This is the Thirtieth Anniversary of Banned Books Week and I’m not sure whether to be pleased that people have been officially fighting censorship for at least this long or completely frustrated that we still have to remind people that, as the Supreme Court told the School Board of Island Trees, New York, in 1982, it isn’t particularly legal to keep the public from accessing books like Slaughterhouse Five “simply because they dislike the ideas contained in those books.”
Not even if they’re “‘anti-American, anti-Christian, anti-Semitic and just plain filthy.”
The American Library Association, as you might suspect, is all over Banned Books Week, and has provided a terrific timeline of Banned Books, highlighting one challenged title for each of the thirty years.
Even after all these years in a public library setting, I wasn’t expecting The Night Kitchen by Maurice Sendak, though the reasons are about as facepalm-inducing as one might imagine.
But it’s difficult to predict every little thing that might enrage other people’s sensibilities—though there are certain subjects that are practically guaranteed to do so.
About twenty years ago, when I was working for the summer at my hometown public library, a patron came up to the desk with a biography, meant for adult readers, of a movie actor who shall remain nameless because I honestly can’t remember who it was. The patron said he wanted me to “be aware” of something in the book and opened it, not to a torn page or the impression of a bacon bookmark or even commentary rendered in magic marker,* but to three very specific publisher ads in the back.
Two of these ads were for annotated filmographies of gay cinema and one was for a book about a male character struggling with his sexual orientation in Hollywood. The wording and images in these ads were not, as I recall, explicit.
He also told me that he was sure the person who had ordered the book for the library had no idea that sort of thing was in this otherwise fine biography of a fine actor, but he wanted me to be aware that it was “just in case someone else saw them.”
I gave him a complaint form, which was standard procedure, and took the book away, even though he said he would put it back. This was also standard procedure— we had been told how creative people could get when it came to sparing other people from items they didn’t like.** Or didn’t want other people to like.
What I did not say to him—because I didn’t know how to express it and had no authority to do so—was that no one was forcing him or anyone else to buy the books in those ads or to approve of them. The library could not control what publishers advertised in their own publications and was not going to remove pages from a book out of fear that someone might know that certain books exist or are available for purchase.
It is not the place of a public library to support or disapprove of any particular concept.*** It is the place of a library to make a variety of fiction and non-fiction materials available to the public, who are then free to choose what they wish to read, view, and believe.
One’s responsibility to protect others from ideas and concepts ends at the boundaries of one’s own immediate family.
But I didn’t have to say any of this, because the library board said it all when the patron attended the next open meeting and asked what the library was planning to do about the “filthy things” in the book.
“So you want people to know that the library supports this kind of perverted lifestyle?” asked the patron.
“We want the public to know that we do not support censorship,” said the Board president.
It’s as simple as that.
*Librarians have all seen worse, believe me. If you’re reading to take your mind off a heavy cold, please use a tissue and turn your head when you sneeze, okay? Snot is intended to be nature’s superglue.
**And from typos, too. If you ever feel compelled to physically correct the grammar and punctuation in a library book, please don’t. I do sympathize, but it’s still considered vandalism—and to be honest, you aren’t always right.
*** Except possibly for the arguments against tax levies for public libraries, because c’mon people, seriously?