Tuesday, November 13, 2012
Banned Book Week--Banned Websites Awareness Day: A Contrast
Banned Book Week has become a mainstay cause and publicity event for libraries across the country. It is an important week to advocate for the intellectual freedom that author and librarians seek to support and uphold in public spaces. I can't help but feel, though, that some of our advocacy can feel rather antiquated today and often puts a softened veneer on the face of censorship. Many of the displays I have seen often highlight books that have been banned in the past, but are in most cases deemed culturally acceptable now. Even displays that discuss more recent books, such as Harry Potter and Hunger Games, fit into this category. This approach presents censorship as something fading into obsolescence, and thus takes the urgency out of the message.
Now not all programs follow this model, many have found great ways to better connect children to the issues, whether through viral readings, book clubs, or more, but I think it is hard for children to grasp the concept of banned books if we discuss books they can read. Perhaps the brave, but scary challenge is to discuss those books that continue to be challenging to today's culture. I have seen some great physical displays placing books behind bars, or police caution tape. What if the books behind these barriers were books that actually more relevant to children today? What if books that had actually recently been challenged in the district were displayed and openly discussed? What if web resources were the primary examples used?
I think too often we treat Banned Book Week as a remembrance week. "Remember all the awful things we used to do, but look at how much better we are now." By oversimplifying and antiquating the story of censorship we risk removing the emotion that is central to such cases today. Children are motivated by their own engagement in an issue and librarians miss an opportunity to gain young fervent advocates in this way.
A second concern is the medium we focus on. We spend a whole week discussing banned print books, but only one day advocating for Banned Website Awareness. That inequity does not match the relative role we have placed on these tools in the modern library. As librarians, we have made massive strides over the past decade to better incorporate digital materials and technology initiatives. We have gone so far as to make these standards of our profession. However, while we have been aggressively forward-thinking in providing users access to and information about new mediums, we have fallen behind in defending everyone's right to access information via the internet.
For children, I think this is an even bigger area where we can engage them to become participants in their own advocacy. This ascribes to the active-based learning that teachers and librarians are seeking to promote everywhere. A great Banned Website Day project I saw on the New York Times' Learning Network blog asked students to explore if there were restrictions and filters placed on their school computer use, and to challenge these practices by examining their effects. Such programs appeal to kids through the technologies that they are using, present the urgency and presentness of these issues, and allow for direct student advocacy. This type of contemporary engagement is too often missing from Banned Book Week. I think we need to shift the focus in our advocacy against censorship in the same ways that we have shifted our focus in our libraries.