In Defense of Banned Books Week

By James LaRue

September 26 - October 3, 1998 is what the American Library Association calls "Banned Books Week." This is the 17th year of its observance.

I think of it like this: libraries try to stay on guard against censorship, much as firefighters keep an eye out for smoke. Banned Books Weeks is a Fire Prevention Week for libraries.

Most of what libraries do, of course, doesn't involve standing up for unpopular books. As a public library director, I do get anwhere between 10 and 20 "challenges" to materials a year (where a challenge can be someone just complaining about how much they disliked a book, or an aggressive push to get me to remove it from our shelves altogether). Some of the complaints I agree with. Some, I don't. On only one occasion have I removed a book -- a book so dated we should have gotten rid of it ourselves.

On the other hand, occasionally somebody catches us in a cataloging goof. Often, they recommend titles that give a different view of the subject. We correct the goofs, and add the recommended titles. From my perspective, challenges make the library's collection better.

But contrast that sprinkle of challenges with far more positive news about the Douglas Public Library District. In a single year, we add almost 40,000 new items, over 12% of which are direct patron requests. Moreover, we check out over a million items, a quarter of a million to children. We offer hundreds of programs that result in tens of thousands of visits by parents and their children together. Our reference staff answer countless questions about everything from home repair to homework assignments. That's a far truer picture of what the library does, and how it is received by this community.

Well, several years ago (September 18, 1995, to be exact), a group called Focus on the Family (a Colorado Springs-based Christian organization active in various political causes) issued a press release that denounced Banned Books Week as "alarmist," "misleading," and even "hysterical." The American Library Association was accused of trying to silence concerned parents by branding them as censors. Nobody was trying to ban any books! they suggested. That was just ALA propaganda.

Beginning just two years later, those same self-styled Christian leaders are pushing a "nationwide movement" to remove books from libraries. The target in Douglas County is something called "Radiant Identities." (More about this below.)

The timing is no coincidence. Another organization -- Family Friendly Libraries, which is heartily endorsed by Focus on the Family -- has recently proposed replacing the "negative and divisive" Banned Books Week with a "Family Friendly Libraries Week."

And what is a family friendly library? Why, (among other things) it's a library that bans books!

Frankly, I find all this a little frustrating. There's not much conservative radio commentary about the thousands of dollars of materials public libraries purchase from Focus on the Family and other Christian publishers, or the many truly "family friendly" services I described above. Instead, we get a call to the public to "draw the line" at (i.e. "remove") a book called "Radiant Identities," by critically acclaimed photographer Jock Sturges.

This book, which we have owned since 1995 and has been checked out and returned without comment several times, does have a theme some will find disturbing.

The subject of the black and white photographs is "emergent sexuality." Most of the photographs were taken on nudist beaches in Northern California and France. Most of the models are young women, transfixed by film in that all-too-brief moment between childhood and maturity.

While the girls and women are (usually) nude, the pictures, in my judgment, arouse not lust, but a kind of wistfulness. They portray the unconscious beauty, the true "radiance" of these young women.

It's worth noting that the models (and the models' parents) all gave express permission for the use of these photographs. Incidentally, the book also includes some of their comments on the experience of being photographed, and what they see in the pictures.

Sturges is a serious craftsman, an artist who has done something artists are good at: discovering beauty while at the same confronting one of the neuroses of our society.

In these United States of America, we have thoroughly eroticized (and commercialized) the female body, using the subtext of sex to sell everything from shampoo to stockings. At the same time we learn that young women are reaching puberty some two to three years earlier than ever before, the debate rages about how to shove that emergent sexuality back into unconsciousness, to wall it off somehow. School uniforms with longer hemlines? All-girl schools? Sex education that focuses only on abstinence? Teen marriage?

In short, Sturges' photographs aren't just controversial because they expose human skin. They actually make you think. As I understand it, that's just the kind of situation Banned Books Week was designed to highlight.

"If there is a bedrock principle underlying the First Amendment, it is that the Government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea itself offensive or disagreeable." - Supreme Court Justice William Brennan, in Texas v. Johnson.