This Librarian's Plan Might Have Been Misguided

Book bans are a serious — though fortunately relatively infrequent — phenomenon, one people should definitely pay attention to. That said, I'm not sure that one librarian's plan to pretend to ban a book in order to raise awareness of the issue was exactly the best way to educate people. Still, there are a lot of things we can all learn from the experiment.

In an article for The Conversation, librarian Scott DiMarco from Mansfield University of Pennsylvania explains that in 2012 he "banned" a book, a thriller called One Woman's Vengeance by a local author who agreed to participate, as part of a social experiment. "While the book does have its fair share of sex and violence, I wanted to show that anything can be cherry-picked from a book as grounds for a challenge or ban," DiMarco writes in the essay.

DiMarco announced the "ban" in a brief memo, which he then posted to the library's Facebook page. The reaction, he reports, was swift and intense. Within 20 minutes he says the author, Dennis Miller, had been contacted by press, and a Facebook page objecting to the "ban" was created within a day.

Still, DiMarco says, "I was disappointed that on a campus of roughly 3,000 students and faculty, only eight people actually asked to meet with me to discuss the reasons I banned the book, and to ask what could be done to reverse the ban."

It's true that when books are removed from libraries or classrooms the emphasis should be placed on reversing the ban — though I don't know that contacting the librarian who banned the book to begin with is necessarily required for that process, and it seems likely to me that people would reach out to any number of other people first, like the school's administration. However, it is concerning (though not particularly surprising) to think a book ban might garner more outrage than action among free-speech loving people. So, in that sense, DiMarco's experiment is certainly interesting and informative.

Yet I wonder if fake book bans are really the best way to raise awareness regarding this issue, which DiMarco states was his main aim. After all, instead of being left with a sense of how easy it would be for someone to ban a book, people could just as easily get the impression from this experiment that book banning isn't actually that big of a deal, and that the problem is overblown. (Plus, there's also something a bit contradictory about advocating freedom of information while deliberately tricking people.)

Still, it's encouraging to know that the people in the university did take the problem seriously once it emerged — and that this story got press in the first place. Because the best defense against seeing books banned by a small minority has always been having a majority who supports free speech and freedom of ideas. Now, perhaps, that majority just needs to be a little better informed about how to make sure they're effective at reversing bans when they take place.

You can read DiMarco's full essay here.