Curating Collections or Hidden Censorship?

Discussion Post

Books don’t really get banned anymore in the United States.  Yes, we still hear of challenges.  Perhaps a mother requests that her child’s school library not carry a certain book anymore.  Or maybe a group of parents will ask a school board to take certain selections off the school reading list.  These are clearly serious cases of censorship where some individuals try to deny all individuals access to a book of which they do not approve.  But there are few cases where the challenge is accepted or where we hear of a large-scale ban on a book.  Usually the book is still available in other places, through other avenues.

Most Americans, or at least most readers would, I think, respond to the majority of these cases with outrage.  We take our rights very seriously and do not like to hear anyone challenging our freedom of speech.  Even if we personally do not agree with the sentiments expressed in a book, even if we think the book wrong or dangerous, we worry about facing censorship ourselves if we allow another voice to be silenced.  So we take a stand.

At the same time, many of us are constantly engaged in smaller acts of censorship, or what we might think of as “curating” or “mediating.”  Every time a teacher chooses books to place in the classroom, that teacher has decided what books her students “should” read, which books are “valuable,” and which books are not.  Every time an instructor creates a syllabus and has to winnow down “British Romanticism” or “the African American novel” to eight or fewer works, they have again made a value judgment: these are the books that are the most valuable, the most representative, the most interesting, the most, the most…  Every time a library chooses how to spend their limited funding they are again determining what access their patrons have to books.

There is, of course, no way to get around these moments.  A classroom library has only so much shelf space.  A semester has only so much time for students to read.  A library has only so much money to spend on books.  But in these silent moments, choices are made.  “This book is too dark for my students,” says the teacher, speaking for maybe thirty or more children and their reading needs.  Or “This one addresses drugs or has violence or features a curse word.  I don’t think it’s wholesome,” and so decides what morals her students should value–sobriety or peacefulness or a clean mouth.

“These books best represent ‘Shakespeare in America'” says the college professor, and so creates a cycle in which her students will now frequently cite these same books as the most representative or most interesting.  They will, if having to teach Shakespeare themselves, probably put some of these same works on their syllabi, now impressing even more students with the idea that these works are the most valuable.  Cycles like these are how works end up canonized.  People are familiar with them.  They’re the ones always being taught.  Therefore they must be the best.

The majority of these choices remain invisible to the outside viewer.  Few people know why some books ended up on the shelf or on the reading list and why others did not.  Few people ask why an instructor chose a certain work for the class to read.  And few people ever ask why a certain work is missing.  “Why do you have C. S. Lewis but not Philip Pullman?” seems an arbitrary question.  Why should the teacher have Philip Pullman on her classroom shelf?  Why not any other author?  Besides, the teacher is underpaid.  No one expects her to have all the books ever written. She can’t afford it.

But though the choices are invisible, they are being made and they have consequences, ones that are perhaps just as invisible.  No one will ever know what would have happened if a child had been presented with a book about Ruby Bridges instead of one about dinosaurs.  No one will ever know that an individual’s life was changed by reading Dante, but could have been equally been changed by Nietzsche.  No one may ever know that a teacher considered the Ruby Bridges book, but worried it was too politically charged, might get her students worked up about injustice and equality and activism–better to play it safe with dinosaurs.  Everyone loves dinosaurs.

The choices, of course, must be made.  No one has time or space or money for every book.  But sometimes it pays to question those choices.  What is being put on our shelves and why? What are we teaching our students and why?  And what have we left out–and why?

Krysta 64

15 thoughts on “Curating Collections or Hidden Censorship?

  1. Books, Vertigo and Tea says:

    This is great food for thought. As a parent though, I think the bigger part of the responsibility lies in my hands. I love and thank the teachers for all of their continuous efforts (which I can tell you do as well with this post – kudos), but my days are spent exposing and I am guilty of censoring on a multitude of levels as well. I

    It is up to me to continue to broaden my children’s horizons, and I choose to do so. I take them to public libraries and book stores. I expose them to classics and favourite that they do not know. So I sort of pick up, where others are forced to leave off. I hope, and believe a lot of real parents know they must do this.

    I find censorship and challenging issues within the school district that many frown upon to be a touchy subject. Does no one ever tell their own child “you are too young” or make them turn the channel? I admittedly censor my children daily. There are plenty of books I might hope they read later in life, but I feel have no place on their shelf at this point. I tell my daughter no often if she reaches for my King collection and help her find something “scary” but less graphic. I do not allow them to read or watch adult related content. But one day they will and that is ok. One day I may purchase her first King novel and proudly hand it to her, but not today.

    Now, obviously I find banning Harry Potter excessive, but the choices we make for children are difficult and diligent (for most of us). It a constant struggle to maintain the balance between appropriateness and allowing their creative minds to expand. I admit I would be upset if I found Fifty Shades of Gray in a school library haha.

    In the end, it is up to us to pick up where others leave off. This is a great post! I love how you always encourage real thought and conversation. You make very valid points ❤

    Liked by 1 person

    • Krysta says:

      I think it’s impossible not to censor on some level and that parents are generally expected to help guide their children towards books that are appropriate for them. Parents are in the best position to do this. They can know that their one child is ready for a dark read or a book with mature content, but another child might need some more time. The problem with banning books, however, is, of course, that one individual is denying access to a book for everyone. The fact that they think their child shouldn’t read Harry Potter doesn’t necessarily mean no one should read Harry Potter.

      And it gets touchy when a school district or a library, for example, decides to pull a book from their shelves and deny it to everyone because it seems like they might be overreaching and that it really should be left to the parents of the children to decide what they’re ready and able to read. I’ve seen one library try to address this by creating a shelf full of “controversial” books that they expect parents to read with their children to help guide them through some of the topics (though, of course, they’re still deciding for the public what’s “controversial).

      It’s obviously impossible for schools or libraries not to make decisions about what will end up on the shelves and what will not. I think most would agree they wouldn’t expect to find an erotica in a children’s library. But we should be asking what is motivating our choices. Often when we choose books for anything there’s some sort of ideology behind the choice. In a college course, for example, professors often tend to favor certain theories or schools of thought and their syllabi may feature mostly articles from people who agree with them. If the instructor doesn’t announce their own bias or bent at the start with something like “We’ll be looking at everything through a Marxist lens this semester” it’s easy for people to overlook the fact that they’ve been lead to look at everything through a Marxist lens.

      Silent choices of this sort often occur in schools, too. For example, I know someone at a school who cannot have any books with cursing in them and no one can take the name of the Lord in vain. That’s the rule. Other subject material like violence and drugs are apparently okay. But this isn’t a school policy that’s announced to parents. It just so happens that books with even a single curse word won’t be found on the shelves. This means that the students don’t have access even to classic works like Bud, Not Buddy (which, if I recall correctly, would not meet the criteria for inclusion in a classroom library). A policy like that is worth examining. Should be not be putting a classic children’s book with diverse characters on the shelf because there’s a curse word in it? You can argue yes or no, but I think that the discussion should be had and that the decision should not be made silently behind the scenes.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Books, Vertigo and Tea says:

        I agree with you completely on all of the above points 😊 Banning is never what I would deem as ok or constitutional. And your points regarding the loss of access to classics is also very valid.

        Behind the scenes decisions can be the scariest at times. I apologize if I cam across as sounding in favor of “banning” anything. My thought process was more along the lines of teachers being forced to select due to limited space and options and hoping parents and others can pick up and fill the void and gaps so to speak. I definitely do not disagree with your statments.

        You are shedding light on very important issues. Especially since they can be so impactful, affecting our young. Thanks for the discussion ❤


        • Krysta says:

          Oh, I didn’t read your comments as supporting banning books! I was just elaborating on some of my own thoughts. I agree that teachers often have limited space for books and do rely on parents to help fill the gaps. I’m sure they appreciate you for being so caring and involved! 🙂

          Liked by 1 person

  2. Briana says:

    I think the difficulty lies with trying to find books that will “speak to the majority” or something. If you have a small classroom library that’s supposed to serve 30+ kids, you inevitably pick up books you thin “most” will like. And if you know that a book may be “too dark” for many of them but not all of the, you don’t buy it. It gets even more difficult when you have to take into account potential reactions of parents. Maybe a kid will be perfectly find reading a “darker” middle grade about a child whose parents are on drugs, but his/her parents won’t like it. I do think there’s a temptation to just take what seems like the safest road. And if that means there are kids who don’t get books they can relate to, because the teacher believes “most” kids want to read stories set in Europe, not in South America, or whatever, it can seem like an inevitable consequence.

    I like the comment above, though. A lot of the responsibility for helping a child find what to read should fall on the parents, who presumably know their child best, what they’re ready for and not, etc. (Sure, you have the parents who don’t want their kid to read *anything* and these are the ones who try to get Harry Potter banned in the whole school district, but I suppose we’ll never find a perfect solution.)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Krysta says:

      Unfortunately, you’ve pointed out the problem that when we try to imagine books that we believe will speak to the majority, we usually mean books that aren’t diverse. So that’s worth examining, too. Should we just give students books we think most of them will read, and avoid trying to expand their horizons?

      Yes, I think most would agree parents have the best knowledge to decide what their children may be ready to attempt to read. But it hardly seems fair that no one should have access to a book because you think you’re child shouldn’t read it.


      • Briana says:

        Also, I’ve never been in charge of building a classroom library for middle schoolers, etc., but I do think there could be the temptation to just stock books you (the teacher) personally like. If you’re in charge of choosing books and buying them with your own money, and you’re supposed to read (vet) any books that go into your room before putting them on the shelf, it’s possible you’ll have an unconscious bias to purchase books you like over books you don’t.


        • Krysta says:

          That’s quite true. It’s incredibly easy for someone to unconsciously just pick up books that look good without realizing these are books that look good specifically to them, but maybe not to everyone.


  3. Stephanie B (@Chasm_of_Books) says:

    This is a great look at the issue and it’s why it’s so important that parents, guardians, etc. should be active in their children’s lives. Teachers can only offer so much of a view point. They have limited amount of time to impart wisdom, and while their impact on kids and students can be profound, families and friends are generally with us all our lives. That’s why I think it’s so important that families are involved in each others’ lives (in a good way) and have the goal of helping each other young and old.


    • Krysta says:

      Yes, ideally there would be more dialogue when it comes to thinking about what books we choose and why. I think many teachers hope that the parents are involved in guiding their children and helping them think through the ideas they’re being introduced to through the books they read, though, of course the world doesn’t always work so ideally.


  4. TeacherofYA says:

    It’s going to be hard when I make my lists of books to choose from or add books to the classroom’s shelves: the only thing I will try to do is say that if someone wants to read something that is not on the list or on the shelves to let me know so that it can be worked out…some may be left out for inappropriate material in a H.S. setting (can’t let the parents freak or the administrators fire you), but I hope to allow as much choice as possible.
    I was lent a book called Reading Unbound for my Thesis and it’s all about choice in the classroom. Jeffrey Wilhem is a good author and writes a lot of books about expanding reading for adolescents…I hope to do what I can!!
    Great post!!


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