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This week is banned books week. Groups like the American Library Association encourage people to look at the books that have been banned and to think about why people attempt to remove them from public view.
News Director Eric Douglas spoke with Megan Tarbett, the Director of the Putnam County Library and the President of the West Virginia Library Association to find out what it is all about.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
Douglas: Let’s talk about banned books. Why are we celebrating books that have been banned?
Tarbett: In 1982, they kind of got it started as a response to some of the book challenges and protests that had been happening in schools and things like that. I know West Virginia has the history of the Kanawha Textbook Controversy.
Book challenges seem to be cyclical, like, some years, there’ll be really heavy, and then, it’ll hit a lull and then they’ll come back. So this was a response to that. Some people say, “Banned Books Week, are you celebrating banning books?” That’s obviously not what we’re doing.
But it was a way to bring awareness to the nation that these challenges were happening nationwide in schools and libraries. And so they called it Banned Books Week. And here we are all these years later.
Douglas: Do you want to discuss what some of the issues are, why it’s happening more recently now, or is it purely just cyclical?
Tarbett: It is cyclical, but in today’s age of all information all the time I do think people head to their keyboards, or head to people they know in outrage before they take a minute with what’s actually upsetting them and not sitting with it for a minute and thinking critically about why this particular book would be in a public library or would be in a school, especially with the things that people can find on the internet.
Sometimes it feels slightly disingenuous that we’re focusing so much on physical books when an internet search can bring so many more terrible things, if that’s what you’re really concerned about.
But, of course, we take these concerns seriously every year. The American Library Association puts out this little field report guide, which lists the annual top 10 most challenged books. In the years I’ve been working in libraries, some of them are evergreen, some of them have been on the list for a decade, at least. Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian has been on this list pretty much the 15 years I’ve been around libraries. Looking for Alaska, John Green has been on there forever. And then you get some of the newer books. The current one that is topping the list is a graphic novel, titled Gender Queer, by Maia Kobabe, that’s topping the list everywhere.
We have these out for people to look at and to start discussions. This year, the theme is Let Freedom Read. I like to think of this week as more like “Freedom to Read Week.” And there is a Freedom to Read Foundation that is affiliated with the American Library Association.
Douglas: What is the response when somebody wants to ban a book? We’re not talking some extremist pamphlet showing up in a school library. This is something that has been vetted and reviewed and researched by librarians for a purpose or for a potential audience. So what is the response to dealing with these kinds of things?
Tarbett: My favorite quote, and kind of my personal motto is “A good library has something in it to offend everyone.” If you are looking at the whole of what we have available in a public library or school library, or an academic library, it runs the gamut. There are things I walk by and go, “Oh, I’d never read that, or that upsets me,” but that’s why it should be there.
Every library should have a procedure ready. It’s called the reconsideration of materials form. Anyone can fill it out and it asks what book, what page, why? And then there is a process. You turn that back in to your librarian, and the librarian, and sometimes a panel of other librarians, or in smaller systems sometimes the board discuss. You can discuss what the challenge is and what the issue may be, and what your steps are. The steps can be that it is left in exactly its place. The step could be, okay, that’s a good point. Maybe it doesn’t need to be in the picture books, but we can move it up to a different section of the library. So maybe we just move it.
In a very few cases, sometimes libraries have almost a Restricted Section, where you have to ask at the front desk to see this particular book. And then there’s completely taking it out of the system altogether. Those are the four options you have when you get a book challenge.
But a lot of the times the librarian and the panel elect to leave it where it is, because before it even comes into the system at least someone has taken a look at it, has evaluated it. Did it come down in a most recommended list from other librarians or from our professional publications? Was it a customer request? Most libraries take requests and purchase things that are requested.
What we’re seeing right now is that some people are bypassing the process altogether. We make a display, we put out books. And sometimes people will walk by and go, “I don’t think I like that book,” and they’ll take it with them. And then they’ll bypass the library’s procedure altogether and go to a city council person or a county commissioner, or the school board, and go directly through a different authority than working it through the library itself.
Or they just go straight to Facebook. They just go to their friends and then all of a sudden we’ve got a community that is unhappy.
Douglas: The outrage of social media. And none of those people’s probably read the actual book.
Tarbett: Libraries are nonpartisan, not bipartisan. We strive to keep that, but there are challenges from quote, unquote, both sides. I mean, it’s not one particular group of people with an ideology that are the sole challengers. The reasons run the gamut, the breadth of humanity.
It may just be an anecdote, but there are places that have had the Bible challenged, because it does have scenes of murder, incest, rape — something that in a fiction novel would outrage some people. Some people also would want to challenge that. It really does run the gamut.
Douglas: What is the situation in West Virginia now?
Tarbett: Our Parkersburg libraries have been dealing with some challenges the past six months to a year. I think they’re over the worst of it, but there’s still some challenges coming in.
What most likely happens in most West Virginia libraries and communities is kind of like the quiet censoring. Either a librarian might self-censor what they order. They might take a second look at a book that may be on a “best of” list, but they also have to evaluate it for their community and they may just decide not to purchase that item which is a form of censorship in and of itself. Or sometimes, if a patron doesn’t particularly like the book, they’ll borrow it, and it never comes back. So there is that form of censorship as well.
It really is the loud ones that you see on the news and some of the more quiet ones. And honestly, it’s the quiet ones that, frankly, are more insidious than the big noisy ones, because then you know they’re happening.
When you’ve got a one person library in a small town, I don’t blame them for not wanting to quote unquote, rock the boat and that’s not saying that they’re not doing their jobs, because they are. I know in my system, we have multiple book selectors. In some systems, it’s selected centrally. I’m the director of the Putnam libraries and every branch manager orders their own materials. We’ve got five to six to seven, sometimes 10 different people ordering all different things from all different personal perspectives, and professional perspectives.
We strive really to hit everything so we’re not having a myopic view of what should be in the collection. Most libraries do similar things to try to keep it as broad based as they can. Academic libraries sometimes have a specific focus on things, and they can do more deep dive things. Most public libraries, we’re generalists. The people’s university. You can come learn a little bit about everything, but we’re not your subject specialists. School libraries are similar. They also have a different mission than public libraries. All of our libraries all have the same mission, but also different versions of it, which is to help educate and entertain our constituents.
Douglas: What haven’t we talked about?
Tarbett: The last few years, the American Library Association and the Freedom To Read Foundation have really moved away from the negative of “look at all the things people want to ban” to a positive, “free people read freely.” Let’s keep that in mind. Let freedom read, and making it a more positive thing to have all of these books available for people. I like that because there’s so much negativity about everything in a 24-hour cable news cycle in a world where the internet never turns off.
I got asked the question this morning, “What do libraries do now that there’s the internet?” He didn’t mean it in a mean way, he just was not a book guy and just didn’t know. And my answer to him was, “There’s too much information now and people need help navigating it.”
That is a huge part of what the library does, is help you find the best information out of a sea of so much misinformation or just mediocre information. I think maybe everyone could just take a breath every once in a while and realize that not everything can be for you. And that someone else may enjoy the thing that you don’t like, but it’s not your job to take that away from them. That they are allowed to be who they are and like what they like. And if we could just show each other a little bit more grace in all aspects of our lives, but especially in the public sector, I think we would all be a little bit happier, frankly.