I’ve been pondering the issue of censorship for awhile now, at least as it applies to print media. There are different kinds of censorship, of course, the most obvious being the most visible: book burnings, blacked out passages, government bans on particular books or authors, and so forth. But the truth is, we each encounter subtler forms of censorship every day.

There are the news stories, articles and books that don’t get printed, whether for political or social reasons, or because it is thought that there isn’t an audience for the material. There is the unintentional censorship perpetrated by libraries and bookstores, because no one can shelve every single book in one place, and choices have to be made. I like to think that in most places, those choices are made according to more or less objective criteria, and with the needs of the users and the community in mind, but I know that’s not always the case.

What really gets me are the cases where books are banned. I think a lot of people hear the phrase “banned books” and think of large-scale, government initiated prohibition, but in fact books are challenged, and sometimes banned as a result, every single day in schools and libraries. A lot of the books challenged are cited as not being age appropriate, containing too much sex, violence or bad language, and increasingly, containing elements of the occult (magic, like the kind in Harry Potter, will apparently subvert kids’ Christianity, or something). The American Library Association keeps lists of books that are banned each year and has tons of related information on the subject; if you’re curious, take a look at Banned Books.

It actually makes sense to me that this happens; whenever children are involved, people, especially parents, have an understandable impulse to protect them from whatever they see as threatening. I don’t agree with the philosophy of denying access to all because a few find something distasteful, but I think I understand the impulse.

What I don’t understand is why people don’t realize that by seeking to ban a book, they draw more attention to the thing they want to make disappear. I’m sure most of you are aware of the controversy surrounding this year’s Newberry Award winner, The Higher Power of Lucky by Susan Patron. And I’ll bet you anything that the resulting attention has made far more people actually read the book than would have otherwise. This, it seems to me, somewhat defeats the purpose of banning the book.

I also find it fascinating that this cycle has been played out thousands of times, ever since the introduction of print. In the sixteenth century, the Catholic Church issued the first edition of the Index Librorum Prohibitorum, or Index of Prohibited Books. These were books that the church considered dangerous to itself and its members. While the Index was at least somewhat successful at eliminating heretical books in Catholic countries, in Protestant countries the presence of a title on the Index could actually serve to increase sales. There was even a printer in England, John Wolfe, who figured out that he could make a bigger profit not only by printing prohibited books, but by making them look as though they had been printed on the Continent contrary to the church’s prohibitions.

Even in Protestant countries, works that were considered heretical or treasonous would be seized from print shops and burned, or ordered to have certain passages cut out before sale. Sometimes the censors couldn’t get to a book before it had already been widely distributed. In those cases, they would distribute instruction sheets with pages to be removed or passages to be blacked out of the books in question. I wonder how many owners of said books dutifully went through and followed both the letter and the spirit of the law. There are numerous examples of readers following the letter of the law only, striking through the questionable passages lightly with pen, or even pencil, so that the words are still clearly legible.

My favorite discovery as a rare books librarian are those passages that were blacked out centuries ago, but now with the passage of time, the ink has faded to brown, and the prohibited passages beneath are legible once again. For some great examples of this, and samples of various versions of the Index, see the UW-Madison Department of Special Collection’s site on Don Quixote.

I’ve been studying the historical aspects of censorship for some time now, and I’ve always had a vague sense that this kind of thing still goes on to varying degrees today, even in such supposedly free countries as the good old USA. Especially now, with things like the Patriot Act, censorship and monitoring of print media is perhaps as much a part of our daily lives as it was for sixteenth century printers and readers. Recently I’ve been cataloging a collection of books devoted to First Amendment Freedoms, and it is full of eye-opening material about the actions of our government in the name of national security.

I’m not really sure where I’m going with this at this point, other than to say that while there may not be a whole lot we can do about laws or government and corporate policies that are already in place, we can try to be aware and informed about the effects of those laws and policies on our daily reading habits. We can try to elect government officials who see the folly of these laws, and will actually work to protect our First Amendment freedoms. We can encourage our schools and libraries not to bend to the pressure of the small-minded. We can read banned books, and challenge ourselves to read ideas outside of our usual comfort-zones.

Have you read a banned book today?

7 Responses to Censorship

  1. jennie says:

    According to Roger Sutton (editor-in-chief over at Horn Book) banning children’s books actually does decrease the sales. Banning a YA or Adult book is the best publicity, but not for the kiddies.

    The Higher Power of Lucky probably doesn’t count because it got some much fanfare over the controversy, but, still, interesting to not.

    Do you really think selection is unintentional censorship? There’s no way around that one.

    The ALA’s banned book lists are weird. I follow them pretty regularily (I have lists of banned books over at my blog) but there are some books where even the author is like, “What the $!@# was that doing in an elementary school library in the first place?!”

    If I don’t stock Forever by Judy Blume in a K-6 collection, is that really censorship? At what point does knowing your audience and spending your budget and doing your job well become censorship?

  2. sulz says:

    i think excluding certain books from a school library is not considered banning, particularly when the content is inappropriate material for such places. however, when banning takes place at a national level or where people are old enough to decide what they want to read and are denied this right then it is considered book banning. in my country, malaysia, book banning at the national level is more often irrational and random, which really bugs me, because if there is some rationale behind it, i could try to see it from that point of view. i mean, we actually have books like spongebob squarepant and dora the explorer banned! i wrote about it in my book blog http://sulz.daria.be/archives/58

  3. Sonetka says:

    Are parents who challenge books in school libraries really denying access to all, though? Certainly they’re denying access in that particular place, but I don’t remember hearing of any case where a parent wanted a county-wide ban on a particular book; it was always about getting out of one place, usually the school library/curriculum. Unless the school library is the only game in town, a child whose parents didn’t care or were in favour of their reading the book could get it from another venue. (Understand I’m talking from a city-bred perspective here, where there were libraries everywhere – it could be different in some smaller towns).

    Admittedly, I have a sympathy for parents who challenge books. It isn’t that I don’t want my child to read certain things EVER EVER EVER, but there are some things that are much better read and understood by, say, fifteen-year-olds than by eight-year-olds. Some of the livelier bits of mythology come to mind (not that I’d advocate not teaching the child about mythology, just maybe more the D’Aulaires’ version first). There has to be a balance struck, though – overplay the banning card and you’ll be in for a hell of a time when the kids get older and discover what they’ve been missing. Harry Potter, for example – I don’t understand how anyone could think that Harry Potter would endanger their kid, but if they really feel that having it in the school library is detrimental, fine, we’ll get our copies from the public library. What worries me most about that circumstance is the fact that eventually some of these kids who have been taught that Harry Potter is Satanic are going to get hold of a copy and realize that this stuff is comparatively anodyne. It’s not hard to imagine them making the leap from “My parents said Harry Potter was a blueprint for evil, and it’s not” to “What else have my parents been calling evil which isn’t really?”

    Jennie – I’m OK with not seeing “Forever” anywhere again, but that’s just because I thought it was really embarrassingly bad :). (I was probably too old when I read it, though. I have a feeling it’s like certain movies – once you’re out of the target demographic you just can’t get the appeal).

  4. Brando says:

    RE: Selection as censorship: Of course it is censoship. It isn’t a government ban, but it may was well be. If the government didn’t forbid the Kama Sutra from elementary school libraries (I don’t know if they do or not), the Kama Sutra would still not be stocked because library administrators for Elementary School libraries beleive 1.) it isn’t appropriate for a younger audience, 2.) There would be too much resistence to make stocking the book worthwhile, or 3.) Children of that age wouldn’t be interested in such a thing and so that space on the shelf and allocation of budget would be better spent elsewhere (or some combination of these). The effect is the same.

    In essence these sort of selection decision are common in every aspect of our lives. And wherever central institutions, to which authority over public goods are delegated, the more visible the consequences are likely to be.

    Think about the possibilities in government. Imagine that the perfect Healthcare reform (to take inspiration from another post on the site) would be approved by a majority vote in a ‘super chamber’ including the president, the senate, the house, and the supreme court – where each member gets a vote. BUT, when these chambers are seperated out, it is obvious that Presidential approval or supreme court approval is impossible to attain. THIS BILL WOULD NEVER EVEN BE INTRODUCED in Congress! Thus, the way that decision-making stuctures in government or any other organization leads to different types of self censorship. This is as true in smaller organized public good providers like libraries, as it is in government. It is also true of, say, the mass media. There is a widespread norm in the media business against being seen as ‘presenting only one side of an issue’. Thus, when the mass media presents some issue for public debate -say, global warming for instance – they set the agenda of that discussion in a way that suggests that these ‘both sides’ are equally ‘defensible’, when there is no reason to think this is the case.

    Without doubt self-censorship is a far bigger issue to intelligently deal with than even government censorship. No government could censor as much as we do in our daily lives. Everytime someone doesn’t tell another what they really think, a universe of possible futures requiring that devulging is lost forever. We do this everyday, every one of us. How often does a government ban a book? On the other hand some self censorship is good. We want social norms to lead people to self-censor their behavior. ‘hitting is wrong’ is probably one norm that leads to self-censorship that holds civilization together.

    I find this post very stimulating… thanks for writing it!!!!

  5. akdmyers says:


    Thanks for your input about children’s books; that is definitely not my area of expertise.

    I don’t think it’s censorship when a librarian knows their audience and spends their budget and follows the collection criteria established by their institution. I do think it is worth thinking about at what point it could become censorship. If there are no Muslims in your community and you have no books on Islam, is that censorship? If the librarian says, I’m not going to buy this book because it’s not appropriate or needed for my users, how can we be sure that this is true, and that there aren’t people in the community who would like to see that book in the library? I’m still not sure I would call this censorship, exactly, but I had a professor in library school who argued that it was, just to get us to think a little harder about why we select the books we do. I certainly don’t think it’s censorship to try to keep age appropriate books in the children’s collection; I do think it’s censorship if a book is not in the library anywhere because some people found it objectionable.


    It is true that in many places the school library is not the only place for people to get books, but books are challenged in public libraries as well, and even within the school setting, this kind of thing makes me very angry. I am fine if you don’t want your kids to read certain things, or if you want them to wait until they’re older. That’s fine – they’re your kids, and that’s your right as a parent. And I’m fine with someone pointing out that hey, this book really doesn’t belong in the K-6 section, could you move it? But I have a real problem with one person enforcing their values on a whole community.

    I also have a problem with your willingness to say I’ll just take my kids somewhere else to get those books if they’re not in the school library. What about kids whose families don’t have that luxury? What about kids whose only exposure to the library is at school? And now you’ve got other people’s parents telling them what they can and can’t read? It’s one thing if the library doesn’t carry the books; after all, most school libraries are dealing with very limited space and budget, so of course they have to make careful choices about what get included. But I would much rather see those choices being made from an institutional policy standpoint by professionals, than by every parent with an axe to grind.

    Like I said, I am far from being an expert in these matters – I am not a children’s librarian, or a school librarian, and I am not a parent. But I do remember in elementary school checking out a Beverly Cleary book and when I returned it, the librarian told me that I shouldn’t have checked it out because it was too old for me. This freaked me out because I had already read the book, and if I wasn’t supposed to have read it she shouldn’t have let me check it out in the first place. I think I was afraid that something horrible was going to happen to me as a result of having read this book. I vaguely remember crying to my mom about it, and I distinctly remember that I have never seen her so angry in my entire life. She told the librarian in no uncertain terms that she had no right to tell me what I could and couldn’t read, that was her responsibility as a parent. I think it’s this notion that my parents and no one else could tall me what was okay to read that is influencing me the most in this discussion.

  6. jennie says:

    Sonetka– school bans are often for every school in the district and I have a very big problem with them. Who are you [you being angry parent, not you being you] to tell other kids what they can and cannot read? If you succeed in getting them banned in the schools, what’s to stop you from getting them banned in the public library? Have you seen the recent lists of what is objectionable in our schools today? Challenged books include things like not wanting senior AP English students to read “Fahrenheit 451”. (That challenge happened during Banned Books Week as well, and it wasn’t a joke. Aiya.)

    Brandon– I still have a hard time seeing selection as self-censorship. I mean, on an intellectual level, I get it, but I can’t buy every book. I don’t have the money and I don’t have the space. In your Kama Sutra example, I think the $ and shelf space might be better used and my community better served by buying the new Captain Underpants book. Or the Newberry winner. Or a copy of Green Eggs and Ham to replace the one that’s been checked out so many times the pages are falling out.

  7. akdmyers says:

    I was just reminded of an article in the Feb/March 2007 issue of Rare Book Magazine which was about censored and banned books. In addition to having fascinating info about classic banned books, such as Fahrenheit 451 (did you know that the only publisher Bradbury could find initially was Playboy magazine?), it also had some discussion of how being banned affects books’ prices. Basically, it doesn’t, unless the banning led to fewer numbers of the book being available today, in which case the price has more to do with the book’s relative rarity than with the fact that it was banned. This seems somehow counterintuitive to me, given the history of increased interest in banned and censored books (with the exception of children’s books, as Jennie points out), but I guess increased interest could lead to more surviving copies, and I gather that availability has more effect on price than other factors.

    Also, you all might be interested in a book I just came across, Operation Hollywood by David L. Robb. It’s about the effect the Pentagon has had on how the military is portrayed in movies, and changes that were forced on scripts in exchange for being allowed to use things like aircraft carriers for filming, etc. They even forced changes on the fourth Star Trek movie, which is not a genre I would have thought the Pentagon would care about, but apparently they do.

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