By Judit H. Ward and Nicholas Allred
New Brunswick Libraries partnered with the Student College, Academic, and Research Libraries Association (SCARLA), the Library and Information Science Student Association (LISSA), and the SC&I Alumni Association to host an online Banned Books Week event on October 1, 2020. The engaging event called Banned: a virtual read-out and discussion on the freedom to read featured read-outs of banned books from students and faculty, flash talks from SC&I and NBL faculty, a zine workshop, and trivia from LISSA. The 90-minute student-hosted event was extremely well received. It managed to connect a variety of audiences across Rutgers fostering a greater sense of community through sharing personal narratives and experiences. See a sample list of Banned Books we read at the event.
The Books We Read team at Chang also documented the event with a page dedicated to Banned Books Week 2020, complemented with a collection of short essays inspired by the flash talks. In the Introduction to Banned Books Graduate Specialist Nicholas Allred poses the ultimate question “Why study censorship?” His perspective, based on his main interest in British literature, suggests that censorship can often provide a window into the anxieties of the censoring authorities. As an example, he mentions George Orwell’s Animal Farm, banned in the Soviet bloc, “because the allegory of a barnyard revolution hijacked by a regime of self-serving pigs who hollow out its utopian promises hit too close to home.”
Censorship has also shaped publishing and literary history, lending a thrill of the forbidden to challenged works and spurring DIY publication tactics like zines, the topic of Art Librarian Megan Lotts’ presentation entitled What is a Zine? In her definition, zines represent a unique subculture which has emerged around making and collecting as a powerful tool representing creative, low-cost, DIY means of self-expression and idea sharing. She recommended exploring zines in libraries not only as a creative way to learn about visual culture, open-access, visual literacy, and information but also as an engaging and non-threatening way to talk about issues around cultural appropriation, cultural sensitivity, and inclusivity.
The Banned Books Week event also reminds us of what we have to lose. A flash talk by science librarian Judit Ward What is Samizdat? highlighted this term from the Cold War, referring to the underground publication and circulation of articles or books with political views in stark contrast to the party line. Samizdat editions were books that covered current political topics, written by foreign authors with political content, or new publications of blacklisted authors. Forbidden to publish, read, and circulate, these titles taught generations to reflect and read between lines for ever.
“Censorship succeeds when no one talks about it”––NBL Special Projects Librarian and SC&I lecturer Nancy Kranich emphasized the importance of celebrating Banned Books Week in her flash talk entitled Ban No More. Focusing on the role of libraries and librarians, she also suggested that more banning would occur without librarians, teachers, journalists and others speaking out to defend the freedom to read. Although books in libraries are constantly challenged, i.e., someone tries to remove or restrict them based on their content, library policies and practices can ensure that (unlike during the Cold War in the Eastern Bloc) the freedom to read will prevail as one of the most basic freedoms of democracy.
A large portion of challenged titles belongs to a genre called Young Adult (YA) literature. Challenged for their difficult topics related to gender, mental health, violence, or racism to protect the readers dealing with these problems in their everyday lives, many of these Banned Bestsellers can actually function conversely and assist processing the issue at hand instead, as suggested by Julie Rossano, Books We Read team member and graduate student in the course taught by Marc Aronson at SC&I.
Banning books has been a long practice as a form of censorship for a great variety of reasons. Spearheaded by the American Library Association, Banned Books Week (September 27 – October 3, 2020) is an annual event celebrating the freedom to read. The Office for Intellectual Freedom (OIF) compiles lists of challenged books based on reports received from libraries, schools, and the media on attempts to ban books in the United States.