Banned Books Week in the Digital Age

Banned Books Week 2011 is September 24 – October 1

Banned Books Week is a week-long event that takes place each year at the end of September. Started in 1982 by activist Judith Krug, the campaign serves to promote the freedom of information through the examination of books that are challenged and banned in our nation’s schools and libraries.

The Books
Banned Books Week looks specifically at challenged books of all types, and they put out a “Top 10 List” of the most challenged books of the year. The campaign is most commonly associated with drawing attention to books that have been disputed in communities across the country, whether they’ve been banned outright or simply challenged in some way.

Many of the activities during the week revolve around these titles, from library displays to public readings of the texts. While these guerilla tactics were groundbreaking and subversive ten, twenty, almost thirty years ago, how does this era of digital information affect Banned Books Week, and the message it’s trying to send?

The Message
Although some misconceptions hold Banned Books Week as being just about the books, the campaign stands for a much bigger principle: intellectual freedom. Using these controversial titles as an example of the realities of censorship, Banned Books Week connects with people on a very personal level.

According to the American Library Association (ALA) the goal of Banned Books Week is “to teach the importance of our First Amendment rights and the power of literature, and to draw attention to the danger that exists when restraints are imposed on the availability of information in a free society.”

The Technology
It used to be that when a book was banned in a community, there was no easy way to get it. Now there’s an ever-expanding array of options to borrow, purchase, mail-order and download a book despite the differing viewpoints of a few members of the community. Yet those members are still calling for censorship of books, movies, music, games, and all kinds of media and information. The more information we have access to, the more cries for censorship.

Efforts like Banned Books Week have risen to the occasion, and to the technology. No one in your community doing a read-out? That’s okay – there are ways to view and participate in virtual read-outs. Want to know what’s being challenged in your area, or anywhere else in the country? Check the Censorship Map and get ideas for the best titles to distribute.

Spreading the word of bans and disputes online also helps communities with their fights. In Missouri, Wesley Scroggins, a business professor, wrote an opinion piece in September 2010 calling Laurie Halse Anderson’s book Speak “soft pornography” because it deals with rape. He called for its removal from the Republic school district, along with a few other titles.

The story was blogged about by Anderson herself, which was followed by an outcry on Twitter under the hashtag #SpeakLoudly, and then Judy Blume took up Speak‘s defense by bringing it to the attention of the National Council Against Censorship. Speak has not been banned from the district.

Scroggins also took issue with Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, which was unanimously banned from the district due to foul language, along with Sarah Ockler’s Twenty Boy Summer. Yet the internet strikes back, with the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library catching wind of the situation and offering free copies of the novel to Republic students, who were meant to read the book as part of the curriculum.

Just five days ago these two novels were restored to Republic libraries, under the constraint that only parents and guardians can check them out. While not the true freedom of information that Banned Books Week seeks to achieve, it is a step in a more positive direction.

The Future
Information is being physically removed from libraries nationwide, but not without resistance. Is the growing reach of digital information making it easier to achieve intellectual freedom, or is the censorship fight crossing formats too? Who has the right to limit our access?

And how are you celebrating your Banned Books Week? Tell us in the comments, Email Meghan at mrdornbr@syr.edu  or find her on Twitter @meglish.

  • It’s good to examine the reasons why certain books were banned.  And even though they were banned in hard copies, I’m sure if a student wanted, they could acquire an audiobook version of it.