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Banned books

Banned books

Harry Potter and the chamber of secrets by JK Rowling. Information about banned and challenged books, the reasons why and the role of libraries in preserving freedom of speech.

For as long as there has been communication between human beings, attempts have been made to prohibit free speech or expression. Almost every day someone tries to restrict what can be said, written, sung or broadcast in name of a higher authority or more restrictive morality.

Books are among the most visible targets of censorship, but they are hardly alone. Free expression is constantly challenged in the arts, in broadcast media and on the internet.

A definition

Banned books have been prohibited from being published or circulated by a government authority, usually on the grounds of religion, politics or public morality. Many books have withstood such condemnation and gone on to become classics of world literature. 

Great books such as Lolita and Ulysses have been banned in many countries for their sexual themes. Famous authors banned in their own countries for political reasons include Boris Pasternak, whose Dr. Zhivago was banned in Russia for its portrayal of the Bolshevik Revolution, and Wole Soyinka, the Nobel Prize winner who has seen his work banned in his native Nigeria.  

In Renaissance Florence, Nazi Germany and in many other times and places, banned books were burnt in public bonfires.

View a recommended list of famous banned books

Libraries and challenged books

"If your library is not 'unsafe', it probably isn't doing its job."
-- John Berry, Iii, Library Journal, October 1999

A book is challenged when an attempt is made to restrict it, usually to have it taken off the shelves of a school or public library. The motivation is usually to protect children from profanity, racism or sexual content present in the book.

However, even if well-intentioned, these attempts limit the freedom of others to choose what they read, see, or hear. Challenges are important to document as these attempts at censorship may lead to voluntary restriction of expression by those who seek to avoid controversy; in these cases, material may not be published at all or may not be purchased by a bookstore, library, or school district.

We have reason to celebrate. Due to the commitment of parents, students, librarians, teachers, and other concerned citizens, challenges are almost always unsuccessful.

View a recommended list of challenged books.


Odd objections

Of all the reasons that incite people to want a book banned, some stand out as particularly odd. Perhaps they reveal the idiosyncrasies of the times and societies to which the objectors belong. Perhaps the objectors are just crazy!

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland
 by Lewis Carroll.
Banned in China (1931) for portraying animals and humans on the same level, "Animals should not use human language."

The Lorax by Dr. Seuss
Challenged in the Laytonville, Calif. Unified School District (1989) because it "criminalizes the foresting industry."

James and the Giant Peach by Roald Dahl
Challenged at the Deep Creek Elementary School in Charlotte Harbor, Fla. (1991) because it is "not appropriate reading material for young children." Challenged at the Pederson Elementary School in Altoona, Wis. (1991) and at the Morton Elementary School library in Brooksville, Fla. (1992) because the book contains the word "ass" and "promotes" the use of drugs (tobacco, snuff) and whiskey. Removed from classrooms in Stafford County, Va. Schools (1995) and placed in restricted access in the library because the story contains crude language and encourages children to disobey their parents and other adults.

Recommended websites

ALA: Banned Books Week
Official site from the American Library Association. Includes a list of the 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books of 1990 - 1999 and 2000 - 2009.

Banned Books On-Line
A special exhibit of books that have been the subject of censorship or censorship attempts. Presented by The On-Line Books Page.

Beacon for Freedom of Expression
This bibliographical database on freedom of expression and censorship world wide has been designed and produced by the Norwegian Forum for Freedom of Expression in celebration of the revival of Bibliotheca Alexandrina, the world library of humanism. Includes an online gallery of banned books and newspapers.

Chronology of Censorship and Anti-censorship
Brief chronology of banned books and anti-censorship efforts prior to 1900. Includes Pynchon's Meritorious Price.

Index on Censorship
Index on Censorship was founded in 1972 by Stephen Spender with the goal to protect the basic human right of free expression. For the past 31 years, Index has reported on censorship issues from all over the world and has added to the debates on those issues. In addition to the analysis, reportage and interviews, each contains a country by country list of free speech violations.  

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