Long post warning. TL;DR – Banned Books Week is an annual awareness campaign for the freedom to read. It highlights the value of free and open access to reading and information. This year, the banned books week focuses on comics and graphic novels. Below are some basic information and links, and my thoughts and a commitment.
“This year’s Banned Books Week, Sept. 21 – 27, will shine a light on this still misunderstood form of storytelling and will celebrate the value of graphic novels to readers from all walks of life through the work performed by Banned Books Week sponsors and individual librarians, retailers and readers from all over the world.”
According to the CBLDF, furthermore,
“[c]omics are uniquely vulnerable to challenges because the medium thrives on the power of static images, and because there is a lingering stigma that comics are low-value speech. Some challenges are brought against comics because a single page or panel can be taken out of context, while others come under attack because of the mistaken notion that all comics are for children.”
Indeed. Merely the fact that images accompany or carry the story does not mean that by default the story was written for children or that it’s trash. The public at large understands this about movies; why it’s so challenging to extend the same concept to comics is beyond me.
The American Library Association (ALA) is one of the supporters of the banned books week. In the library world, censorship usually arises from the best intentions, namely to protect children from difficult ideas and information. It takes the form of either challenges or bans. ALA defines challenges and bans thus:
“A challenge is an attempt to remove or restrict materials, based upon the objections of a person or group. A banning is the removal of those materials. Challenges do not simply involve a person expressing a point of view; rather, they are an attempt to remove material from the curriculum or library, thereby restricting the access of others. As such, they are a threat to freedom of speech and choice.”
This is important because U.S. public libraries receive public funding (a mix of local, state and federal). We all fund public libraries through our taxes, and that makes public libraries our joint investment. It’s not just the monetary investment, though, that makes public libraries so crucial. Libraries not only collect and preserve materials for the benefit of the public. Libraries are also instrumental in documenting our cultures and our pasts. Note that the plural is intentional because no culture is truly uniform.
“Sharing is an essential part of healthy social interactions, and our culture knows and values this so highly that we begin conditioning children to understand it from a very early age. A community, defined as a unified body of individuals, isn’t much of a community without some kind of sharing system, including access rules, behavioral modes and a resulting social contract.
“At their core, libraries are sharing systems. They are an agreement that a community makes to pool some kind of resource, create access rules and then share access to that resource.”
Like any public utility, public libraries must be accessible to all, and access to library materials cannot be blocked by the wishes of one person or group. This principle is encoded in the Library Bill of Rights, ALA’s basic policy concerning access to information.
The ALA stand is that free and open access to information and protecting children can coexist. The ALA values not only freedom of choice for all people, but also common sense and parental responsibility. That is why libraries have separate children’s and teens’ areas and why materials are typically shelved according to age categories (among other factors). Parents who are worried that their children might be exposed to inappropriate material at the library can control the situation simply by going with them or supervising what they bring home. There is an interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights that deals with library access for minors saying that
“[l]ibrarians and governing bodies should maintain that parents—and only parents—have the right and the responsibility to restrict the access of their children—and only their children—to library resources.” [emphasis added]
This point bears repeating: Parents may control their children’s access to various things, but they may not control anyone else’s. In the words of the ALA Books Challenged and/or Banned – 2013-2014 list:
“Individuals may restrict what they themselves or their children read, but they must not call on governmental or public agencies to prevent others from reading or viewing that material.
“The challenges documented in this list are not brought by people merely expressing a point of view; rather, they represent requests to remove materials from schools or libraries, thus restricting access to them by others. Even when the eventual outcome allows the book to stay on the library shelves and even when the person is a lone protester, the censorship attempt is real. Someone has tried to restrict another person’s ability to choose.”
I have no quarrel with the concept of private entities like movie theaters or book stores enforcing their own policies. Nor do I begrudge non-tax-dollar-funded libraries any limited collection and access policies they might potentially have. When someone restricts or tries to restrict my access to a shared resource, however, it amounts to censorship. I am a grownup, and I control what I read and view. Another grownup has absolutely no business preventing me from accessing library collections my tax dollars have helped create, just like they have no say in which of the publicly funded routes I take home from the supermarket.
Creating demand for challenged material is one way to contest censorship attempts. The Comic Book Legal Defense Fund (CBLDF), a non-profit organization protecting the freedom to read comics, has created a host of resources. They include the whys and wherefores of comics bans, history of comics censorship, bibliography, downloads, and retailer and librarian tools as well. Among the most recent projects involving the CBLDF is the Humble Valiant Bundle (a pay-what-you-want digital collection of 24 acclaimed graphic novels – that sounds pretty exciting).
This year, my focus will be Wendy and Richard Pini’s ElfQuest. Wendy Pini’s work has been challenged in various forums in the past (for example, on Facebook and in personal communications), and I want to do my part to counteract that. I will commit to three things:
- I will get and re-read a complete set of the first eight ElfQuest albums. I currently own most but not all of them in color, published between 1981 and 1992. (I know there was later a black&white reprint, but that can’t be the “real” version, can it, since that’s not the one I read all those years ago. 😉 And, gosh, nothing makes you feel old like discovering that something from “a few years ago” actually happened over 20 years ago.)
- Time permitting, I will also browse the online ElfQuest selection and the material at BoingBoing. I really haven’t kept up since the Kings of the Broken Wheel storyline ended. That is a shame, for I remember being quite impressed by ElfQuest.
- Finally, I will visit my local public library and borrow a new-for-me-comic on the CBLDF banned and challenged comics list, or, that failing, one of the frequently challenged and/or banned books on ALA’s 2013/2014 list.
Image from Banned Books Week.
Do you have a favorite banned comic or book? Share in the comments!
Disclosure: Nate Hill was a library school colleague of mine.
Note: I wasn’t paid or perked to mention this; just passing along a good thing.