Banned Books Week – an overview

Every year the American Library Association (hereafter the ALA) and many public, school, and other libraries, call attention to issues of censorship and freedom of information issues with Banned Books Week. And every year since 2005, I have made a series of posts during this week talking about some of these issues in my LiveJournal. This year is no exception (though because I’m extremely busy this week with Pagan Pride preparation, these posts might stretch into next week.)

For folks who don’t know me in this capacity: I’m a librarian who’s worked at a private high school library since the fall of 2000. I started as a paraprofessional, but finished my Master’s in Library/Information Science degree in the summer of 2007, and have since negotiated some greater job responsibilities. I’m fascinated by the issues of access to information.

I’m also a witch and priestess in a small religious witchcraft tradition (Wicca is a close enough approximation until we get into some specific details). Both professionally and personally, I’m particularly interested in how religion plays into challenges to material and access.

What you’ll get:

Today: An overview of issues, plus links to past posts.

Forthcoming (unless someone suggests something that seems even more interesting and useful that I feel I can do something good with.)

  • a discussion of the Sarah Palin book challenge reports (because there’s a bunch of misinformation floating around about this one, and it definitely seems topical) and a general discussion of how political choices seem to be mixing in with this issue.
  • the issue of “might possibly harm someone”
  • context issues (having something available vs. a recommended reading list, vs. assigned reading) plus internal context issues (some books being challenged for depictions in the book of painful things – for example, it’s hard to write a story about someone being bullied without depicting the bullying.)
  • issues with rating system proposals and parental permission.
  • a discussion of issues around challenges based on religion, as well as challenges to material related on occult, esoteric, or other related topics.

General information:

Technically, a better name for it is something like “A week to raise awareness of challenges to material in various kinds of libraries, schools, and other resources.” That’s not nearly so catchy, though.

More usefully, the ALA says “the annual event reminds Americans not to take this precious democratic freedom for granted.” They have an extensive set of links, stats, and other resources available. They also have some interesting statistics (up through 2005) of challenges sorted by type, initiator, and type of institution.

They also publish a volume every few years of specifics of each challenge. Many of these are also discussed in the Newsletter on Intellectual Freedom, put out by a member group of the ALA.

Some stats:

  • According to the ALA, there were over 400 reported challenges in 2007.
  • Estimates suggest that as many as 85% of challenges are not reported to the ALA – and don’t receive much (or any) media coverage, since many are dealt with on an individual school or library level.
  • These numbers are for books only – they don’t include any other forms of media.

Types of challenges:

These are based on stats from 2000 to 2005 (the most recent update with specific sorting). Anything in quote marks comes directly from the Banned Books: Treasure Your Freedom to Read compilation edited by Robert P. Doyle (this is the 2007 edition of ALA’s Banned Books week flagship publication which lists recent challenges plus some notable historical ones.) I’ve included a couple of examples for each book.

Offensive language is the most common reason for a challenge, with 811 challenges. These challenges include the obvious swearing – but they also include challenges to books about bullying, and to books about historical time periods where particular terms were in common use.

  • Chris Crutcher’s Whale Talk has been challenged “because the book uses racial slurs and profanity” – but the book is about bullying, and includes scenes where people are bullied using these terms. (i.e. the book doesn’t show them as being appropriate.)
  • Walter Dean Myer’s Fallen Angels is about soldiers in the Vietnam War. The award winning book has been challenged for offensive language and profanity (things that would seem to be realistic in that setting!)

Sexually explicit books include descriptive or explicit text about sexuality. Sometimes these books are challenged because they frankly discuss teen sexuality (Judy Blume and many others). Sometimes they’re challenged for providing accurate and medically appropriate information about puberty, sexual health, or birth control. This category has 714 challenges.

  • It’s Perfectly Normal: A Book about Changing Bodies, Growing Up, Sex, and Sexual Health by Robie Harris is an acclaimed book about teenage sexuality issues. It’s also #9 on the 2007 list of most challenged books. A library patron in Maine refused to return it to her library in 2007 because she was “sufficiently horrified by the illustrations and sexually graphic, amoral, abnormal contents”. While she included a check in her letter to pay for the book, the library is pursuing legal action. (Initial story here – there are also updates in January and March 2008.)

Unsuited to age group is a category used for “I don’t want my child to learn about this yet” challenges. Many times, these challenges overlap with the sexually explicit category, or with discussions of homosexuality (and various other things people do) as a normal thing. There were 504 challenges in this category from 2000-2005.

  • And Tango Makes Three (by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell) is based on a true story about two male penguins who adopt an abandoned egg. It was also the #1 challenged book in 2007. A challenge in Missouri claimed it had homosexual undertones” and a committee of teachers and parents at an Illinois elementary school wanted to have it moved to a shelf requiring parental permission.
  • King and King by Linda de Haan and Stern Nijlandhas been challenged because the prince in the fairy tale story rejects a horde of princesses to marry another prince. Some of the challenges have been because “let them be kids… and not worry about homosexuality, race, religion. Just let them live freely as kids.” Which is a nice sentiment, but seems to be missing something.
  • One other good example of this kind of challenge are those challenges to books that talk about menstruation and are aimed at pre-teens. Since many of those 10-11 year olds (and older) have either already gotten their period, or know someone who has, how is the topic age-inappropriate?

Other dominant categories include other (at 583 challenges in the five year period) and violence (405), but I want to take a moment to discuss one more.

Religion and occult: 229 challenges were made in those 5 years because people felt a book encouraged children to explore the occult in some way. (Books in this category include Harry Potter, Wizardology, and The Bartimeus Trilogy. None of which, mind you, are actually accurate depicitions.

Historically, a few books about modern Paganism have also been challenged (this is a topic near and dear my heart, but should probably be a separate post.)

Archives of previous years:

Posts of potential interest that aren’t just retreading stuff I intend to say this year. Please note that how I phrase things or focus things shifts over time (I’m human, I learn, that happens), but I welcome comment on previous entries as long as folks are aware I may not quite go at it from that point of view anymore.

2005:

2006: (where I was focusing on some issues of the profession and how they relate to freedom of information access in part because I was finishing my MLIS degree that year.)

  • Some of the challenges of selection and how things can fall through cracks (this post is more what-if and philosophical than many of my posts on this topic.)
  • Professional ethics and other comments on access (following on from previous post in this list)
  • Cataloging issues or barriers to finding books in catalogs.
  • A discussion of how my commitment to freedom of information access more or less manages to live inside the same head as being part of a religious mystery-focused oathbound tradition (where information is not automatically available just by wanting it.) I should do a revamp of this one sometime.

2007:

  • Discussion of Chris Crutcher’s work, and some comments on the difficulties of talking about the difficult stuff in life without describing it.
  • (The rest of my posts from this year duplicate other things, and are probably not as worthwhile.)

Learning about a group

As we move forward to considering new group members this fall, I’ve been thinking a lot about what I want them to know about the group – and about what questions I hope they’ll ask me (at least, if I haven’t already shared the information.) So, a post about some of these related issues.

Sources of information:

First, there are a number of possible sources of information (in general terms). Some of these include:

Handouts/flyers:
Typically short (a flyer’s probably under 100 words) but enough to find out what’s out there, and check out their website or contact them for more info. Very general idea of their focus.

A profile on Witchvox or a local Pagan networking site.
These are usually brief – 2 to 5 paragraphs, maybe – and don’t have a lot of detail. However, they are enough to get the basic idea of what a group’s focus or interests are, and to weed out anything that absolutely isn’t what you’re looking for.

Website or other longer material:
Websites will have far more space and can give more detail. If you’re looking at a group in a well-known and widely-spread tradition or path, do some reading on the path/trad in general: it’ll give you an idea how the specific group fits. Make note of any inconsistencies: you probably want to sort them out or ask about them later.

Initial email:
I should do a post soon on “emails I’d love to get from seekers”, but in the meantime: emails should be short, to the point, and focus on any make-or-break information for you. Save your religious history, the weird thing that happened last weekend, and your esoteric view of the world for later. What’s a make-or-break thing? General schedule, location, medical considerations (allergies, mobility issues, etc.) and anything else that would make a group an absolute no-go for you.

Initial meeting
Commonly, there’ll be some sort of meeting in a public place. There’s two common options here: meeting in a coffee shop, or some sort of intro class or event. Either way, they’re an excellent way to get a lot more information about a group.

My former group offers a short series of public (by donation to cover expenses) intro classes. These give a chance to see how group members interact, and give you a sense of the primary interests and focus of the group. (For example, the fact that ethics comes up early and often)

My new group is going the coffee shop route, because our focus as a group is a little different, and because I do my best in one on one conversations with new people. In practice, this will be at least two members of the group, plus the person interested, and we’ll sit down and talk to them a little about a range of things. (I’ll talk more about our “Interested in us?” process sometime soon, since we’ve got a potentially interested person we’re meeting with next week.)

Further conversations:
As you get to know a group, you’ll have further conversations with them – and often, many further bits of information will come out quite naturally. For example, a group may not talk extensively about their history in the first meeting (just briefly), but as you spend time with them, you might hear casual references to their teachers, other tradition members, etc.

The rest of this post is about the kinds of things you might want to find out from all of these sources combined.

What you might want to know:

Obviously, some things on this list will matter a great deal to you. Others may not matter much at all. Some may matter only in a purely practical sense once you attend group events. Pick the ones you’re interested in – though I’ve tried to give some context for why these pieces of information might be of interest early on.

Look over at my list of questions to ask yourself for more detail on some of these.

Location:

Meeting place: Can you get to it (by whatever form of transportation you’d be using) at the times events occur? (Many buses run different weekend schedules: at my former group, this meant getting to the covenstead by bus on weekends was quite complex and involved a long walk – not a great combo in a Minnesota winter.)

Kind of meeting space: It might be a private home, a rented space, or some combination. Is it the same consistent location or different ones, depending? Where they meet will have an effect on the kind of rituals they do (due to privacy and practical issues). Using a consistent space can build up a persistent energy and ritual focus, but using varied spaces can help make use of the best space for a particular ritual.

Questions related to your specific needs: Think about everything from allergies to mobility issues to any other things that would make a space better for you – or a big problem.

Focus:

Group focus: Are they working in a particular tradition, path, or religion? Is it an open group, a closed one, a teaching-focused group, a working group, or what?

Now and future: For example, you might want introductory training now – but if you’re looking for a long-term group commitment, you also want somewhere that isn’t just focused on training, but that has other things to offer. Does this group do that? (Groups that don’t are fine, too – just be aware in advance.)

Doing things together: Obviously, you probably won’t get a rundown of every single thing they’ve ever done – but it can be good to know what general things they do, or to get some examples of recent group events over the past few months. This might include questions like how often they do specific things (meditations, spellwork, etc.) in ritual.

General ritual structure/method of doing things: For various reasons, you may not get the full complex explanation up front (see the last section of this post for some reasons why), but you should be able to get a basic summary. Many groups will have attendance at a suitable ritual as part of their getting-to-know process, where you can see for yourself.

History of the group:

Length of time they’ve been around: Duration is not a good marker for quality – but a group that’s fairly new will have some differences than one that’s been around for 10 years. It’s good to know which one you’re working with.

Level of training/experience of group leaders: Again, number of years is not perfect – did they do 5 years of intensive training, or one year ten times? But how did they learn what they’re teaching and doing? Did they get experience helping to run a group before leading one?

Experience level of group members: This can be tricky – there are all sorts of reasons for shifts in small group membership – but healthy groups probably have a few members who have extensive experience, a few are fairly new, and some who are in between.

Be a little cautious of groups with one or two experienced leaders, and where everyone else is very new. There are some good reasons – for example, a training-focused group together only for the duration of training or a newly founded group in their first year or three. But it’s also sometimes a sign of a leader who can’t stand to be challenged, or of some other less than great dynamic in the group.

Community interaction: Is the group involved at all in the broader Pagan community? Do they belong to a larger umbrella organisation like Covenant of the Goddess? Do they sometimes participate in (or host) general public rituals, teach open classes, or anything like that? Not all groups do these things – but it can be a good way to learn more about the group.

Connection to other groups: Within a Wiccan or Wiccan-based setting, this is where we start talking about their tradition. How do they fit with other groups in the tradition? If possible, learn a bit about how the tradition normally handles things, and use it to compare with the specific group. (This is hard for small trads, though.) Ask more questions about any differences you find.

Lineage: Some traditions pass down an energetic connection to the tradition (and often the deities of that tradition) through what is referred to as ‘lineage’. If this matters to you, ask how you can confirm their lineage. (This is not a question to ask straight off: it’s a question for when you’re at the point where you’re seriously considering a commitment to them.) You may also wish to ask tradition-specific lists or resources for help.

Expectations and commitments:

Time: Weeknights? Weekends? At times you’re able to attend, or times you have other commitments? How often do they meet, and for how long? Does this fit into the rest of your life? For training groups, ask about how much time they expect you to spend on at-home work on a daily basis.

Costs and expenses: Charging for training is a complex conversation in Pagan settings, as a number of traditions forbid charging for initiatory training, some groups ask for dues for expenses, and some teachers charge significant amounts for training. Are this group’s practices in line with the rest of their tradition or path? If that’s not relevant, do the costs seem to be in line with what they say they value?

Other expenses: Beyond this – there are always going to be some expenses associated with a group. These might include sharing in supplying consumables for group ritual, bringing potluck food, and so on. You may also need to acquire specific personal ritual tools, books, or other things. I’ve got a post breaking down some of the costs of group work for the curious.

Group practices: Ask about any group practices or approaches that you care about. For some people, this is working skyclad. For others, it’s questions about the role of gender in ritual. For some, it’s about focus on specific deities, cultures, or other aspects works for that group. Again, my list of individual questions has lots of things to consider.

Behavior:

Finally, we move into the more nebulous things. One thing I really want to know about any group I’m interested in – Pagan or not – is how they behave, how that behavior fits with their stated values and priorities.

I always suggest people interested in a group make a serious attempt to see a group in action in ritual, in some sort of teaching setting (whatever makes sense, depending on how they train), and in some social settings. This gives you a good range of data – and should give you a chance to see at least one situation where something doesn’t quite go right, and how people deal with it.

One of my favorite things is to observe how someone treats waitstaff in a restaurant: it’s often quite revealing. (In general, any ‘treating someone who is lower on the status pole’ setting will do.) How do a group’s leaders treat students or less senior members? How do they treat each other?

It’s important not to make a decision based on a single interaction (unless it’s truly a deal-breaker for you). Everyone has bad days – but more importantly, people come from different cultures and backgrounds. What looks like a no-holds barred painful argument to many Scandinavian-derived Minnesotans (my current home) can be totally normal wrangling in the Irish or Italian homes of the Boston area where I grew up. It’s good to see how people treat each other after a disagreement, not just the disagreement or frustration itself.

Approach:

I’m really fond of the idea of figuring out what my victory conditions and my fail conditions are for choices.

For example: the new coven? My idea of a success for it is if we have a few people who are deeply interested in what we’re doing, willing and able to participate regularly and sincerely, and we have ongoing things to do together.

I don’t, however, care about having lots of people (and in fact, that’s a failure condition for me: I really do best in communities smaller than 10-12 for closer emotionally-involved work). I enjoy well-staged rituals, but I don’t care if I don’t have them. I care about having a reputation for cluefulness and general competence – but I don’t care about being popular or whether people not involved directly in what I’m doing agree with all my choices.

These things shape how I make choices for my group – just as similar things shaped my own search for a group. I wanted a group I could learn from, a group that I could build a solid structure with. What I found was much more than that – there were things in my tradition I didn’t know I wanted or was looking for, but found, which is both the way it should work, and yet something you can’t plan for.

When someone won’t answer:

It’s quite possible to hit on a topic that gets into a discussion that’s usually considered private to the group. And, for some groups, there may be oathbound material – or simply material that gets very complex to explain unless you take quite a bit of time.

For example, I can do a general description of how we approach constructing our ritual circles. But if you want me to start getting into details or specifics, that’s a much longer conversation – and really not suitable for an initial meeting, because some pieces of it are things we talk about only with people who really need the details, or they just plain take a while to explain the different facets of. So, initially, we start with some basic stuff, and delay the long/involved conversations until someone is a student.

Some of it is for privacy/safety reasons. I’m glad to give general information about where we hold meetings (neighborhood/area of the city), but I’m not going to hand out my home address on a first contact. (And, because I’m somewhat averse to answering my phone, I’ll give people my email address long before I do phone number, unless they have a particular need for phone calls.)

This topic deserves a longer conversation, but this at least gives you a place to start.

Why I have trouble recommending books

I got a comment on my Critical Reading and Pagan Books article today that reminded me of something I’ve been meaning to post. Namely – why I have trouble recommending books to people who ask “I’m new to Paganism, where do I start?” (The nice commenter had asked for suggestions, and the next tab over is with going to make a stab at that – but before I could write that, it made sense to write why I’ve got trouble with it.

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