Sunday marked the beginning of banned books week. The celebration involves more than just literature. Stacia McGourty is a librarian working at Anchorage’s Loussac Library. She says this week is a huge deal for her profession.
“Banned Books Week is a national holiday for libraries,” McGourty said, laughing.
And that’s because banned books week is all about celebrating the freedom to read what we want. It’s also a way to bring to light the banned books of past and present. McGourty says more books get challenged than banned these days. The challenges, which are the first step of banning, usually come from school districts.
Some of the most banned books in school libraries are classics like To Kill a Mockingbird and Of Mice and Men. But McGourty says the most commonly banned book is one you likely haven’t heard of – unless of course you are a parent of a 10-year-old boy.
“Captain Underpants is probably number one this year,” McGourty said. “It is an elementary-age graphic novel, and it’s basically a super hero cartoon. I haven’t read this book but it’s been super popular. It’s been popular ever since I was in college working at the book store and it’s popular now. We still have kids asking for it.”
Captain Underpants aside, McGourty says these banned and challenged books are usually serious and sometimes absurd censorships.
“In 1987 Anchorage School Districts banned a dictionary for having slanged definitions for certain words,” she said.
McGourty says banning books in a public library is much harder than doing it in a school, but it does happen. She says anyone can try to ban a book.
“Every library has their own process. At ours you would fill out a comment sheet and it would go to the director. You have to be very specific in why you think it needs to be taken off the shelf, you can’t take things out of context and you have to read the entire book,” McGourty said. “It’s a lot harder in a public library than a school library, because we are a library of the people.”
McGourty says most people at her library bypass the banning process, and take their censorship into their own hands.
“You have plenty of people who check out a book and never return it, because they don’t think anyone else needs to have that book. Or you have people who return it but black out certain things,” McGourty said. “There is a picture book called In the Night Kitchen by Maurice Sendack. There’s a picture of a little boy, and he just happens to be naked in the kitchen. And sometimes people draw a little bathing suit on the boy.”
McGourty says you might be tempted to think that if a little vandalism is the worst that’s happening, and if most these book challenges don’t end in actual bans, why make such a big deal about Banned Books Week?
“I think it’s important because you should be aware that you have the freedom to read and explore the ideas you want. You think about China and how they block certain Google searches,” McGourty said. “So it’s not just books, it’s really about protecting ideas and protecting access to information. Because libraries offer free and equitable access to information and a place for the community to come together and learn.”