The Pursuit of Controversy: Banned Books Month 2021
By Elena Welsh and Anthony Garcia
Through the month of October, rows of books with bright paper flames protruding from their pages could be seen scattered throughout the first floor of the Smith Library Center. This display of “burning” books was set up to commemorate National Banned Books Week, which occurs annually during the last week of September, and was entirely composed of books that have been challenged or banned from libraries around the country. All of the books in the display were (and are) available for check-out, and the library encourages everyone to read books challenged and banned by other libraries!
The first official National Banned Book Week started in 1982 amidst calls for book censorship as the nation recoiled from moral panic after moral panic. Since then, banned book week has been held across the nation in schools, libraries, and bookstores to call to attention the reasons some school administrations and concerned parents consider certain books “unfit” for students or for public consumption. The week celebrates the right to free speech through the written word and the belief that books should be freely accessible to everyone.
Amongst the many groups that organize and coordinate National Banned Book Week is The American Library Association (ALA). They currently have records of challenged or banned books dating back to 1990. Despite this, books are sometimes challenged or removed from library collections without being reported to the ALA and without media coverage. So their names and stories fall from library shelves, unseen by the public. (For more info on the history of BBW and censorship in this country.)
In the spirit of this fiery occasion, the SLC decided to celebrate Banned Books Week for the entire month of October. They even hosted a Banned Books Read-Out on October 27th to end the month with some book-lover bonding.
The banned books read-aloud event took place on the new library deck on a very windy but pleasant day. Librarians and students alike sat circled under the trees, taking turns reading selections from banned and challenged books. Participants chose from a wide variety of texts, from the classics like Of Mice and Men to more contemporary novels like The Perks of Being a Wallflower to plays such as Angels in America to children’s books like And Tango Makes Three. There were snacks and library swag stacked on one of the tables, and a raffle for a copy of To Kill a Mockingbird and Maya Angelou: The Complete Poetry. We all listened and clutched onto the short segments of controversy. Our words, read from the pages of books that have been told not to open, did not get lost in the wind. The read-aloud event was the perfect conclusion to a month of collective insight into controversy.
Although Banned Books Week/Month doesn’t last forever, there are always opportunities to visit the library and chat with staff members about their favorite books, or to just wander the aisles for a new read. To conclude, I’d like to quote Maya Angelou and propose a question. To quote: “When I look back , I am so impressed again with the life-giving power of literature. If I were a young person today, trying to gain a sense of myself in the world, I would do that again by reading, just as I did when I was young.” To consider: can we truly access this profoundness in literature when we censor and exclude certain stories?
A note from library staff:
Smith Library Center is staunchly against censorship. We support the unfettered pursuit of intellectual freedom and everyone’s right to read.