Increasingly in recent months, mainstream news media have been covering a spectrum of efforts to ban specific books from libraries as well as efforts intended to counteract attempts to constrain access to those titles. Anger, mockery and condescension exploded across social platforms. Donations to libraries and legal defense funds speedily increased. Concerns and controversy surrounded such titles as Maus, Out of Darkness, Jack of Hearts, 33 Snowfish, and The Breakaways.
A much contested list sought to eliminate 282 titles, each of which were to be rejected on the grounds that the text contained instances of the following – Marxism, incest, pornography, critical race theory (CRT), immoral activities, rebellion against parents, etc.
In early February, you may have seen an editorial written by Chris Freeland of the Internet Archive (IA). The headline on his opinion piece was Librarian’s Lament: Digital Books are not Fireproof, and Freeland’s grievance was that a restriction on lending a digitized copy of Maus had been placed on the Archive, at least in part due to Pantheon Books’ interest in maximizing print sales.
The practical purpose behind Freeland’s (very real) outrage was fostering awareness of the lawsuit facing the Internet Archive over its National Emergency Library. Freeland’s rhetoric equated book-burning (whether by political or religious groups) to the potential for destruction of digitized files, a possible penalty that could be imposed on the IA if publishers bringing the suit were to prevail in court.
“What publishers want is to end libraries' ownership of their own collections…The Internet Archive's lending of a digital version of the book did nothing to diminish Maus's recent surge in sales. Even so, the publisher decided it had to do everything possible to remove the book from our library. It turns out you can burn a digital book.” Despite the rhetoric, refusing to permit circulation of content in a particular format (in this case, digital) when other formats remain available is not necessarily the same thing.
If we say that words matter, then this one topic where the words used matter most particularly.
Efforts to curtail access to content may or may not be honestly well-intentioned, but such efforts have been a part of the American cultural landscape for centuries. Whether one goes back to the Puritans or only look to nineteenth-century anxieties over youthful enthusiasm for Oliver Optic, there is long-standing tension over the suitability of certain types of published content and the degree to which that content may be accessed by a specific subset of the population. The Illinois State Library offers a fascinating account of a book banning controversy from the 1950’s.
Throughout the latter half of the twentieth century, such best-selling authors as Kurt Vonnegut and Judy Blume were scrutinized by educators as well as parents. Fortunately, their books remain on the shelves.
Back in 1990, Rudine Sims-Bishop provided a useful explanatory framework in her article, Mirrors, Windows and Sliding Glass Doors as to why ensuring diversity in a materials collection was so critical. In a diverse population, individuals need to see themselves represented in the content they read (mirror), see appropriate and accurate representations of others in the content that they read (window), and enhance empathy through immersion in another’s potentially very different perception of how the world operates (sliding glass door).
In the words of a 2021 column by Harvey J. Graff in Publishers Weekly, “Despite media comments and condemnation by professors, teachers, librarians, and First Amendment attorneys, these issues are poorly understood. Parents of school-age children are confused. The young, supposedly in the name of their protection, face the greatest threat to intellectual and psychological development. That danger is most severe for the racially and gender diverse, who see themselves being erased or banned.”
Readers of this piece may sense an inappropriate conflating of two distinct issues. The piece by Chris Freeland springs from the request of a specific rights holder to curtail access to a single title in a single format whereas the Texas school district is being asked to do something far more broad in scope – curtail all student access to a lengthy list of titles previously purchased by school libraries within the district. One might deplore Pantheon’s prioritization of driving sales of Maus, but an interest in selling more copies of a book can’t logically equate to an interest in silencing awareness and discussion of the Holocaust experience.
At one time, there had been an electronic version of Maus. A set of CD-ROMs, a relatively positive reviewer said this about the product: “The CD-ROM cannot replace the original books. It would be extremely uncomfortable to read all the pages of Maus off of a screen. In addition, even on a Power Macintosh, there is several second delay (at least) when turning pages. Finally, in order to actually read the page, the image is so large that it must be scrolled. As Spiegelman acknowledges in the CD-ROM, these factors all greatly reduce the readability of comic pages in the medium.”
In a 2011 interview with NPR, Art Spiegelmann, the creator of MAUS, noted distinctive elements with regard to the reading experience of his work. "...comics are really sight-specific. They're made for a specific page size. They're made to have pages that hide and reveal. Like you lift them like curtains to get to the next page. You know where you are physically in it.
And I guess the way I'm sure about it is I met some authors, they had no idea what their binding was on their books under the covers and what paper stock they were printed on. Every cartoonist I know knows that. It's part of making a comic."
In other words, format may be key to the presentation of the creator's message.
The sheer diversity of human experience means that it is impossible to reach full consensus on when curtailing access can be a legitimate goal. It’s why we have to approach each expression of human experience carefully, recognizing the nuances that surround use of that expression (whether viewed as text or not) and the value of long-term preservation. When access by scholars to the Tres Riches Heures du Duc du Berry is curtailed, as the Musee Condee has done, asking even the most serious of scholars to make do with facsimiles in the interest of preservation, is that wrong? Is it sensible? Who or what are we protecting when we curtail access?
On-going advocacy on behalf of access to materials is important. Discomfort with the content by itself is insufficient as a rationale. As was noted by Dr. Patricia Brennan, 2022 recipient of the Miles Conrad award, information-seeking must always be complemented by an understanding of the individual’s need and circumstances. Wholesale book-banning is never right; curtailed access under specific circumstances may be appropriate, if not comfortable.
An assortment of resources may prove useful to those seeking to combat individuals or groups seeking to ban or challenge specific titles:
- ALA Office for Intellectual Freedom, Most Frequently Challenged Books
- American Library Association, Trustee Resources for Program and Materials Challenges
- Banned Books Awareness and Reading for Knowledge (Deepforest Productions)
- Media Guide: Reporting on Book Bannings and School Censorship (GLAAD)
- Banned Book Resources (Penguin Random House)