Happy Banned Books Week, librarians and readers! Last week, I mentioned that our library would be hosting our second annual Read-Out on the library lawn. I’m pleased to share that this was a huge success. Students, faculty, and staff read from their favorite banned and challenged books; we had people reading in Mandarin, Spanish, and Braille, and several students read from ebooks on their cell phones. It was a glorious time for all. And there was pizza.
In my opening remarks, I asked our audience to think about why we, as members of an academic community in which content is rarely or ever banned, should care about Banned Books Week. How does this affect a higher education setting? Of course, we could draw connections to college campuses as spaces where censorship has no place and where we should strive to celebrate the freedom to read every day. I could tie Banned Books Week themes to the mission of my college and our quest to produce global citizens and responsible leaders. But, I wanted people to think about this for themselves.
One reason why Banned Books Week should matter to colleges and universities is an issue of diversity. This piece in Time magazine highlights the fact that 9 out of 10 of the most challenged books of 2015 deal with issues of diversity (The one that doesn’t? 50 Shades of Grey. Who’d have thought?). That’s a word that inspires a lot of interpretation, but ALA defines it well here. We’re used to seeing the same old suspects on the banned list from year to year. We see books that are challenged due to “sexual content” or “unsuited for age group” time and time again. But, compare the top 10 list from 2006, just 10 years ago, to the 2015 list. You’ll see a marked difference in the diversity of voices and content between these two lists. It’s also telling that many of the reasons reported for challenges in 2015 (homosexuality, religious and political viewpoints, sex education) reflect some of the most divisive topics at play today and those that get a lot of media traction.
This shift toward seeking to ban books that highlight issues of diversity says something about where we are in this moment. It speaks volumes about our fears and the perceived threat from those whose experiences and stories were for so long stifled, censored, and difficult to obtain. Banned Books Week is a cause for celebration, but it’s also a chance to express a diversity of voices and perspectives. For a lot of people, children in particular, books are the first place they see representations of people who look like them. And, sadly, books may be the only place that some people see positive representations of people who look like them. Highlighting challenges to our freedom to read generates discussion, debate, and reflection. This is good. It helps us understand who we are and where we’re going as a society. The things we fear and the things we honor change over time; books reflect these changes.
So, enjoy your freedom to read, and ask yourselves why Banned Books Week matters!