Banned Books Week will be observed September 23-29, 2018. The annual event focuses a spotlight on the never-ending attempts to censor books; however, other types of library resources are also challenged. The non-book censorship attempts may not get as much attention, but it is not unusual to have challenges to non-book materials like library displays that can result in the cancellation of author school visits. There were 354 challenges tracked by ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom in all types of libraries in 2017. Here’s the numerical breakdown:
- 67% challenges to books
- 18% challenges to databases, magazines, files, and games
- 7% challenges to programs
- 4% challenges to displays (ALA, Censorship).
To gain a national perspective of censorship attempts, I contacted Kristin Pekoll, assistant director for the Office for Intellectual Freedom. Currently she is managing 30 open cases (for all types of libraries), 18 of which involve books, 4 relate to library displays, and 8 are associated with library programs (Pekoll).
Book Challenge Overview
What’s happening generally in schools with book challenges? Kristin reported, “There are challenges in elementary schools to George, This Day in June, A Day in the Life of Marlon Bundo, which all include LGBT content. In middle schools, we’re seeing challenges to The Diary of a Young Girl, Chains, Drama, and Thirteen Reasons Why… In high schools, the challenges include a lot of previously most frequently challenged books, including The Kite Runner, Fun Home, Thirteen Reasons Why, Looking for Alaska, To Kill a Mockingbird, and Perks of Being A Wallflower” (Pekoll).
Censorship can take many forms. Kristin sees a variety of ways in which students’ access to specific books is limited or lost. Students may be prohibited from reading specific page(s) of a book, or a permanent maker is used to conceal part or all of the text in a controversial passage. In other cases, school librarians are directed to remove a book from the collection by the district administrator without due process (Pekoll). These censorship strategies do not involve using a school’s reconsideration process to review a challenged book, but rather circumvent board-approved policy. If a challenge has occurred in your school library, report it to the OIF using the online challenge report form. All personal and institutional information is kept confidential (ALA, Challenge).
Challenges to non-book resources are not new; but it was surprising to OIF staff when in spring 2017, they received their first report of a challenge to a library database in a school in Colorado. An OIF Blog post from November 2017 describes the circumstances, EBSCO’s response, and information about the national group providing information used by challengers. Kristin Pekoll commented, “Library [subscription] databases fall within a school’s selection policy, but many people don’t think of them as a library resource that should be subject to a reconsideration procedure if there’s a complaint” (Pekoll). The Selection and Reconsideration Policy Toolkit for Public, School, and Academic Libraries, completed in 2018, includes a sample form (scroll down for school form) for reconsideration of all types of school library resources including databases, apps, and streaming video.
Complaints about Displays
Displays are used in libraries to draw attention to resources such as new books, a grouping of materials on a specific topic, or items that share a common attribute such as having been challenged in libraries. Kristin has found that objections to displays in school libraries usually occur because of their topics. For example, displays centered on “Black Lives Matter, Halloween, and Great Queer Reads” have all provoked complaints (Pekoll). Banned books displays draw strong negative reactions in some schools. Display-related protests may also be related to a specific title (or cover) of a book such as Two Boys Kissing. Kristin considers oral complaints and demands (or directives) to remove a display to be content or viewpoint censorship (Pekoll). Challenges to displays or exhibits in school libraries can be reported to OIF using the online “Challenge Reporting” form.
Protests about Author Visits
Author visits are eagerly anticipated by students, teachers, and the librarian, who has often spent much effort arranging for this learning opportunity. Despite student interest and excitement, not all author programs occur. Imagine author Kate Messner’s surprise when her visit to a school, scheduled many months in advance, was cancelled the day before the event. Messner is the author of The Seventh Wish, a story that includes a thread about the impact of drug addiction in a family, and she blogged about being disinvited. Kristin Pekoll firmly believes that “canceling an author because of fear of controversy, or because of the content of their books, is definitely censorship. Restricting the topics of a speaker silences the first-hand perspective for students” (Pekoll).
Under the Children’s Internet Protection Act, school districts that receive some types of federal funding are required to place filters on computers that access the Internet. The 2014 ALA report “Fencing Out Knowledge” described how overly restrictive filtering prevents students and teachers from reaching legitimate educational and constitutionally protected online content and impacts student learning. On Wednesday, September 26, school librarians and the K-12 educational community will observe the eighth annual Banned Website Awareness Day, created to raise awareness of excessive filtering. This event also presents an opportunity for school librarians to advocate that acceptable use policies include a process for students to access information when online resources are inaccurately blocked. AASL has posted resources for planning your Banned Websites Awareness Day activities.
As you prepare for Banned Books Week, expand your concept of censorship beyond books. Consider the other ways in which students’ choice of reading, access to information, and opportunity for educational experiences are curtailed in schools and school libraries. As always, the Office for Intellectual Freedom has great resources for you to use. Make your first stop the Banned Books Week free downloads page with graphics, infographics, quotes, coloring sheets, GIFS, video, and more. Use Banned Books Week to kick off your advocacy campaign to protect your students’ intellectual freedom.
American Library Association. Office for Intellectual Freedom. “Censorship by the Numbers.” Infographic. http://www.ala.org/advocacy/sites/ala.org.advocacy/files/content/Infographic.BeyondBooks.png (accessed August 26, 2018).
American Library Association. Office for Intellectual Freedom. “Challenge Reporting Form.” http://www.ala.org/tools/challengesupport/report/. (accessed August 24, 2018).
Kristin Pekoll, email messages to author, August 17 and August 27, 2018.
Messner, Kate. “A Blog Post I Never Thought I’d be Writing on Book Release Day.” June 7, 2016. http://www.katemessner.com/a-blog-post-i-never-thought-id-be-writing-on-book-release-day/ (accessed August 24, 2018).
AASL. “Banned Websites Awareness Day logo.” Available for use by educational institutions and individuals for educational purposes. http://www.ala.org/aasl/sites/ala.org.aasl/files/content/aaslissues/bwad/BWAD-2018_webbadge.jpg/.
ALA. “Censorship By the Numbers.” Artwork used courtesy of ALA. http://www.ala.org/advocacy/sites/ala.org.advocacy/files/content/Infographic.BeyondBooks.png/.
Author: Helen Adams
A former school librarian in Wisconsin, Helen Adams is an online senior lecturer for Antioch University-Seattle in the areas of intellectual freedom, privacy, library ethics, and copyright. A member of the AASL Knowledge Quest Advisory Board, the ALA Intellectual Freedom Committee, and a KQ blogger, she is the author of Protecting Intellectual Freedom and Privacy in Your School Library (Libraries Unlimited, 2013) and contributor to The Many Faces of School Library Leadership (2nd edition, Libraries Unlimited, 2017). Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.