Banned Books Week celebrates freedom of choice

Local bookstore plans to highlight previously banned works

Posted: Thursday, September 24, 2009

Book banning. It's a concept most of us don't think about much, if at all, spoiled as we are by an all-options-all-the-time glut of information and access. But the attempted suppression of printed works isn't as uncommon in this country as one might think.

Banned Books Week, promoted by the American Library Association since 1982, begins Saturday, and helps bring this broad concept down to the level of a community issue. According to the ALA, 513 titles were formally challenged in 2008, a number that they say is probably only a quarter of the real total, as many cases go unreported.

"I think people think it doesn't happen anymore, but it does," said Hearthside Books manager Katrina Pearson, "Sometimes quite close to us."

Pearson spearheads a local awareness campaign through the bookstore, creating window and store displays, and printing and distributing lists of this year's most frequently challenged books.

Though it is called Banned Books Week, the campaign encompasses challenged books as well as those that are actually banned. Challenged refers to an attempt to remove or restrict access to a particular title, while banned indicates such a challenge was successful. Most complaints are made in school libraries and classrooms and, to a lesser degree, public libraries.

Mark Choate, Juneau School Board president, said that to his knowledge, there have been no challenges to the Juneau school system's library books since he joined the board in 2006. There was, however, some "consternation" about elementary-level curricular materials that discussed non-traditional family structures.

"There was never a discussion about banning certain books, rather it was how do (the offended parties) opt out of the program," he said. The board resolved the issue, he said.

According to Barbara Berg, director of the Juneau Public Libraries, offense can be taken on both sides. She said posters about Banned Books Week have in the past sparked misplaced outrage in some patrons who believed the poster depicted titles that had been challenged on a local, rather than national, level.

"People get offended that their fellow citizens are challenging (certain books)," she said. In Juneau, that kind of energy is usually unnecessary.

Berg, director since 2003, said that there have been formal complaints about certain titles but that they are relatively rare. In 2004, a Request for Reconsideration was brought against the children's book "King and King" by Linda De Haan and Stern Nijland, a story that involves a prince who doesn't have much interest in princesses and eventually falls for another prince.

A formal request such as this generates an involved process.A committee of three is formed to read the work in itsentirety. The committee then researches critical reviews and then discusses the book before making a recommendation to the director. All this must be done as expeditiously as possible, Berg said, in most cases within two weeks.

"King and King" was retained on the library shelves.

Often a complaint about a book can be resolved through discussion with a librarian about how books are selected and the library's position on keeping a diverse, unrestricted range of material, Berg said. In some cases, a Request for Reconsideration can result in a book being moved to a different section of the library.

Parents who are concerned about what their children are reading or checking out should accompany them to the library, Berg said. There is no labeling system to indicate when a book contains potentially offensive material. In addition, with more than 107,000 titles in the system, there is no way librarians can have firsthand knowledge of every work on the shelves.

Privacy rules dictate that titles of checked-out books should not be released to anyone, including a child's parents, she said.

Provocative material is to be expected in a collection that is deliberately diverse. However, Berg respects the views of those who complain, and recognizes that a complaint usually arises from a deep personal concern.

"Usually something has really upset them, and we respect that, but we ask them to respect that not everybody might have the same reaction."

Berg said that the library makes no claim to be a sanitized intellectual environment.

"The library is perceived as a safe place, but it is not a safe place in terms of ideas," she said. "It's a marketplace of ideas."

Between 400 and 600 books are challenged every year across the country. Since 2001, 33 percent of those titles have been challenged due to sexually explicit material, 27 percent for offensive language, 19 percent for material unsuitable for the age group where it is placed, 12 percent for violence, 7 percent for homosexual content.

In addition to the top ten list of challenged books (see sidebar), this year's list includes: "Twilight" by Stephenie Meyer, "The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian" by Sherman Alexie, "Black Hawk Down: A Story of Modern War" by Mark Bowden, "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil," by John Berendt, "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" by Mark Twain and "The Catcher in the Rye," By J.D. Salinger.

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