Banned Books Week – Something Libraries Get Wrong!

A brief preface: I use the term “book” to cover all media: anything reproduced be it electronically generated or printed, including audio and video.

This year, 2010, September 25 through October 2 was Banned Books Week. The annual celebration of books, that library supporters use to argue that libraries are good because they have books the library supporters want other people to read. The library supporters counter the “evil” library detractors who say , libraries should not provide books that the library detractors want to prohibit other people from reading. Neither group reads anything of interest themselves, they are simply concerned about others. The lists of books published by the ALA, sadly are in advertising poster format, rather than a list. For some reason, I never see a poster that says “Read Naked Lunch Now!” Or more radically, “Watch Deep Throat Now! Actually I don’t remember seeing either title on this years list; though it would be embarrassing if Naked Lunch had never made it, so I assume it has. Instead I see a long list of accounts of people complaining about the political, sexual, and religious content of some book used in a junior or senior high school class.

What do you mean, “something libraries get wrong?” I pretend to hear you ask, as though someone besides the author read this blog. When it comes to freedom from censorship, at least for now, the internet trumps libraries in every respect, especially the radical lawless bit torrenting, copyright ignoring, fringe of the internet. The internet delivers unlimited unrestricted access to everything from pornography to college courses; public libraries deliver a very restricted subset. The problem with public libraries is they buy books for other people to read. People use the internet for themselves. The conflicts are not about government censorship being used to preserve political dominance, they are conflicts between two groups arguing about who has the power to tell a third unempowered group, mostly school students, what they should read.

Are there solutions? Yes. Encourage people to have secure private access to whatever books they want! Don’t libraries do that? No they don’t even come close, but the internet does come close for the sophisticated internet user. What about the unsophisticated? The less you know the more difficult it is for you; that has always been true.

Surely banned books week is good for something! It does provide a list of books to read and increase the sales in bookstores. If your desired banned books is out of copyright you can get a “free” copy from The Internet Archive, as announced by Open Culture. The important difference between libraries, bookstores, and the internet is the cost. Note, that the Internet Archive, has only those bastions of radicalism that are out of copyright. Libraries aren’t free! It is the worst myth. Public libraries provide access to a subset of approved materials. That subset can be very large for those who are willing to abandon anonymity and to learn the vagaries of an individual library and meet its requirements for making requests to get material not on the self. If you want the same degree of anonymity you have on the internet, you are pretty much limited to what is sitting on the open stack shelf while you sit there.

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