Banned Books Week

Today marks the start of Banned Book Week, a campaign to bring about awareness of works of literature that have been suppressed or authors who have been persecuted for their works. According to the American Library Association, the week celebrates the importance of the First Amendment, while "drawing attention to the harms of censorship by spotlighting actual or attempted bannings of books across the United States." Coming from a family that does a lot of reading, and from working within a couple of libraries, I detest the notion of banning a book for its content, especially in school systems, and I am continually worried when I hear of various books being banned by overprotective parents, school boards of bigoted, ignorant people who misunderstand the reasons behind education.

The ALA published a list of frequently challenged books from across the country. Looking down the list, I see a number of books that I read in high school, and on my own, that I both greatly enjoyed and/or read on my own: The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Of Mice and Men and The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck, The Lord of the Flies by William Golding, Animal Farm and 1984 by George Orwell (the irony of this book being banned is almost comical), Their Eyes were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston, For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway, The Call of the Wild by Jack London and The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien. I know other books, such as Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials Trilogy and J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series have also been burned or have been pushed to be banned, and I'm reasonably sure that numerous other science fiction, fantasy and other speculative fictions have been banned because of their content.

Education, I believe, is not strictly about the content that students are fed, but a way to understand the world around them. In subjects such as English, this is a paramount lesson to be learned, as books and stories pull specific themes and instances out for characters, and allows students to synthesize problems and see how characters are changed based on their experiences within the story. Within any story, conflict that challenges the characters should likewise challenge the readers, by looking at commonly held assumptions and continually questioning how they go about the world. This is where the greatest learning occurs for anyone.

The outrage here is that limiting the books that students can read traps them within a preset outlook on the world, where books that fall outside of the realm of political correctness, are 'indecent' or overly challenge assumptions are unable to do what they are intended to do. What bothers me even more is that a number of the locations where books are banned within the US come from traditionally right-wing regions of the country, regions where people claim to want to uphold the constitution, to ensure that freedoms aren't limited by their government, while turning around and insisting that they do the very same thing within their communities. The hypocrisy of the situation is stunning, and I can't help but wonder if our insistence on protecting our youth from things that we disagree with is hurting the country as a whole.

The argument against banning books is something that’s been out there for a long time, and there’s very little beyond my own experience and resulting conclusions that I can add to the situation. Looking over my own high school English experience (with some fantastic teachers in the humanities) I am shocked at how many of the books that I read are amongst the most banned list, and for fairly trivial reasons, such as language and content. Moreover, reading some of those books are incredibly valuable experiences for me. Some of the books, such as Of Mice and Men, The Lord of the Flies and For Whom The Bell Tolls, were ones that imparted a number of revelations and provided specific learning experiences that I was then able to build upon. These books are not easy to replace, and students do not read these simply for pleasure: the challenge is the object here.

Nor do I believe that reasons such as language and ‘obscene’ situations hold much water in this day and age, when students have access to the wider internet, where whatever is banned is conceivably right at their fingertips, where there is no guidance or supervision. Instead, parents should take the moral reins and instruction for their children, and teach them right from wrong.

Banning books isn’t the answer, or a good thing for any sort of quality education. Actually educating, challenging and extracting a reaction from students will bring about the proper understanding from students.

Organizing Libraries

I came across an interesting post on SF Signal earlier today, where several bloggers were asked how they organized their own personal libraries. The question is something that I find facinating, and allowed me a bit of reflection on the subject. As of today, I own seven hundred and seventy three books, all of which are stored in my apartment. I have been keeping track of my collection for almost three years now on a freeware program that I found called BookDB. The program seems to have been made for small libraries with small budgets, given it's simplicity and the fact that it was a freebie. The program allows for a user to imput s number of things about a book (author, publisher, title, year, page count, genre, and so on). It's a little clunky, but it works well for what I need. All of my books are entered into the system, and I mark my name in the upper interior corner of the front cover, and shelve it. The program is far better than the Excel spreadsheet that I used, and it provides a good way to list what I've got on the shelves, in case the unthinkable happens - a fire, or something else.

Now that I've got the books, they're spread out around my apartment. A couple reside in the kitchen, where they're useful, while three shelves are in the living room, another is in my bedroom and four are in the library/study that I've set up in the second bedroom. There, I've generally gotten the books sorted by genre. In the living room, the larger shelf is filled to the brim with history, military history, biography and a small section on space history. The other two shelves are fiction, what I lovingly call Geek Studies and science fiction and fantasy hardcovers and trade paperbacks. The bedroom has all of my SF/F mass markets. The study has a shelf and a half of Star Wars books (mass markets together, and hardcovers on another shelf), with reference, fiction, SF/F anthologies, and coffee table books.

Looking over my shelves, I see organization, and a bit of compulsion. I love books, for a number of reasons - I largely grew up reading, living in areas where we couldn't get cable, but it always served as a sort of outlet for me during my youth, and has continued as such. I love to learn, and take an immense sense of satisfaction in not only learning something new, but maintaining a place and the tools in which I can continue to learn, to connect and to simply escape into the pages of a book.

I keep the shelves ordered (my girlfriend and mother both delight in selecting a single book and flipping it upside down), by subject then author. Small white tabs underneath different books generally indicate that the book is something that I haven't gotten to yet - there are a lot of those, and every now and then, I'll pull a number of books down while I track down some elusive fact or paragraph.

When it comes to the books themselves, I would like to think that someone could easily figure out something about me from the titles on the shelves, from my interests to the care that I take of the books. I've often thought that my role in a fantasy story would be a librarian in a gothic house or castle, or that somehow, I'll someday need some obscure fact hidden away, and so the books stay.

My library is something that's going to stay with me for a long time, because they're a part of me, in a strange way. From a lot of my studies, I've found that I like small details filling into larger themes. In that regard, I'd like to think that my books represent a bit of who I am, with all of my interests and a desire to keep learning and teaching a little more.

A Library Without Books

The other day, I came across an article that really shocked me. The Cushing Academy in Ashburnham, MA has decided to eliminate their twenty-thousand book library in favor of a digital one. According to the article, they have spent $500,000 to transform the library into a 'learning center' which will be outfitted with several widescreen televisions to display data from the internet and can interface with student laptops, while they have purchased 18 e-book readers (Most likely the Kindle and Sony Reader) which will have access to a large digital library. To cap it off, a coffee shop is being built in place of the circulation desk, including a $12,000 cappuccino machine.

While this really annoys me, I can see why the change is being made. The internet is becoming far more prevalent in our lives, and e-books are going to be on the rise with the successes of's Kindle device and other similar brands. The school is certainly making a logical, and enormously expensive effort to modernize their library to tap into these new changes in how education might go. With this upgrade, students will have access to quite a lot of material.

There are a large number of flaws with this idea, however. The first thing that came to mind for me was what happens during a prolonged power outage? My iPhone, with an e-book reader will barely last a day as I use it, and in a situation such as that, it's going to be going off until I can plug it in. While I can understand the desire to switch to a completely digital library, I can't understand why this would include eliminating the traditional stacks and contents of the library.

This doesn't necessarily stem from a desire to keep books because of the tactile feel and ease of reading - that is certainly a consideration, but that is not the sole virtue of keeping books on the shelves. The biggest concern that the teachers should feel here is the missed opportunities for students to utilize a working library in all aspects - being able to accurately locate a volume on the shelves, how to conduct searches, and simply browsing the shelves for related content. These are skills, especially in the humanities and social studies fields that will be vital for students to learn, for one simple reason: there are many archives and libraries with content that is not digitalized, and nor will it ever be, because of the sheer volume. Computers have successfully been integrated into libraries for years now - they are an invaluable resource for tracking books and their locations throughout a library. I myself have my own tracking software on my computer at home, called BookDB.

The introduction of online shopping and browsing, such as like on or, is something that has never really felt comparable to actually going into a bookstore and browsing the shelves. I've come across numerous books, some of which I never would have come across on my own by just browsing the web pages for books. With every advance, you lose something in the process. Nostalgia aside, presence on a shelf can also make or break an author.

What bothers me more is the attitude that books are unimportant. Books are easily one of the most accessible methods in which to introduce a person to reading, as opposed to an e-reader, which is not only expensive, but is a largely inaccessible technology for most out there - you need an internet connection, computer, account, and so forth. While the successes of the Kindle are well known, proving that there is a market for it, there is a portion of the population that may not have ready access to something like this. People who aren't inclined to read aren't going to go out and go through all the steps, as opposed to a bookstore, where they might browse the shelves and pick up a cheap paperback book.

Another problem with internet only and digital databases is the tendency to rely far too heavily on information gleaned from the websites. Coming from background with a Master's Degree from an online university and working for the same school, I've seen a number of examples of students utilizing Wikipedia as a credible source, as well as other online websites, without carefully scrutinizing or questioning them. Websites such as Wikipedia certainly has their places in the world - it's a fantastic resource for any number of facts, but due to the nature of its existence, it is hard to trust much of it beyond a glance. Online databases are much more reliable, such as JSTOR, but they can be difficult to access and aren't universal to much of the general public, unlike libraries or public archives.

My own experience with online and digital learning was a positive one, but the experience was not completely digitally based. Norwich University's School of Graduate Studies MMH program switched from digital readings to printed coursepacks to alleviate the burden on students printing out everything, and continued throughout to issue books each course. I personally found being able to sit down with a hard copy reading was much easier on my eyes, allowed me to take copious notes in the margins, and were something I could turn to without having to restart my computer after I went to bed.

I personally wouldn't trade books for anything digital. The lesson here that needs to be remembered is that hardcopy books and digital readings are both delivery methods that bring information to a reader, who then does with it what they will. Physical books have the inherent advantage, in my opinion because they are cheaper for the consumer, easier to handle and don't require additional hardware to access. E-books are a fantastic idea to supplement a student body, either through digital textbooks that could be easily updated and distributed, but not as a replacement to a library system in place. Libraries are far more than just for pleasure reading - they serve a scholarly interest, and their use is something that needs to be taught. Plus, walking around stacks of books is just an outstanding way to get carried away.