Happy Banned Books Week Sunday, Sep 30 2007 

I always thought banned books week was awesome.  I loved throwing my full enjoyment of “offensive” books in the face of every high strung parent that was too involved in my elementary school (not to mention the teachers).  As I aged, I came to realize that, though the celebration of these works is wonderful and exciting, the need to celebrate it is sad.  I’m saddened by the fact that freedom of information is, in this day and age, still so frowned upon by well-meaning individuals who should be talking to their children about issues that concern them, instead of placing the responsibility on libraries to keep anything “offensive” away from their children.  And don’t even get me started on the fact that two male penguins raising a penguin egg together is “offensive.”  If you stay in touch with your children’s lives (as much as they will let you), and you know what they’re reading and you talk to them about it, maybe you’ll find that these books aren’t so bad for them.  Maybe you’ll even help them deal with some of the same issues that the characters in these books do, and in helping them, you’ll make sure your child knows that they can trust you.


Anyway, in celebration of Banned Books Week, here’s a look at the top ten banned books of the last year.   

1)     “And Tango Makes Three” by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell,   for homosexuality, anti-family, and unsuited to age group;  

I love penguins, and therefore adore this book.  And I have to say, it’s about as pro-family as a penguin book can get.  Seriously, what’s anti-family about two loving penguins raising a third tiny, fluffy, adorable penguin as there own?  Also, it’s a picture book about talking animals.

2)     “Gossip Girls” series by Cecily Von Ziegesar for homosexuality, sexual content, drugs, unsuited to age group, and offensive language

Yes, I’ve read Gossip Girl, and yes, I like it.  And no, I don’t admit that often.  Sure it’s dirty and mean and full of stuff that I don’t think fifteen year old girls should be trying to emulate, but guess what, so is high school.  Why stop them from reading about it when they’re going through their own less-glamorous version of it every day anyway?

3)     “Alice” series by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor for sexual content and offensive language;

I’ve actually never read the Alice series, but I remember checking these books out to many a fourth grader, and never heard anyone complain.  I may have to go out and pick up some of these to see what all the fuss is about.

4)     “The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things” by Carolyn Mackler for sexual content, anti-family, offensive language, and unsuited to age group;

 God forbid someone write a book in which a teenage girl goes through typical teenage girl issues!  We certainly don’t want our children relating to a character. 

5)     “The Bluest Eye” by Toni Morrison for sexual content, offensive language, and unsuited to age group;

 If you’re old enough to be capable of reading Toni Morrison, then you’re old to be allowed to read Toni Morrison.  Seriously, it’s not easy.  And, to some extent, it’s meant to be offensive, because it’s meant to make you think about the realities that the author is presenting.

6)  “Scary Stories” series by Alvin Schwartz for occult/Satanism, unsuited to age group, violence, and insensitivity;

Satanism.  Really?  Don’t get me wrong, this book freaked me out and gave me nightmares when I was a kid.  I still get creeped out at the memory of that picture of the lady who had spider eggs laid in her face and they all hatched and came crawling out.  But satanism.  Really?

7)     “Athletic Shorts” by Chris Crutcher for homosexuality and offensive language.

Again, I’ve never read this book (or collection of short stories), but like The Earth, My Butt and Other Big Round Things, I think it’s focus is on confronting actual issues, such as relationships between teenagers and parents and emerging sexuality, that real teenagers deal with and giving them a positive way to relate to their own situations.  I know that parents like to overprotect, and that they’re scared of the very fact that their children have to confront these issues.  But in the end, they have to deal with them one way or another.  Banning a book because it deals with the very real and present issue of homosexuality in high school isn’t going to make the issue go away.

8)     “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” by Stephen Chbosky for homosexuality, sexually explicit, offensive language, and unsuited to age group

This is a beautiful book.  Perhaps its a bit sophisticated for some fifteen year olds, but it captures that world in a way that is neither cliched, nor glizty glamorous, like so much teen lit in the last few years.  To take it away from teens because it’s “unsuited for their age group” is to say that they themselves, and what they go through is unsuted for their age group. 

9)     “Beloved” by Toni Morrison for offensive language, sexual content, and unsuited to age group;

See note on The Bluest Eye.  Multiply by ten.  Seriously.  I’ve never been able to get through it.  It’s too damn hard to follow.

10)     “The Chocolate War” by Robert Cormier for sexual content, offensive language, and violence.

Yes, this book is disturbing.  Yes it challenges you to think.  Yes, that’s the freaking point. 

For more information about banned books, check out ALA’s site on the most frequently banned books of the 1990’s.  Another great resource is, of course, Amnesty International’s page on Banned Books Week.  Or visit your local library (how PBS does that sound?  Awesome.)


Library is not a dirty word Sunday, Sep 23 2007 

 In my many years of liberal arts education, I have been endlessly confronted with twittering professors going on and on about the “death of the university.”  Coming from a Big Ten school, my reaction was always that as long as people pay money to go see college football games, the university will keep growing strong.  But I do have to concede that things are changing, and the traditional liberal arts education doesn’t get you as far in life as it did in, oh, 1870.  The debate over how we, as scholars and academic, should react to these changes strikes me as highly similar to a debate that’s currently getting a lot of attention in the library world.  On one side, academics in the humanities fear overshadowing by the hard sciences and business.  A lack of funding and a growing number of students foregoing the traditional liberal arts education lead to such fears.  On the other side, traditional librarians seem to fear the supplanting of their institutions by resources such as google and online encyclopedias (Zaslow 2007).  They fear that soon no one will need to go to the library to do research—everything will be accessible from home.  The nervousness felt by both professions seem strikingly parallel, however they verge away from each other quite sharply in the manner each profession chooses to deal with their anxieties.  While humanities professors sit and worry, railing against any department that receives more funding than they do, librarians increasingly seem to go the opposite direction.  Unlike their colleagues in the universities, too many not only embrace the changes in technology and accessibility of information, but strive far ahead of themselves in their willingness to “change with the times.”  The Unversity of Washington’s decision to strike the word “Library” from their information science program comes to mind as one very obvious example, but it is hardly the only instance of this mind-set out there.

           When you think of the word library, what image comes to mind?  Maybe those ugly, 1970’s style orange chairs they had in the reading room in your public library.  Maybe the musty smell of old, half-forgotten books.  Maybe even the streamlined, high-tech library built on donations at your college campus.  I, personally, conjure up an image akin to this:

library stacks

  Ok, so yes, this is a picture of Biblioteca de la Real Academia de la Lengua Madrid, not the West Lafayette, Indiana Public Library, but come on, it’s hot.  You see a picture like that and you can’t possibly promote the idea that libraries should be obsolete in favor of completely digital “information centers.”  So, I argue that, rather than striking the word “library” from our vocabulary, we simply need to look at it from another direction and expand the definition.  As Michael A. Keller, Victoria A. Reich, and Andrew C. Herkovic (2003) suggest, “The prediction that libraries are becoming obsolete or useless…reflects a lack of appreciation of libraries’ deep, often hidden functions, especially in the realm of digital information resources;” this particular thought is one librarians must keep in mind for the future.  It suggests that libraries are not simply repositories of books, but complex and useful centers made for the guided exchange of information.

            Keller et al. have the right idea about the future of libraries, however, some might go too far by using their argument as a justification for doing away with the word “library.”  If libraries hold so much information not found merely in physical, printed texts, then the word “library” does not begin to describe the complexity of the institution.  The argument suggests that the word library, as a derivative from the latin librarium, meaning book case, suggests too traditional a meaning.  Instead, to reflect the diverse and technologically relevant nature of modern libraries, the name should be changed to a comparatively modern title such as “information center.”  Despite the seemingly simple reasoning behind this suggestion, it goes too far in the right direction.  If “library” suggests too specific a meaning, then “information center” suggests one far too broad.  After all, an information center can easily be the name of the help desk at the local shopping mall.  While “library” may suggest a certain specificity to some, most patrons understand that a library is more than books.  “Library” has been and remains a recognizable term that invites patrons to come in searching for information; it suggests a place (whether it be physical or not) where they can find credible resources on a topic, and, perhaps even more important, receive guidance from an individual trained to help them navigate the sometimes overwhelming world of information they are trying to access.  In order to keep libraries—no matter what their particular collection or mission—functioning and useful resources, they must be recognizable as part of a larger system of similar institutions aimed at providing an interactive research experience.  The term “library” has been ingrained in society to suggest just such an interactive institution, where knowledge is shared, not acquired; “information center” just cannot compete with such an idea.  And come on, who wants a sterile, computerzed environment full of flashy lights and computer buzzing when they can have that PLUS rows upon rows of polished bookshelves, filled to the brim with books?


Click here to see the book these images came from.