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What’s a book ban anyway? Depends on who you ask

Librarian Sabrina Jesram arranges a display of books during Banned Books Week at a public library branch in New York City on Sept. 23, 2022.
Ted Shaffrey/AP
Librarian Sabrina Jesram arranges a display of books during Banned Books Week at a public library branch in New York City on Sept. 23, 2022.

"Book ban" is one of those headline-ready terms often used by the news media, including NPR, for stories about the surge in book challenges across the U.S.

The American Library Association launched its annual Banned Books Week in 1982. There are banned book clubs. States have introduced or passed laws that’ve been called bans on book bans. Meanwhile, many people fighting to get books removed from school libraries are not fans of the term book ban.

The practice of censoring books has been around for centuries. But what does it actually mean to ban a book today? The answer depends on who you ask. Here are a handful of definitions from people entrenched 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 leads to a previously accessible book being completely removed from availability for students or where access to a book is restricted or diminished. PEN is perhaps a bit unique, and that's in contrast to ALA [American Library Association] and some others, in that we do include books that have been removed while awaiting review as a ban. We include that because we know books are undergoing review. As long as they are removed from access for students, those books can be removed for weeks, months, upwards of a year as we've seen in some cases.”

NOTE: The American Enterprise Institute took exception to 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 the 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’ is when someone raises an objection to a library material or a program or a service. ‘Reconsideration’ is the formal process libraries go through to determine whether a book meets the library's selection criteria. We reserve ‘book ban’ for… a book that meets that criteria when it has been removed from a collection entirely. … You often do find that books, they are challenged and then they undergo a review process and sometimes they end up being pulled and banned and other times they end up back on the shelves. I think sometimes our policymakers and many of the people who are active in the pro-censorship movement, they don't fully appreciate or understand the fact that many Americans, lots of them, don't 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] designed to be inflammatory and to obfuscate the constructive dialogue that should occur about age appropriate content. It can be a dog whistle that's used to incite anger against those who are opposed to limiting sexually explicit content in public school libraries. … You really cannot ban anything, you know, material-wise these days because you have the Internet and you have PDFs. And so the term book ban is almost obsolete.”

Mustafa Akyol, senior fellow at the Cato Institute and author of Islam Without Extremes (banned in Malaysia in 2017): "When [a book] is banned, it's not available, so it's not legal to sell it. That's what a book ban means. … I was arrested at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport… After 18 hours of detainment by the Malaysian religion police, I was let go… Bookstores couldn't sell [Islam Without Extremes] in Malaysia. My book was not available… There might be some regimes who are even going after people for possessing a copy of the book… I don't think there are literal book bans in the United States. When a book is banned, literally the authority says this book is not legal. … Sometimes people use hyperbolic language to express their thoughts about a particular problem, and that might be a problem. And that divisive rhetoric then makes everything worse. So you cannot reasonably agree on some reasonable common ground and everybody becomes more and more strident and angry against each other. That in itself becomes a major problem for a democracy rather than just different opinion that people have on certain things.”

Mona Kerby, Master’s degree in School Librarianship coordinator at McDaniel College in Westminster, Maryland: “To me, ‘banned’ is the book's not on the shelf. But I could certainly see the different flavors of that word, and that’s why a discussion about ideas is always so enriching. …The few times I had some question about materials, those moments turned into wonderful opportunities between me and the parent just to discuss. And we both learned. So respecting one another's opinion and listening to another's opinion is not a bad skill to have.”

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

Copyright 2024 NPR

Elizabeth Blair is a Peabody Award-winning senior producer/reporter on the Arts Desk of NPR News.