Banned Books Week: Who Challenges Books?

On Thursday, I discussed why people challenge or ban books, at least what they claim are their reasons. Today, as Banned Books Week starts to wind down, I want to discuss who challenges these books. In order to understand why this censorship continues in the modern era, particularly in the supposedly-progressive United States, we need to understand exactly who is taking offense in the first place.

I have extensively examined the infographics on the ALA’s website in preparation for this post, and I’ve found that challenges, for the most part, come from the same prominent initiators year after year. Namely, the top three groups are parents, patrons, and boards/administrations.

Infographic courtesy of the ALA
In 2016, 42% of reported challenges were initiated by parents, 31% by patrons, and 10% by boards/administrations. Other initiators also challenge books, including librarians, teachers, political and religious groups, and local governments. Most of these other groups, however, individually make up smaller percentages than the top three.

The year 2016 wasn’t the only time that these initiators dominated the scene. In 2015, 2014, and even the 2000s, parents and patrons were among the most prominent initiators, with “other” or “unidentified” initiators taking the spot of boards/administrations in 2014 and the 2000s.

Personally, I was surprised that more political and religious groups had not been initiators in 2016. In fact, they only made up 2% of all initiators. How, then, do we have so many challenges based in “religious viewpoint”?

I believe that this trend points to the top two initiators: parents and patrons. Parents use their religious beliefs to keep their children from books they don’t want them to read, and religious patrons try and keep their libraries and bookstores “clean” according to their personal standards.

The fact that parents top the charts does not shock me. After all, parents want to keep their children innocent and scar-free. They don’t want them reading what they’ve deemed “filth” and yet they don’t want to take the time to monitor their children’s books themselves. Instead, they insist that libraries, schools, and bookstores do so for them.

I can see why parents may want these organizations to remove books for them. After all, you can’t watch your children every second of the day, especially when they’re at school during the week. Parents also shouldn’t have to choose between an active role in their children’s lives and their jobs/careers, and so their schedules can be tight and they may not want to waste family time.

Regardless, I still think that relying on libraries and other book-dispensing organizations to remove books at parents’ whims is unwise. Some books are not appropriate for children to access, but others are more subjective, depending on the parents’ attitudes. The latter should not be removed so that no children can get them. Such removal ignores children’s First Amendment rights and cultivates a narrow-minded, uneducated society.

Similar violations occur when patrons challenge books. These challenges try and restrict the public’s access to books, and so individuals would not be allowed to decide if they should read a certain book or not. This violation of First Amendment rights forces the views of a few on the many. If Americans are not allowed to read and make decisions for themselves, can we truly claim that we stand for freedom?

Mind you, these statistics are only for challenges which have been reported. The ALA claims that, in 2016 alone, 82-97% of challenges remain unreported. The unreported challenges could tip the scales in favor of other initiators, such as administrations and libraries, but we won’t know if they continue to fall off the radar. All we can work with, while trying to determine the causes of challenges, are reported statistics.

Based on the ALA statistics, I see two obvious changes which could help weaken the fight against knowledge: parents could more closely monitor their children’s reading habits and patrons could decide that their only business is with what they read, not what some random stranger or even their neighbor reads. Such changes would require an adjustment to societal thinking, which could take years to accomplish. However, if we keep pushing back on those who push to ban books, we may get the general public to listen.

Were you surprised by the top initiators? What do you think these trends mean for the battle to censor books? Is it something we can change? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.


Designed by Stephanie Hoogstad circa 2011

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