Banned Books Week Virtual Read-Out celebrates the freedom to read
Whoopi Goldberg participated in the 2011 Banned Books Week Virtual Read-Out.
More than 800 readers from across the United States and around the world demonstrated their support for free speech by participating in the first-ever virtual read-out of banned and challenged books during the annual Banned Books Week (Sept. 24-Oct. 1, 2011), the only national celebration of the freedom to read. People of all ages and from all over the world were filmed in bookstores, libraries, and homes; they were joined by Whoopi Goldberg and many authors whose books have been challenged, including Judy Blume, Lauren Myracle, Jay Asher, and Chris Crutcher. The videos are posted at www.youtube.com/bannedbooksweek.
More than 400 news groups published Banned Books Week data and book lists from the ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom (OIF), and Al Jazeera television posted an interview with an OIF representative.
“We are absolutely delighted with the response to our first virtual read-out,” Barbara Jones, the director of the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, said. “Without question, this is the largest number of people to ever participate in a read-out, and we will be looking for ways to expand next year during the 30th anniversary of Banned Books Week, which will take place Sept. 30 through Oct. 6, 2012.”
The best of the banned
Old friends and new were among the books challenged in 2011. A few highlights (or lowlights):
- Vonnegut slaughtered again (“So it goes”) — Two out of three books singled out in a 2010 complaint were removed in July 2011 from the Republic (Mo.) high school curriculum and library. The school board voted to keep Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak but to remove Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five and Sarah Ockler’s Twenty Boy Summer. The school board acted after a Republic resident with no children in school in the district complained about the books, arguing that they teach “principles contrary to Biblical morality and truth,” The school board ruled that the books should be removed . . . on the grounds of “age appropriateness.” In 2010, Anderson and Ockler –– along with a national community of librarians, teachers and readers –– had mobilized a protest via social media that developed into the “Speak Loudly” anti-censorship campaign. In response to the board’s actions, the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library in Indianapolis announced that it would offer free copies of Slaughterhouse-Five to 150 Republic students.
- Part-Time Indian faces full-time scrutiny — Sherman Alexie’s National Book Award– winning young-adult novel, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, faced heated challenges in schools and libraries. The Richland (Wash.) School Board voted in June 2011 to prohibit its use in classrooms of any grade level after concerns were raised about its use in freshman classes. Board members conceded that none of them had read the book, and the decision was subsequently reversed in July, restoring access to the book for all levels in the high school. (Two board members who had originally ruled against the book later said their votes had been a mistake and promised that in the future they will read every book they are to vote on.) Part-Time Indian was also challenged but retained in the Helena, Montana, high school curriculum following a public hearing attended by more than 100 people.
- Sherlock Holmes? Case closed! — Elementary, my dear Watson — A parent at one of the middle schools in the Albemarle County (Va.) School District objected to the Sherlock Holmes mystery A Study in Scarlet, by Arthur Conan Doyle, on the grounds that it portrays Mormons in a negative light. One ninth-grader at the hearing in August 2011 told the school board she objected to banning the book. “I was capable of reading it in sixth grade,” she said. “I think it was a good challenge. I’m upset that they’re removing it.” But remove it they did.
- Health ed books deemed unhealthy — Books for young people that describe or depict health information were widely challenged in 2011. In Florida, It’s Perfectly Normal by Robie Harris was challenged in public libraries, while What’s the Big Secret? faced scrutiny in a Washington elementary school library. My Mom’s Having a Baby by Dori Hillestad Butler was challenged in public libraries in Florida and Texas. In each case, the books faced objections due to their frank consideration, including illustrations, of health and sexual issues for young people.
- Bias perceived in third-grade text — The year saw a surge of controversy over perceived bias in textbooks, often stirred or instigated by political pundits, prompting challenges to these books in schools nationwide. Social Studies Alive! was publicly challenged in St. Charles (Ill.) Unit District 303 and in Frederick County (Md.) schools. The third-grade textbook faced national criticism from conservatives like Glenn Beck for promoting a “liberal agenda.” In Virginia, textbooks were targeted by Tea Party members for showing bias toward Islam.
School librarians institute Banned Websites Awareness Day
Taking the Banned Books theme and running with it, the American Association of School Librarians highlighted censorship awareness by designating Sept. 28, 2011, as Banned Websites Awareness Day in order to bring attention to the overly aggressive filtering of educational and social websites used by students and educators.
“Many schools filter far beyond the requirements of the Children’s Internet Protection Act because they wish to protect students,” Carl Harvey, AASL president, said. “Students must develop skills to evaluate information from all types of sources in multiple formats, including the Internet. Relying solely on filters does not teach young citizens how to be savvy searchers or how to evaluate the accuracy of information.
“The use of social media in education . . . is an ideal way to engage students,” Harvey said. “In order to make school more relevant to students and enhance their learning experiences, we need to incorporate those same social interactions that are successful outside of school into authentic assignments in the school setting.”
Choose Privacy Week 2011
The ALA chose the first week of May for the annual Choose Privacy Week, which had garnered significant attention and participation in its first two years. The initiative has developed, sustained, and grown a strong social media presence on its blog, Facebook, and Twitter. The Choose Privacy Week video, which formed the focal point of the first-ever national event, has been viewed more than 20,000 times.
In 2011, the ALA offered a Choose Privacy Week webinar featuring a panel of experts on “hot topics” in privacy, plus practical tips and tools for developing programs to engage library users. Slides from the event and an archived version of the webinar are available online. Topics included the USA PATRIOT Act and reader privacy, airport screening and surveillance, and current research on privacy attitudes of young people. More than 200 attendees learned about tools for libraries to develop programs and events to start conversations on such issues in their communities.
The theme for Choose Privacy Week 2012 is “Freedom from Surveillance,” with a focus on the impact of government surveillance on civil liberties.
ACLU sues library regarding website access
Banned books . . . and now banned (or partially blocked) websites.
The American Civil Liberties Union filed suit in January against the Salem (Mo.) Public Library for allegedly blocking websites related to the modern Pagan religion Wicca.
The case dates from 2010, when, Salem resident Anaka Hunter says, she tried to access websites about Wicca, Native American religions, and astrology for her personal research but the library’s filtering software blocked them. She said library Director Glenda Wofford unblocked portions of the sites for her but that much of the material remained inaccessible.
The ACLU lawsuit claims that Wofford said she would only unblock the sites for patrons who had a “legitimate reason” to view them and that she had an “obligation” to report people to the “proper authorities” if she felt they would misuse the information they were attempting to access.
She said in a post to the Washington, D.C.–based newspaper The Hill’s Hillicon Valley technology blog that she would have been happy to unblock the specific websites Hunter sought but that Hunter refused on privacy grounds to specify which sites she wanted to access. “It’s not our intent to prohibit reasonable use of the Internet for research or any other legitimate reason,” Wofford said. “All they have to do is ask, and we’ll unblock the sites.”
“It’s unbelievable that I should have to justify why I want to access completely harmless websites on the Internet simply because they discuss a minority viewpoint,” Hunter said in an ACLU press release.
Said Anthony Rothert, legal director of the ACLU of Eastern Missouri: “Rather than dismissing the concerns of its patrons, the library should make every effort to ensure that its filtering software [Netsweeper] doesn’t illegally deny access to educational resources on discriminatory grounds. The library is the last place that should be censoring information about different cultures.”
Federal judge in Alaska voids sexual imagery statute
The Federal District Court in Anchorage, Alaska, permanently barred enforcement of a state statute criminalizing the online posting of sexual imagery that is “harmful to minors.” Chief U.S. District Judge Ralph Beistline ruled June 30, 2011, that the law threatened to reduce all speech on the Internet “to only what is fit for children” and that Senate Bill 222, signed last year by Governor Sean Parnell, violates First Amendment rights of free speech and would have chilled free expression.
New technologies raise old issues
New technologies and digital platforms that enable user access to ebooks and other digital content offered by libraries are spurring new concerns about readers’ privacy in the library. Library users’ personally identifiable information and materials use records may be placed in the hands of vendors and content providers who enable access to digital library materials; this data may be vulnerable to theft, disclosure, or misuse. Librarians continue to work with vendors and users alike to address these concerns via education, library policy, and effective agreements that protect library users’ data.