A history of libraries and banned books

Banned Books Week recently passed, which gave librarians and patrons alike a chance to re-examine the milestones that our country has seen in book censorship. Many pieces of literature have been challenged over the years, but one thing is for certain: libraries have always been at the forefront of allowing patrons the freedom to choose what they wish to read.

According to the American Library Association, even if the viewpoints expressed in the material are "unorthodox or unpopular," readers should ultimately have the choice and opportunity to read whatever book they choose. This has been a major source of controversy for some time, and continues to dominate headlines today.

The differences between challenged books and banned books
A challenged book, according to the ALA, is material that has undergone attempts for removal or restriction based upon the reactions of a particular person or group. Banned books are works that actually have undergone the process of removal. In many cases, the support from libraries, teachers, concerned citizens and parents have made it difficult for organizations to ban art in many forms, including the written word. However, there have been some famous and highly influential pieces of literature that have been banned or challenged over the years, including:

  • "Of Mice and Men" by John Steinbeck
  • The Harry Potter Series by J.K. Rowling
  • "Slaughterhouse-Five" by Kurt Vonnegut
  • The Goosebumps Series by R.L. Stine
  • "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" by Mark Twain
  • "The Perks of Being a Wallflower" by Stephen Chbosky
  • "The Origin of Species" by Charles Darwin
  • "Catcher in the Rye" by J.D. Salinger
  • "To Kill a Mockingbird" by Harper Lee
  • "Animal Farm" by George Orwell
  • "Harriet the Spy" by Louise Fitzhugh

And those are only scratching the surface. Although these works are critical, cultural and commercial successes in many regards, and have been part of teaching curricula worldwide for many years, the debate over banning books continues well into the 21st century.

Reasoning behind banned and challenged books
As the ALA states, much of the reasoning behind book banning is to protect children from various ideas or information. However, due to the First Amendment, book banning is rare because of its inherent silencing of individual expression. ALA's Library Bill of Rights also clearly states that "Librarians and governing bodies should maintain that parents - and only parents - have the right and the responsibility to restrict the access of their children - and only their children - to library resources." Many groups of all kinds over the years have tried their hand at book banning, but parents tend to challenge library materials and resources more than any other demographic.

The ALA has even created an Office for Intellectual Freedom that focuses solely on reports from libraries and schools about book bans across the country. The ALA also publicly condemns this type of censorship.

Ways that librarians can celebrate challenged/banned books
Libraries are meant to be free and open resource centers for all, and this includes material that might be considered unpopular, politically incorrect, or even taboo. For more than three decades, the ALA has been celebrating Banned Books Week as a way to protect patrons' First Amendment rights. However, there are many ways you can celebrate these works of literature year-round. Here are a few great activity ideas to get you started:

  • Have a reading and book club discussion centered around a banned book.
  • Host a banned books debate so patrons can become well informed on both sides of the issue.
  • Create a timeline showing the banned books over history and how these challenges shaped social and political movements.
  • Use Banned Books Week as an opportunity to teach your patrons about the First Amendment and their constitutional rights.


Bethany Cummings
Associate Marketing Writer