racial and LGBTQ issues (for example “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”).
Wherever your sympathies may lie, take a moment this week to think about the importance of the freedom to read. What if the British had stopped the publication and distribution of “Common Sense” by Thomas Paine?
Jacoby, Jeff. (September 27, 2001). “Book-Banning, Real and “Imaginary.” The Boston Globe.
Marking 25 years of Banned Books Week: an interview with Judith Krug." (2006). Curriculum Review. 46 (1).
Meehan, K. & Friedman, J. (2023). “Update on Book Bans in the 2022-2023 School Year Shows Expanded Censorship of Themes Centered on Race, History, Sexual Orientation and Gender.” Retrieved from https://pen.org/report/banned-in-the-usa-state-laws-supercharge- book-suppression-in-schools.
Natanson, Hannah. (2023). “She Challenges One Book a Week.” Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/education/2023/09/28/virginia-frequent-school-book-challenger-spotsylvania/.