December 5, 2021

Librarians: Read a banned book

Joe McIntyre/staff photographer

Cortland Free Library youth services assistant Alyssa Harvey sets up a banned children’s books display last week in the children’s library.

Clerk Alyssa Harvey worked hard last week on her display at Cortland Free Library for banned books week: It features titles of books ranging from “To Kill a Mockingbird” to” The Giving Tree,” superimposed over police crime scene “caution” tape.

As she posted the titles, the books were being taken out by intrigued teenagers. In fact, she didn’t have many of the books — which were banned elsewhere — left in stock.

And that’s a good thing, librarians say.

Banned Books Week continues through Saturday.

In celebration of the freedom to read, you may find displays like Harvey’s at libraries, promoting books that have been banned in various places throughout time, be it in recent years or historically.

The week recognizes the attempts by people to remove certain reading materials from a school curriculum or library. Such attempts are called challenges, and in cases where books have actually been removed from these places, that book is called a banned book.

Libraries nationwide field challenges like these.

“The library’s role is promoting freedom to read and allowing everyone the right to read what they choose,” said Sarah Glogowski, director of the Finger Lakes Library System. “That’s something we as a library profession take extremely seriously — everyone’s right to read.”

The library system will help its member libraries navigate challenges to reading materials, said Glogowski, providing information from the American Library Association and other sources to respond.

The only challenge she was aware of that the Finger Lakes Library System had to deal with recently was in the summer of 2016 when a library in Trumansburg received challenges about a children’s book named “George,” about a transgender child.

As society changes, so does what people find offensive and want to protect themselves from, said Phillips Free Library Librarian Priscilla Berggren-Thomas.

“Forty years ago, books were banned because of language, then it was sexuality, now the majority of challenged books are challenged because they are about the LGBTQ community and the prejudice they face,” she said.

Books are also often challenged because they are about issues society does not want to face or talk about, like rape, racism and violence, she said.

Rather than working on solving these problems, challenging these books shows people would rather not recognize them, she said.

And the library’s role is to protect books, she said.

“We’re about providing information for everybody, so even though a particular book may seem inappropriate to one person, it may fit the needs of another person, so we try to have books that address many different people’s lives and interests and needs,” said Berggren-Thomas.

Even seemingly innocuous children’s books like “The Giving Tree,” have been banned by school districts, Harvey said. The reason? One Kansas school district thought it promoted selfishness.

And at the height of irony, “Fahrenheit 451,” a book about burning and banning books, made the list of the 100 most commonly banned books from 2000 to 2009.

Other commonly banned books include “Animal Farm,” George Orwell’s 1945 allegorical tale of social hierarchy on an animal farm, which he had difficulty publishing because of its political commentary, and Mark Twain’s “Huckleberry Finn,” published in 1884 and banned in places because of its use of racial slurs.

The books have to be looked at in context, said Tammy Sickmon, Cortland’s youth services librarian. She said that if parents raise a concern about a book, she will listen to their concern. She will also explain the reasons why the book is on the shelf.

“A lot of people who want to ban books are just misunderstood or scared about talking about certain topics,” Sickmon said. “Some issues in banned books are great conversation starters for families to have because they are going to run into these situations.”

Ultimately, it comes down to freedom of choice, Sickmon said. “Just because you don’t like a book doesn’t mean we should ban it, you can choose not to read it.”