The Daily Need

Banned Books Week: Putting censorship on the map


View Book Bans and Challenges, 2007-2010 in a larger map

Updated | October 3 Banned Books Week may have ended on Saturday, but with the social and political unrest currently roiling the country, free speech advocates are already planning their next steps in the fight against censorship. And new digital tools are helping them do it.

Organizers of the 28-year-old campaign, including the American Library Association, documented more than 460 challenges to books across the country in 2009, and advocates say that figure is only a fraction of the total number of complaints registered against books across the country.

Some say Banned Books Week can be a predictable affair — an annual cause célèbre that stirs up a small but reliable amount of controversy. But the digital age has, in many ways, reinvigorated the movement, affording intellectual freedom fighters the ability to more closely analyze and dissect the social and political trends behind censorship. For one, the ALA has mapped out the roughly 460 book challenges that were reported last year, allowing researchers to identify the areas of the country where challenges are more common, or where anti-censorship librarians are more vigilant.

The next step in this data mining project, ALA officials say, is to correlate trends in censorship to social or political movements, like the backlash against Muslim-Americans or the Tea Party. The ALA has, for example, received requests for more specific data on censorship attempts, such as the number of people behind a specific challenge to a given book. “We are getting increased numbers of inquiries from researchers and scholars to do this, because they want to try to tie it to the rise in hate crimes, to the rise in the Tea Party movement, any number of things,” said Barbara Jones, director of the ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom.

Right now, the points on the map represent only cumulative challenges — they don’t specify whether one or 50 people were behind the complaint. Jones said the ALA would start collecting that data in the next several years to track the emergence of so-called “pressure groups” that may be mounting organized challenges to specific books on political or religious grounds.

“One of the things I’m looking at carefully is, are there more people behind one of these blue tabs on the map? It used to be one parent or one concerned citizen. What I’ll be interested in doing is seeing if there are more people behind one challenge,” Jones said. “I am concerned, looking at what’s happening in this country right now, that that may well happen, that people will band together and decide, ‘Hey, let’s have a Saturday trip to our library, to see if there are any problematic books here that challenge our traditional values.’”

As Jones is quick to point out, it’s not just conservative groups that have challenged books over the years: Feminists, for example, have criticized negative portrayals of women in literature and attempted to have those books censored as well. But the political upheaval churning the nation at the moment is predominantly conservative, and the list of most-challenged books seems to bear that out. Decency complaints dominate the list of reasons for challenges. In more than one instance, “homosexuality” is offered as a reason for an attempt at censorship.

Whether those complaints are specific to contemporary social and political trends, like the Tea Party movement, or whether they are the perennial concerns of officious parents remains to be seen. The data that will be mined with the help of advanced digital tools over the next several years will likely be dissected endlessly by historians and scholars, and could paint a fascinating portrait of America’s conflicting allegiances to cultural values and freedom of speech.

Of course, attacks on freedom of speech are nothing new, and neither are “pressure groups” that challenge certain books on political or religious grounds. Not even the ALA, a coalition of librarians, is immune from criticism. Conservative groups and religious activists have often accused the organization of endorsing books that subvert traditional “family values.”

Jones says those critics are missing the point.

“There have always been pressure groups, especially religious groups. There are ‘family values’ groups that do this. We’ve had some pressure from those sources,” Jones said. “It often puzzles us because, to us, reading should be a family value.”

 
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