Building a new banned books exhibit for a new era

When I first created Banned Books Online over 25 years ago, I wasn’t primarily worried about book censorship. I was worried about Internet censorship.

It was 1994, and the world at large was just getting to know the Internet, which not long before had been a network mostly limited to researchers, information technologists, and students and faculty at universities. After an undergraduate at my university wrote about pornography on the network (in a paper that would become the basis of a sensationalist Time magazine cover story the following year), our administration decided it needed to censor Usenet, a system of online discussion forums that then comprised the predominant social media of the online world. Specifically, Usenet forums discussing sex had to go. One of the administrators behind the decision was an English professor who in an interview praised James Joyce’s Ulysses, a groundbreaking novel still enjoyed and studied a century after its initial publication. But that publication had been banned for years, both in the US and elsewhere, due to the novel’s discussions and allusions to sex. I thought at the time, “if the Internet goes the way you want it to go here, no one will ever be able to publish Ulysses or anything like it online going forward.” Banned Books Online started as a way to reify that thought, and to demonstrate what we would lose in a heavily censored Internet.

I’m glad to say that, while there are still free speech battles to be fought on the Internet, pervasive censorship of the open Internet to something resembling the standards of broadcast TV (which some of us feared the mid-1990s panic might lead to) didn’t happen– at least not in the United States. But other forms of censorship have had a resurgence since then. That includes book censorship, which I largely treated in my exhibit as a relic of the past. “We used to ban books frequently years ago,” I implicitly argued in the exhibit, “and maybe there are still some isolated pockets of people trying to ban books even now. But we’ve moved beyond that today, and we enjoy a richer, freer culture because of that. So let’s not repeat our past mistakes on this new Internet”. That was the implication I had in mind.

But it’s become increasingly clear that my early optimism about the waning of book bans was misplaced. Book bans and ban attempts have surged in the US in recent years, particularly in schools (as PEN America documents) and libraries (as the American Library Association documents). As PEN America’s report notes, they’re now often not just isolated local affairs, but are driven by campaigns coordinated by nationally active advocacy groups. They’re often targeting books that feature LGBT viewpoints or that bring up issues of racism and injustice. They’re backed up by prominent politicians, some of whom proudly announce their intention to “ban critical race theory” (often defined vaguely enough to effectively mean “issues that make white people uncomfortable”) or to prohibit classroom discussion of sexual orientation beyond heterosexuality, or gender identities other than masculine and feminine ones assigned at birth.

In some cases, reports of attempts to ban specific famous titles in schools and libraries can increase their sales and visibility elsewhere. (Though in some cases, booksellers have also been threatened with prosecution for putting targeted titles on open shelves.) But broad ban lists, such as ones that cover hundreds of recent titles, can prevent many lesser-known books and authors from the chance to find their audience in the first place. They can discourage publishers from acquiring or releasing such books. They can also dissuade libraries from offering them, lest they get defunded if they carry books that some people don’t like.

My priorities for a banned books exhibit have changed accordingly. I want to draw attention to books under threat now, even when they’re not old enough to be in the public domain, and don’t have an authorized free online edition I can link to. I want to help people find copies they can read, in libraries and from booksellers, and I want to encourage support for those libraries and booksellers, so they hear from people who love the books and want to read them, and not just from those who want them gone. I want to show how and why books get targeted for bans both in the past and in the present, and understand the common themes that recur in these banning attempts, and in other manifestations of authoritarianism. And while library and school bans get the most press attention in the US, I also want to ensure that people don’t forget more pervasive book censorship in American prisons, and in other countries around the world. From a more technical standpoint, I’d also like to tap into the growth of linked open metadata to connect readers with information about books of interest to them, and with libraries that offer them.

So with that in mind, I’m now developing a new exhibit, Read Banned Books. I’m opening it to public preview on Banned Books Week 2022. It’s still under development, and I’ve just started to populate its collection, but it will grow over the course of this week and in the weeks that follow. The metadata and commentary in the collection will be shared on Github, and I hope it can be reused and applied in novel ways both by my site as it develops, and by others. While I don’t plan to try to make a comprehensive data set of all banned books and banning attempts, I do hope to highlight particularly important and interesting books and incidents, and to link to broader dossiers of censorship on other sites.

I invite you to check it out, and to let me know about useful things I can add to its knowledge base and functionality. And I hope you’ll be informed and active in resisting censorship and authoritarianism in this new era.

About John Mark Ockerbloom

I'm a digital library strategist at the University of Pennsylvania, in Philadelphia.
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