Banned Books Week 2013

Orwell and the Librarian, a Love Story

You can’t have a Banned Books Week celebration without George Orwell. I first read Animal Farm when I was a kid. Don’t recall how I got my hands on it or why my mom didn’t take it away. For years I thought it was a nice tale about talking animals, though the pigs were kind of mean. Babe was plusgood, and Charlotte’s Web was doubleplusgood, but Animal Farm was fine enough. When I reread it—and read 1984 for the first time—in my Political Science class senior year of highschool, I realized just how far over my 8-year-old head the Soviet critique and Bolshevism went.

(Side note: If you can get your hands on the 50th anniversary edition of Animal Farm, do it. It was illustrated by the great Ralph Steadman, aka the artist who did Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.)

For a little background, George Orwell, nom de plume of English-born Eric Arthur Blair, wrote his two most famous works toward the end of WWII, he initially had a hard time finding a publisher. Animal Farm wasn’t released until 1945 and 1984 in 1949 because many Americans and British people held the Soviets in high esteem after the war, at least until Stalin dropped the Iron Curtain. Animal Farm is a direct criticism of the Russian Revolution of 1917, not necessarily the revolution itself but the manner in which it was co-opted by greed, arrogance, and corruption; 1984 is both a takedown of fascism and a warning to maintain vigilance to prevent such totalitarianism. The former is an allegorical tale of the collapse of Soviet Socialism at the hand of Stalin’s tyranny. The latter pulls the allegory into the real world by imagining the world after years of tyranny when the oppressed have been under the heel so long they have accepted it as a way of life.

Though I no longer work in a public library and instead spend most of my workday deciphering Victorian cursive, I’m still a librarian. Before I discovered the fascinating and dusty world of archives, I worked the reference desk at a public library, which means Banned Books Week is practically a religious holiday for me. I look forward to the last week of September like couples look forward to Valentine’s Day. Rather than buying chalky candy hearts and handing out punny love notes, I pull my favorite banned books off my shelves and read as many as I can before the week is up. When I worked at public library, this was the week that I bombarded teens and adults with recommendations of Banned Books. I have even been known to create impromptu Banned Books displays in bookstores I don’t work at. I really like Banned Books Week, is what I’m saying.

Animal Farm George OrwellBeyond the fact that 1984 and Animal Farm are extremely well written, part of their popularity was due to the intensity of the Cold War. Not surprisingly, both were banned in the U.S.S.R. (the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, for all you young’uns). Both have also been frequently challenged stateside. They are dinged for being “pro-Communist” and, contradictorily enough, also “anti-government.” 1984 gets the added bonus of “explicit sexual content,” which reminds me to recommend Vox by Nicholson Baker if you want a good read with actual explicit sexual content. By-the-bye, the three most frequent accusations hurled at challenged books are sexual content, offensive language, and unsuited for age group. If it’s not “two consenting adult kissed in my adult fiction book!” then it’s “a fictional character said a word I don’t like!” or “books for kids should only be about happy things like kittens and flowers!” My favorite challenge was when a parent would bring me some obviously adult book like Beloved or One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and complain that their 6-year-old found it too scary. It happens more than you might think.

People who are still pissed about Orwell’s literary opinions make me tired. Heaven forefend someone put some thought into their political philosophy rather than toeing the party line. They have every right to get up in arms about the content of a book nearly 70-years-old, and as a librarian I’ll listen patiently to the rant and thank them for their thoughts. They have every right to express their opinion about the contents held by the organization they are patronizing, but just because we listen to their opinions doesn’t mean we are required to act on them. As a country, we collectively agreed to the Constitution, and as a person whose job it is to provide information access to said people, I will not violate our own rules because one dude has a problem with a dead author.

What a lot of people don’t realize is that librarians (and archivists) take the First Amendment very seriously. VERY SERIOUSLY. Freedom of speech and the rejection of censorship are part of the Library Bill of Rights and our professional Code of Ethics. There are classes, workshops, and seminars on it. We endlessly analyze its nuances. We debate whether a complaint should be considered a challenge and how to tell if a challenge or complaint has merit. It’s an issue that wouldn’t go away even if we wanted it to. And we don’t. As an archivist, I deal with the same issues, but instead of having someone yell at me because Huck Finn said something racist, people yell at me because their ancestors wrote about how they killed a bunch of Native Americans in battle. Instead of challenged books, people want me to censor the worst parts of human history, to not tell anyone about the time a nearby town burned down its Chinatown, about how we were a Jim Crow county despite being in a free state, about how our early pioneers built their homes on land they stole from the Californios. Censorship is censorship, and I won’t be a part of it. To quote the ALA, “The American Library Association promotes the freedom to choose or the freedom to express one’s opinions even if that opinion might be considered unorthodox or unpopular, and stresses the importance of ensuring the availability of those viewpoints to all who wish to read them.”

George Orwell 1984The reason why the public computers erase anything left on the desktop and clear the browser history when you log out? The reason your library doesn’t automatically keep a record of books you’ve returned? The reason we’re such sticklers about ID and not giving out private account information? Because we don’t want anyone, not a fellow patron, not the branch head, not the board of trustees, not the cops, and not the government to come in and demand to know what our patrons are doing. The library is a free, public space, which means it’s my job as a librarian to make sure you have the ability to exercise that freedom. I may not like your opinions, but you have the right to express them. It’s my job to not judge you and to make sure you have access to all materials you may need, unless they’re detrimental to the public as a whole. A public library is funded by your taxpayer dollars, so it’s our imperative to use that money responsibly and fairly.

This sounds like a slippery slope situation, and sometimes it is. But most of the time, it’s a system that works relatively well. For a lot of people, particularly kids and teens, the library is the only place they can go where they have access to the things they’re interested in without judgment or mockery. They don’t have to spend money, and they don’t even have to take it home. You have no idea how thrilling it is to give a book or DVD to a patron that is outside their comfort zone and have them come back in a week begging for more. And if it’s material that makes them think, that opens their eyes to new concepts, philosophies, histories, events, etc. even better. I even gave some of my patrons access to my personal library for books, comics, graphic novels, and DVDs not available in the branch system but that needed to be on their To Read piles (most circulated: Story of O, Preacher, and Soldier’s Girl).

Banned Books Week is more than just your yearly reminder to read more Orwell. It’s a chance to stand up to censorship. Which is basically what 1984 and Animal Farm were about to begin with. Animal Farm shows what happens when the proles don’t push back against those who silence them, and 1984 shows what happens when they finally do. A librarian’s job is to protect the library and its patrons from censorship of all kinds. Comrade Napoleon has no power over us. We keep Big Brother out.

Banned Books Week 2013 is being celebrated from Sept. 22 to the 28; further information on Banned and Frequently Challenged Books is available from the American Library Association.

Alex Brown is an archivist, research librarian, writer, geeknerdloserweirdo, and all-around pop culture obsessive who watches entirely too much TV. Keep up with her every move on Twitter, or get lost in the rabbit warren of ships and fandoms on her Tumblr.


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