What is the definition of a book ban? Librarians, authors and others weigh in: NPR

Librarian Sabrina Jesram arranges an exhibition of books during Banned Books Week at a New York City public library branch on September 23, 2022.

Ted Shaffrey/AP/AP


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“Book ban” is one of those terms often used by the news media, including NPR, for stories about the rise of book challenges in the US.

The American Library Association launched its annual Week of banned books in 1982. There are banned book clubs. States have introduced or passedlaws these are called book bans. Meanwhile, many people fighting to have books removed from school libraries are not fans of the term book ban.

The practice of censoring books has been around for a long time centuries. But what does it actually mean to ban a book? The answer depends on who you ask. Here are a handful of definitions from people involved in the issue:

Kasey Meehan, program director of PEN America's Freedom to Read (speaking at a video press conference in April): “We define a book ban as any action taken against a book based on its content that results in a previously accessible book being completely removed from availability is removed for students or where access to a book is limited or reduced. PEN is perhaps a bit unique, unlike ALA [American Library Association] and some others, in that we do consider books removed while awaiting review to be banned. We include that because we know books are reviewed. Until students lose access to these books, these books could remain removed for weeks, months, or even a year, as we have seen in some cases.”

NOTE: The American Enterprise Institute has taken issue with PEN America's definition. a study AEI, conducted for the Educational Freedom Institute, looked at PEN America's 2021-2022 “index of banned books” and found that “74 percent of books” listed as banned “are listed as available in the same districts from which PEN America says those books were banned.”

Emily Drabinski, president of the American Library Association: “A 'book ban' is the removal of a title from a library because someone considers it harmful or dangerous. A “challenge” occurs when someone objects to a library material, program, or service. “Reconsideration” is the formal process that libraries go through to determine whether a book meets the library's selection criteria. We reserve a 'book ban' for… a book that meets that criterion and has been completely removed from the collection. … You often find that books are challenged and then go through a review process and sometimes they get taken out and banned and other times they end up back on the shelves. I think that sometimes our policymakers and many of the people who are active in the pro-censorship movement do not fully appreciate or understand the fact that many Americans, a large portion of them, do not have access to books in any other way except through their library, through their school or public or academic library.

Joe Tier, a self-described “concerned grandparent and parent living in Eldersburg, Maryland”: “I think [the term book ban is] intended to be inflammatory and to obscure the constructive dialogue that should be taking place about age-appropriate content. It could be a dog whistle used to stoke anger against those who oppose limiting sexually explicit content in public school libraries. … You really can't ban anything these days, you know, material-wise, because you have the Internet and you have PDFs. And so the term book ban is almost outdated.”

Mustafa Akyol, senior fellow at the Cato Institute and author of Islam without extremes (banned in Malaysia in 2017): “When [a book] is prohibited, it is not available and therefore it is not legal to sell it. That's what a book ban means. … I was arrested at Kuala Lumpur International Airport… After 18 hours of arrest by the Malaysian religious police, I was released… Bookstores could not sell [Islam Without Extremes] in Malaysia. My book was unavailable… There could be regimes that even go after people for owning a copy of the book… I don't think there are literal book bans in the United States. When a book is banned, the authority literally says that this book is not legal.Sometimes people use hyperbolic language to express their thoughts on a particular issue, and that can be a problem. And that divisive rhetoric makes everything worse. So you cannot reasonably agree on a reasonable common ground and everyone becomes increasingly fierce and angry with each other. That in itself becomes a major problem for a democracy, and not just a different opinion that people have on certain matters.”

Mona Kerby, Master's degree in School Librarianship coordinator at McDaniel College in Westminster, Maryland: “For me, 'forbidden' means that the book is not on the shelf. But I could definitely see the different flavors of that word, which is why a discussion of ideas is always so enriching. …The few times I had some questions about materials, those moments turned into wonderful opportunities between me and the parent to just discuss. And we both learned from it. So it is not a bad skill to respect each other's opinions and listen to someone else's opinion.”

This story was edited for radio and digitally by Meghan Collins Sullivan.

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