This weekend marks the conclusion of Banned Books Week, a festival of moral preening in which students, librarians, teachers and others congratulate themselves for bravely demanding that various books not be removed from library (typically school library) shelves.
The event ties in to basic modern tropes of progress and freedom. After all, says the common wisdom, who burned books? Nazis. And crazy people in the middle ages who were afraid of progress. We don’t want to be like them, do we?
Of course, choosing not to have a book in your collection is not really “banning” it (as in making it forbidden to own) nor is it “censoring” it (removing parts). So to start with much of the furor over the “banning” of books is overwrought.
But it is true that, with a little looking, one can find really absurd examples of books being pulled from library collections in order to avoid controversy. One standard complaint is of religious parents of a certain stripe asking that fantasy books such as Harry Potter be removed from childrens sections or school libraries because of their portrayal of magic. Other “bans” are oddly PC. For instance, the edition of Little Red Riding Hood featured in the above anti-gun ad was apparently removed from the school libraries of two California schools some decades ago because Little Red Riding Hood’s basket of food included a bottle of wine. Huck Finn is sometimes removed from school libraries because of it’s constant use of the word “nigger”. Yet other “bans” involve books which contain descriptions of violence or sex which people are concerned are not appropriate for the age group of children for whom the collection is maintained.
However, I believe all this fuss ends up ignoring a basic point: Those who are responsible for assembling a collection of books (whether for their own enjoyment or for that of a some wider group) have an intellectual and moral responsibility to populate that collection with books which are suited to its purpose. If it’s a collection of books specifically for children, this means selecting books which are both age appropriate and which are not likely to damage their intended audience.
This last, clearly, is going to leave room for plenty of controversy. For instance, some parents believe that Harry Potter, The Hobbit and even the Narnia books are genuinely damaging to children because they are fantasy. I think this is utter nonsense. These kind of disagreements, like all disagreements as to what’s good and what’s true, will necessarily lead to certain types of controversy and struggle.
However, the fact that it leads to controversy doesn’t mean that the basic principle is not worthwhile. I think that if advocates thought about this a bit, they would realize that their objection is not to book “banning” but rather to people with different standards than themselves being in charge of which books will and will not be in the collection of a given library. Would the champions of Banned Book Week really fight to make sure that kids had access to a picture book entitled “The Darkies Need Our Help” in which young readers learned that black people were governed by animal instincts and could only be civilized by the paternalistic guidance of white people? Or how about “They Eat Gentiles” in which young readers were taught, as if factual, the blood libel claim that Jews kidnapped, killed and ate gentile children as part of obscene rites?
I would hope that it would be clear to anyone that there are at least some books which it would not be a good idea include the collection you manage for public use — especially given that in the reality of fixed budgets and space, including a book which you are convinced is bad means not having space and money to include books which are better.
This duty will require more active intervention in cases where the collection is being maintained for a specific purpose, for instance a children’s collection or a collection which is intended to provide good information on a specific topic.
Someone tasked to maintain a children’s collection has the duty to include only books which he reasonably believes are good reading material for children. Choosing not to include a book because you think it’s untrue or offensive is a good action (as is choosing not to include books which you simply think are inaccurate, badly written, dull or ugly.)
A person who is responsible for a subject specific library also has a responsibility to use discretion. For instance, when a parish maintains a library for its parishioners use, I think there’s an implicit assumption that the library will contain books that will allow readers to learn about the Church. Thus, the person in charge of that collection has a duty to select books which accurately convey Catholic teaching. That may mean that the collection isn’t as exciting as someone interested in theological speculation might like, but that’s not the purpose of the collection.
Most of the claims of book banning center around purpose-specific collections such as school libraries and children’s sections of public libraries, but even with the general section of a public library, I think there’s clearly a duty to exert a degree of quality control. Yes, to a great extent public libraries are simply in the business of stocking books which people want to read. In the non-fiction sections, I would hope there’s some effort put into acquiring primarily books that are accurate. And frankly, I think it would be a good thing if there were more emphasis put on quality in other areas as well. The online catalog of our local city library tells me that it has 25 copies of Fifty Shades of Grey (six of which are listed as “lost or stolen”) plus three copies of the audiobook version and more in the large print and Spanish language sections. This from the library which didn’t have a single copy of Tristam Shandy or Far From The Madding Crowd. I don’t demand that libraries not stock smutty books, but if you want to read badly written smut, I would think the library might leave you to pick it up on your own at least until after it’s managed to stock basic classics.