Every year, hundreds of books in libraries across the country are challenged for content that some deem controversial or inappropriate. The American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom reported a 17 percent increase in the number of reported book censorship complaints in 2016.
Librarians like Amanda Melilli, head of the Teacher Development and Resources Library at UNLV, remain vigilant in the fight against censorship. In honor of Banned Books Week (Sept. 24-30), Melilli discusses the role of libraries in the fight against censorship, equipping educators with tools to engage differing viewpoints and ideas, and her own favorite “banned books.”
What is Banned Books Week and why is it important?
Banned Books Week is a celebration of intellectual freedom; the ability of individuals to read and pursue whatever information they need or want. It’s a time to reflect on the censorship cases of the prior year and raise awareness of the importance of not restricting access to information. Many of us assume that book bannings are a thing of the past, but challenges and the removal of books from libraries and schools still happen on a regular basis.
How common is it today for a library to receive challenges to books on its shelves?
It’s fairly difficult to calculate because so many challenges go unreported. In 2016, the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom recorded 323 challenges; however, it is estimated that 82-97 percent of challenges are never reported.
Additionally, some libraries are more vulnerable to challenges than others. Academic libraries, which deal mostly with adult populations, have a drastically lower number of challenges each year than public or school libraries. When individuals or groups request that books or other materials be removed from library collections or a school’s curriculum, it’s typically because they feel that the content is not suitable for children or young adults. This is evident in the book challenges statistics for 2016 with 49 percent of challenges taking place in public libraries, 30 percent in schools, and 20 percent in school libraries.
In addition, there is tremendous pressure on some librarians to self-censor collections and not collect anything that could be deemed “controversial.” In the 2016 School Library Journal Controversial Book Survey, nine out of 10 school librarians reported not purchasing a book for their collection because of potentially controversial topics — the top three reasons being sexual content, profanity, and LGBTQ content. We need to support our educators so that they can create diverse and meaningful collections for everyone without fear of repercussions.
What role do libraries and librarians play in ensuring users maintain access to books some may consider controversial?
Libraries are for everyone! They are safe places for individuals to access information that they may not have the ability to access anywhere else. It is our professional responsibility to make sure our collections meet the needs of the communities we serve and not censor our collections based on what individuals deem to be appropriate. This means that libraries will have materials that some people won’t agree with, but we are here to protect and advocate for the freedom to pursue information without judgment.
This is especially true for children and young adults, whose positions in society as minors greatly hinders their ability to access information. No one should be able to decide what books are or are not appropriate for other people to read; that decision is for each of us to make for ourselves, and libraries are here to support the information needs of individuals.
What are some of your favorite “banned books”?
There are so many! Some of the more commonly challenged books that have had the most impact on me as an individual would be The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien, Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic by Alison Bechdel, Beloved by Toni Morrison, and Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston. However, it should be noted that these are some of my all-time favorite books that just so happen to be frequently challenged, and I think many other readers out there would also find their favorite books on the most challenged lists.
Why is it important to expose ourselves to different ideas or viewpoints that might be contained in controversial books?
I think we should first be careful of using the term “controversial books” because what one person sees as controversial, another person would see as being completely reasonable. The majority of challenged books are being labeled “controversial” only because they contain content that some individuals and groups think is not acceptable for other groups, but this does not mean that these titles aren’t developmentally appropriate for their target audience.
At our annual Banned Books Buffet event where students get a chance to engage with challenged books, the most common reaction is amazement that some of their favorite books have been challenged. We do a lot of research on individual books to figure out why someone found them offensive. Although a book may be challenged, it does not mean that its content is universally considered controversial.
Accessing materials with different ideas and viewpoints is a critical component in helping us grow as individuals. Books enable us to experience the world and diverse perspectives regardless of the restrictions of our everyday lives. They help us build our identities and provide us a safe place to engage with the world.
In children’s literature, there’s an analogy that there are mirror books and window books. Mirror books give us further perspectives on ourselves and provide validation as individuals. Window books enable us to look into the lives of people who are different from ourselves and help us develop empathy for others. The problem with restricting access to specific books is that it is simultaneously denying someone their mirror and others their window; one book can mean many different things to different people.
As head of the Teacher Development & Resources Library, you help current and future teachers prepare for their time in the classroom. How does the library prepare educators to deal with censorship?
The primary way that we help is by developing information literacy skills in our current and future educators. Finding impactful children’s and young adult materials to fit the needs of individual PreK-12 students and classrooms is a complex process that requires educators to be expert researchers. They must not only identify specific books from the thousands of new titles being published each year but also evaluate them for appropriateness and effectiveness for their students. This includes being able to articulate and justify the reasoning behind their choices.
It’s tempting to think that there is a short list of books that will work for every student and every class, but that’s simply not the case. Each group of students will be different and respond to individual books differently. Helping our educators to be thoughtful, reflective researchers will better position them to defend their classroom material choices.
We also work diligently to provide education on censorship and the importance of fighting against it so that our educators are better informed on the complexity of censorship in schools. This is seen through events like the Banned Books Buffet and our continuous emphasis on the importance of diverse children’s and young adult literature being incorporated into the PreK-12 curriculum. Although Banned Books Week is just one week, we talk to our educators year round on censorship issues through our library instruction sessions or presentations at events like the Gayle A. Zeiter Children’s and Young Adult Literature Conference. We’re here to support Las Vegas educators, to help them find the information and resources that they need, so that they can provide the best support and educational experiences to their own students.