The main thing I’ve learned from Banned Books Week is that book banning is a pretty minor problem

Last week, I read a number of blog posts about Banned Books Week. A number of writers, editors, and critics decried the removal of books from libraries and schools, and directed my attention to the American Library Association’s list of most challenged books (2010’s list included Twilight, Brave New World, and The Hunger Games).

I found the whole thing rather boring.

The main thing I’ve gleaned from Banned Books Week is that book banning is not a real problem: their own website says that there were only 348 challenges (that is, individual books challenged at individual libraries / schools) in 2010. There are 122,101 libraries in America (including school libraries). That makes one book challenged per 350 libraries. Even if the ALA is right in saying that their methodology for measuring the number of challenges only manages to capture 10-20% of the total, that would still mean that (at worst) there’d be a challenge at only 1 in 50 libraries.

I mean, sure, banning books is bad. I agree with that. But everyone (especially librarians) agrees with that. That’s why no books are banned (in the sense of their publication being forbidden) and so few books are removed from libraries (i.e. are not provided, for free, by the government).

Banned Books Week is emblematic of the progressive tendency to refight battles that were won in the 50s and 60s. Speaking out against book banning is uncontroversial and it feels good. I have no problem with that (well, except that it’s boring).

But there is a tone of triumphalism to the whole book-banning meme that is somewhat at odds with reality. The effect of Banned Books Week is to suggest that we’re freer today than we were in the past; that once upon a time, James Joyce might have been unable to publish Ulysses, but nowadays, the worst impingement of government into literature is that a middle school library in Huntington Beach, CA decided to require permission from a parent before allowing students to check out Maya Angelou’s I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings.

And we are better off, if all we care about is banned books. But in many ways, it’s much harder to access public information than it was 5, 10, or 15 years ago.

That’s because the funding for libraries is being chopped as a result of this recession. Here in Oakland, several branches have closed. Almost every municipality is slashing library hours and operating budgets. I understand that. A library is not something that a city or county absolutely owes to its citizens, the way it owes them decent firefighting, policing, and schooling.

But curtailment of library services seems like far more of a challenge to the printed word than the banning of books. The books that get banned tend to be amongst the most widely circulated books and popular books in America (err…and children’s books with homosexual themes). They’re the books that it’s fairly easy to get.

But when library services are curtailed, it becomes harder to get every book. Shorter operating hours means that working people find it harder to get to the library. Fewer branches means that people without cars (like kids) can’t go to the library. Smaller budgets means fewer books, which means that the less frequently checked out books (by definition, the minority viewpoints) get sold off or thrown out.

Libraries are a very intensively utilized resource. I’ve never been in a library that has not been full of people. Some library services, like internet access on their computers, seem pretty essential to the people who use them. Whenever I go to the library, I see people checking out books that they need: cookbooks, religious books, diet books, books on searching for jobs, and, of course, fiction.

Personally, I could not read the way I do without the library. About half the books I read nowadays come from either Oakland or Berkeley’s library system. When I became a member of Berkeley’s library, I experienced first-hand the difference that a well-funded library system can make.

Previously, I had been at the mercy of the rather limited collections of Oakland and D.C. I mean, the number of books these large metro libraries possessed was large, but their collection did not include numerous out of print or small print run books. If I wanted those books, I had to buy them. Now, that was not a hardship, for me, but it did discourage a spirit of adventure. I couldn’t take a chance on the book that I didn’t know much about but which might have been really great. In many cases, I didn’t read the books that I was interested in.

However, with Berkeley’s Link+ online interlibrary loan system, I can read pretty much any book that has ever been published. Seriously, I have not yet encountered a single book that I can’t request, online, from an affiliate library. Whether it’s a small-press poetry collection or a scholarly ethnography from an academic press, I can have it delivered to the closest branch of the Berkeley library (usually from some university library).

This is an incredibly useful service. But it must also be fairly expensive. Librarians in distant cities are putting books on trucks or planes for me and sending them hundreds (and sometimes thousands) of miles just so I can read them. For free.

And I’m not even a resident of Berkeley. I live in Oakland. The city of Berkeley is extending me a very generous subsidy. I earn enough money to buy the books I want. But Berkeley feels that it’s important for me (some random guy) to have access to every book ever written.

That’s a huge leap of faith. It is stunning that the government possesses so much belief in the power of books. And there’s something very weird and atypical about this (and about the library system in general).

There’s something about the library that is out of line with the current spirit in America. Libraries are too generous. They are too free and too open to everyone. In many communities, the library is the only building where every person can come inside and spend time without time limits or monetary expenditures. There is nothing else like the library in modern society. There is no government service (save possibly the roads) that you can use without expenditure and without restriction and regardless of your income level. Everything else the government provides is yielded up at a mean, subsistence level. It’s designed to keep you alive, rather than to nurture you.

Libraries aren’t like that, yet, but it’s easy to imagine a day when will be. On that day, we’re not going to be worried about Twilight being banned from the library. We’re going to worry about it being the only thing left in the library.

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