Notes on a Banned Books Class

Last semester, I taught my first semester-long class at the community college where I work. Many community colleges offer both credit courses and classes that are for continuing education, workforce training, and recreation — my class was one of these, based on a class that a previous librarian taught.

That librarian presented a series of discussions of literary classics, largely ones that were banned in the 1960s-1980s. When I took over the class, I focused on recent examples of books that have been targeted by book challenges and bans, since that has been a relentless topic in the news. I selected most of my titles from the past few years of ALA’s Top 10 Most Challenged Books lists. I had about 10 students, most of whom were older members of the community from the surrounding county.

I explained the difference between challenges and bans, and we looked at the landscape of book bans in the United States — where challenges take place (mainly school and public libraries) and who initiates them (until recently, individual and small groups of parents). We also discussed how the process to investigate challenges works in different types of libraries and the role that public comment and citizen advocacy can play in resisting book bans and other types of censorship.

Infographic from ALA's Censorship by the numbers
Censorship by the Numbers, ALA

By covering titles that are on current lists of challenged books, our conversation felt urgent and relevant to the lives of my students. We talked about the troubling trend of challenging books that feature LGBTQ+ characters or themes, as well as discussions of race and racism. 

Banned in the USA: The Growing Movement to Censor Books in Schools, PEN America

We began each class period with a discussion of each book’s themes and literary or storytelling merit. When it came time to evaluate the reasons each book was banned, students frequently found these book-ban objections to be cherry-picked and politically motivated.

Respectful debate is possible
In the first class period, we discussed “ground rules” for a civil exchange of ideas in this classroom. I was bracing myself for heated conversation, since we were reading books that addressed sensitive topics. But I found my students to be open-minded and respectful, and that spending time with these characters increased empathy and curiosity about different perspectives. It was gratifying to find that people in a small, safe environment were willing to be vulnerable and open with each other. 

It’s OK to over-prepare…
Like any first-time teacher, I over-prepared for this class for sure, but I quickly found a groove. I brought a lot of statistics (thanks to the incredibly detailed reports from PEN America and ALA), which helped contextualize specific examples from different school districts and public libraries in the US. I tried to resist the urge to enthusiastically “info-dump” or guide students toward the conclusions I was entering the classroom with. 

…but leave lots of room for where the conversation can go.
I remember for my first class, where we discussed Melissa by Alex Gino (a middle-grade novel about a transgender girl in 4th grade), I expected a lot of questions from my students about gender-affirming healthcare for children and adults. Instead, students honed in on the different types of allies in the book, and a rich discussion emerged on how to be a good ally and make spaces safer wherever we go.

When I first encountered Banned Books Week as a new librarian in 2015, book bans felt like a quaint, relatively nonthreatening relic of history to me. I remember making making simple book displays with imagery of fire or prison bars (lots of red and black construction paper), highlighting the “silly” reasons people challenge books. And I’ve heard critiques of Banned Books Week as being a complacent celebration of individual classics, that takes the focus away from the pressing issue of coordinated censorship attempts going on right now. PEN America’s Banned Books 2022 report sums it up well:

Many Americans may conceive of challenges to books in schools in terms of reactive parents, or those simply concerned after thumbing through a paperback in their child’s knapsack or hearing a surprising question about a novel raised by their child at the dinner table. However, the large majority of book bans underway today are not spontaneous, organic expressions of citizen concern. Rather, they reflect the work of a growing number of advocacy organizations that have made demanding censorship of certain books and ideas in schools part of their mission.

Banned in the USA: The Growing Movement to Ban Books

The banned books game has changed, and it’s more important now than ever for librarians and library users to be able to clearly articulate just what is so harmful about this phenomenon. Even in academia, where we are more confident in our academic freedom of speech, we need to be vigilant about the right to read. It’s an issue of democracy, diversity, and freedom for all of us.

I adapted this excellent Bookriot article into a one-page handout with specifics on how community members can resist book bans and other censorship attempts on a local level: Combating Censorship in Your Community. Please feel free to continue to adapt and share this resource if it is relevant to your academic library!

Heather Has Two Mommies and Just Canceled her Amazon Account

A current kerfuffle on the Internets has to do with Amazon de-ranking GLBT-themed books as reported on the LA Times Jacket Copy blog.

Amazon’s policy of removing “adult” content from its rankings seems to be both new and unevenly implemented. On Saturday, self-published author Mark R. Probst noticed that his book had lost its ranking, and made inquiries. The response he got from Amazon’s customer service explained:

In consideration of our entire customer base, we exclude “adult” material from appearing in some searches and best seller lists. Since these lists are generated using sales ranks, adult materials must also be excluded from that feature.

Probst wrote a novel for young adults with gay characters set in the old West; he was concerned that gay-friendly books were being unfairly targeted. Amazon has not responded to the L.A. Times request for clarification.

Our research shows that these books have lost their ranking: “Running with Scissors” by Augusten Burroughs, “Rubyfruit Jungle” by Rita Mae Brown, “Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic” by Alison Bechdel, “The History of Sexuality, Vol. 1” by Michel Foucault, “Bastard Out of Carolina” by Dorothy Allison (2005 Plume edition), “Little Birds: Erotica” by Anais Nin, “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” by Jean-Dominque Bauby (1997 Knopf edition), “Maurice” by E.M. Forster (2005 W.W. Norton edition) and “Becoming a Man” by Paul Monette, which won the 1992 National Book Award.

Maybe this is just a new marketing gimmick – create viral annoyance to get your brand out there. Certainly Kindle 2 got a lot of attention when the text-to-speech feature was disabled because the Author’s Guild has put its head in a place that shouldn’t be mentioned in polite company.

In any case, libraries have one thing going for them – we defend intellectual freedom. Let’s see if we can tweet that to the world. Support your free (as in beer and as in speech) library.

Selective Dissemination of Information

A researcher recently discovered something odd: she couldn’t use “abortion” in a keyword search Popline, a standard database on reproductive health hosted at the Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins. What the–?

Turns out, it’s now a stop word. Like “a” and “the.” Something you want excluded from a search. What the–?

Turns out, federal funding can’t go to anything that supports abortion, and the database gets funding from USAID, so to keep the database from being stopped itself …

There are workarounds to find the 25,000 or so records in the database that deal with the topic, but … shhhh! We can’t talk about it.

I waited a bit before posting this, thinking it had to be a … I don’t know, a late and not very funny April Fool’s joke. But the joke’s on us.

More at Wired. With an update here.

UPDATE: the other shoe has dropped. Here’s a press release from the Dean of the JH School of Public Health:

Statement Regarding POPLINE Database

I was informed this morning that the word “abortion” was blocked as a search term in the POPLINE family planning database administered by the Bloomberg School’s Center for Communication Programs. POPLINE provides evidence-based information on reproductive health and family planning and is the world’s largest database on these issues.

USAID, which funds POPLINE, found two items in the database related to abortion that did not fit POPLINE criteria. The agency then made an inquiry to POPLINE administrators. Following this inquiry, the POPLINE administrators at the Center for Communication Programs made the decision to restrict abortion as a search term.

I could not disagree more strongly with this decision, and I have directed that the POPLINE administrators restore “abortion” as a search term immediately. I will also launch an inquiry to determine why this change occurred.

The Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health is dedicated to the advancement and dissemination of knowledge and not its restriction.

Sincerely,

Michael J. Klag, MD, MPH
Dean, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health

Okaaaaay….. that’s good, but it does seem a not unreasonable response to being told certain information does not belong in a database on reproductive health because it’s against the party line. So – will any more shoes drop? Or should I say sabots…?