Gag Reflex: Librarians Hold the Line Against Censorship

James Baldwin. Sylvia Plath. Walt Whitman. J.K. Rowling. Robert Cormier. Judy Blume. One thing these authors have in common is that each has had at least one book banned from a library in the United States. They represent a fraction of the American Library Association’s list of banned books, which the ALA has been keeping since 1990, based on reports from the nation’s librarians. To Kill a Mockingbird, the 1960 classic by Harper Lee, is one of the most banned books in America. Valerie Nye, co-editor with Kathy Barco of True Stories of Censorship Battles in America’s Libraries (American Library Association Editions), cited it as her favorite banned book. “That's the book I read when I realized that I could read and that I liked to read and that this was a great story,” she said in a conversation with Pasatiempo. “To exclude a book that might be the hook for somebody, as it was for me, might mean a student on the verge of realizing he can or can’t do something—and making a life decision—misses out.”

Nye, an Albuquerque native, manages the Fogelson Library at Santa Fe University of Art and Design; Barco is a children’s librarian with the Albuquerque/Bernalillo County Libraries. They met in 2003, when both worked at the New Mexico State Library, where they put together a presentation on censorship and intellectual freedom based on a request from the Farmington Public Library. They have since made presentations at numerous conferences: Nye discusses the legal and ethical side of the issue, while Barco talks about individual banned books.

Barco dedicated True Stories to Judy Blume, whom she called the patron saint of book challenges (the term refers to attempts to get a book removed from a library). Though Blume published her most popular books in the 1970s, they still make the ALA list every year. Barco uses Blume’s Tiger Eyes in her presentations because it takes place in Los Alamos, New Mexico, where Barco grew up. “I draw parallels between myself and the main character,” she said. “We were both candy stripers at the hospital; we both loved to hike in the canyon. Her father was killed when someone held up his convenience store in Houston, which is why they moved to New Mexico; mine was not.” Barco and Nye began soliciting essays for the book in 2009. In the book’s introduction, they write that they “knew that stories of victories in saving library material, especially in the face of vocal opposition, might lend strength to librarians who initially felt threatened when experiencing a challenge.”

In addition to its value as a professional resource, True Stories is an informative, intellectually infuriating read for anyone viscerally opposed to censorship of literature, especially when it concerns children’s right to read. Children’s lives are vastly enriched because of books, and many of those lives are made bearable because in books, children find a reflection of their own dark reality or a way to escape into other worlds.

Ellen Hopkins, author of Crank and Glass, verse novels about a teenage girl’s addiction to crystal meth, wrote the introduction for True Stories. Hopkins is familiar with the needs of children to connect to literature as a means of understanding the world. “I can show you letters ... telling me they started using drugs at age twelve or thirteen, and some even younger. Or that they experienced childhood sexual abuse, beginning when they were six. Or that they were raped at age ten,” she writes. “These middle school children need books that can help them know they're not alone. They're not crazy. They're okay. By high school, well, if they haven’t heard the F-word, they've been raised in a complete vacuum.”

Some parents seem to desire such a sterilized world. Hopkins learned this firsthand when her visit to a Norman, Oklahoma, middle school was cancelled after a parent complained, and Glass was pulled from the school’s library shelves until the situation was resolved. The story is told in the book by Hopkins, as well as by Karin Parry, the middle-school librarian who had arranged the author’s visit.

Books are challenged for sexual content, drug use, or profanity or on religious grounds, such as when people object to themes of sorcery or the occult. Books with gay and lesbian characters are often targeted, as are displays that feature such books. The 31 true stories include the ridiculous, as when a parent of a fifth-grader objected to the F-word—not the actual profanity but the term “the F-word”— in the book Minerva Clark Gets a Clue by Karen Karbo. The incidents also range to the maddening, as when a man at an academic library wanted the collection to accept a non-peer-reviewed journal that happened to feature overt racism; when the library refused to include it on the grounds that it wasn’t on any list of respected academic journals (though it was accessible for free through the library’s electronic resources), he repeatedly demanded removal of books he considered biased against the journal’s point of view. Though these stories may make us want to shout in anger, librarians must take such incidents seriously and studiously work to resolve them. It’s a librarian’s responsibility to listen to the complaint and make sure the person feels heard. Sometimes just listening and offering a bit of sympathy is all that’s needed to defuse the problem.

“People have the right to decide what they’re going to read, and what people read is private,” said Nye, who explained that a core principle of librarianship is confidentiality. If the federal government comes into a library with a warrant to search someone’s reading history, a librarian is legally obligated to hand over that information—if it exists. Most librarians simply do not keep records of patrons’ checked-out items, although in the era of, with past purchases easily searchable, some patrons have begun demanding that libraries keeps such lists. Nye said this is considered extremely controversial, as are “kid cards,” which have been implemented at some libraries to give parents the option of restricting their children’s ability to check out items from sections they designate as off-limits. “Among some librarians, limiting what anyone can read, even if it’s your own kid, is a violation of that person’s right to privacy. Instead of limiting wholesale entire areas of the library, ideally parents are at the library with their kids, making decisions together about individual books.”

“I have a To Kill a Mockingbird T-shirt for Banned Books Week,” Barco said. (The event is scheduled for Sept. 30 through Oct. 6 this year.) “A woman in a library told me it was a nice shirt, but surely such a classic had never been banned. ‘Au contraire!’ I said. Every year, people are surprised to find that some of their favorites have been banned. Just think if you hadn’t had a chance to read them; how different would your experience of growing up have been?”

True Stories of Censorship Battles in America’s Libraries, edited by Valerie Nye and Kathy Barco, was published in March by the American Library Association


This article originally appeared in Pasatiempo on 04/06/2012