Banned Books Week – Book Challenges Explained

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Banned Books Week is an annual celebration of the freedom to read. When people first hear about Banned Books Week they often ask one of two questions: “Who doesn’t have the freedom to read?” and “Are books really banned?” The answers aren’t as straight-forward as you might think.

When we talk about the freedom to read we’re not just talking about being allowed to pick up any old book and read it for fun. We’re talking about unrestricted access to information and the freedom to seek and express ideas, even information and ideas that some people might find objectionable or offensive.

When we talk about banned books, we’re not really talking about books that are completely restricted, absolutely not allowed, destroyed so no one can read them ever. We’re lucky enough to live in a place and a time when that doesn’t really happen. We are talking about challenges to books and other resources that a person or persons find objectionable. We’re talking about attempts to restrict access, even attempts with good intentions.

CLP strives to reflect the diversity of our communities and to provide for the variety of needs and interests members of our communities have. One of the ways we do this is through our collections. It’s even written in to our Collection Development Policy:

Recognizing that our service area incorporates individuals of all ages who represent a multiplicity of racial and ethnic backgrounds, economic and educational levels and physical and mental abilities, Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh builds collections that mirror and support this diversity. The collections include materials and resources that reflect a variety of political, economic, religious, social, minority and sexual issues and support intellectual freedom by providing free access to all expressions of ideas through which any and all sides of a question, cause or movement may be explored.

To be honest, a professional joke we have is “it’s not a good collection unless it has something to offend everyone.” It’s a little flip and it’s not meant to imply that we actively seek out materials for the purpose of offending people, or that we don’t take people’s objections seriously. It’s meant as a playful acknowledgement that in order to provide resources that reflect diverse backgrounds and perspectives, we know there will be some things in our collection that make some people uncomfortable.

Does that mean we always get it right? Nope! So, what are your options if you think we got it wrong? First, talk with a librarian at your local library. Let them know what your concerns are. They’ll share their thoughts on why we have the item, what value they think it offers to others, and perhaps even offer options for how you can hone in on the things the library offers that are right for you and/or your family.

If that doesn’t do it for you, though, we have a process called a Materials Reconsideration Request. It’s basically a form that gives you the opportunity to share why you think the item should be reconsidered. Once we receive the form we convene a committee of three librarians to review the request and the item in question. Each member of the committee will read/watch/listen to the item in its entirety. We will read as many professional reviews as we can find. We will consider other information that we find about the item. We will use all of this information to inform our discussion about the request for reconsideration and whether the item in question belongs in our collection. Once we’ve made our decision, we send a letter to the person who initiated the request explaining the result.

Do we look forward to receiving reconsideration requests? Not really. Those are difficult conversations to have and sometimes require us to read/watch/listen to something that doesn’t appeal to our personal taste either. But believe it or not, these requests can actually be a good thing.

Sometimes a book challenge can be a good thing

Find out why