Every now and then a right-wing blogger says something worth discussing. Here’s Semicolon, who leads off her post by listing many books that have been banned by governmental authorities in Cuba and Malaysia (hat tip to Pseudo-Polymath), and then says:

“The American Library Association Web site for Banned Books Week does not list one single book that has been banned by any government entity in the United States of America in 2006. Some books are challenged every year, usually by parents who are concerned that a particular piece of literature is not appropriate for the children or young people to whom it is being taught or made available in the library. Some of these challenges are ridiculous; others have some merit. Saying that a book is not appropriate for a particular age group or even actually removing a book from an elementary school library is not the same as ‘banning’ that book. ALA defines ‘challenged’ as an attempt to ban. . . . I attended library school and heard librarians say, with a straight face, that when they chose to not purchase Nancy Drew books or comic books, the process was called ‘selection,’ but when parents or citizens tried to voice their opinions about what should or should not be purchased by the libraries that they support with their taxes, it was ‘censorship.’ Librarians were an elite group of educated professionals who knew how to ‘select’ library materials; others were yokels who were out to keep information out of the hands of the people, book-banners.”

The American Library Association has heard this before, and replies:

“Each year, the American Library Association (ALA) is asked why the week is called ‘Banned Books Week’ instead of ‘Challenged Books Week,’ since the majority of the books featured during the week are not banned, but ‘merely’ challenged. There are two reasons. One, ALA does not ‘own’ the name Banned Books Week, but is just one of several cosponsors of BBW; therefore, ALA cannot change the name without all the cosponsors agreeing to a change. Two, none want to do so, primarily because a challenge is an attempt to ban or restrict [note change of terminology] materials, based upon the objections of a person or group.  A successful challenge would result in materials being banned or restricted.”

Here’s another relevant part of the ALA site:

“Each library has its own selection and collection development policies. Criteria may include popular demand, ensuring diversity in the collection, available space and budget. These policies must be approved by the library or school governing board, which is madeup of community representatives. . . . Selection is an inclusive process, in which librarians seek materials that will provide a broad range of viewpoints and subject matter. This means that while library collections have thousands of items families want, like and need, they also will have materials that some parents may find offensive. . . . Because an item is selected does not mean the librarian endorses or promotes it. He or she is simply helping the library to fulfill its mission of providing information from all points of view.” [This last sentence raises a philosophical question I’ll hold off on addressing for another time.]

I am aware of no attempt by any U.S. government to ban any book in the sense that Malaysia (PDF) is reported to have banned, for instance, Karen Armstrong’s The Battle for God. How does it clarify matters to use “ban” to signify both complete suppression and an attempt to revise a library’s selection policy or restrict a book from a children’s library?

The ALA isn’t alone in this dubious practice. Project Censored suffers from the same confusion, to the detriment of its message–blurring the distinction between stories that are actually censored by government authority, and those that are under-reported. And last spring, a rather silly attempt to remove some books from a reading list in Chicago suburban District 214 was often described in the media as an attempted ban.

Surely we opponents of censorship can use words more carefully than this.