FiveThirtyEight Investigates the ALA Banned And Challenged Book List, And Comes Up With Some Interesting Information

Every year when the American Library Association (ALA) comes out with their list of the most banned and challenged books in America, publications everywhere not only cover the list but pore over it. However, as statistics-driven site FiveThirtyEight reports, the list may not be as straightforward as we previously imagined.

David Goldenberg, a freelance journalist writing for FiveThirtyEight, explains that in looking into the most banned books in America he first found some irregularities in what the ALA counts as a "banned or challenged book." In one description on their website, the ALA describes a challenge as “an attempt to remove or restrict materials, based upon the objections of a person or group” and stress that “challenges do not simply involve a person expressing a point of view." However, he noticed, in another definition they imply "expressions of concern" do constitute a challenge. On its own, the inconsistency doesn't automatically mean their methodology is flawed, of course, just that some clarification is needed.

However, the more concerning issue is that when Goldenberg reached out to the ALA, he reports, they not only did not clear up this discrepancy, they also refused to share their data on banned and challenged books or any additional information about their methodology. They did give Goldenberg this statement:

OIF [Office of Intellectual Freedom] maintains the database for internal staff use, as a means of encouraging libraries to report challenges, and to create awareness of the importance of protecting and celebrating the freedom to read. Because the censorship database does not have the statistical validity demanded by many social scientists and researchers and may be vulnerable to misinterpretation and misuse, we must deny any request asking OIF to share raw data.

Apart from the fact that an Office of Intellectual Freedom that refusing to share their information sounds like something out of 1984, this response is both puzzling and somewhat concerning. As Goldenberg summarizes, "The American Library Association is saying that its challenge database isn’t statistically valid and that despite the hundreds of news articles about its list, the database is not meant for public consumption." That is, to say the least, odd.

So what does all this mean? Well, at the very least it suggests that there is more to the ALA list of banned books than meets the eye. There isn't much higher math involved in adding up the total number of book bans and challenges in America every year, which suggests that there might be an issue in how the ALA gathers its information or in how it defines a challenge — perhaps their criteria isn't always consistent or might be considered too broad, for instance. Although I suppose there could be another explanation as to why the numbers might not have sufficient "statistical validity" besides issues with their methodology.

So, should we no longer give weight to the annual ALA lists of banned and challenged lists? Well, not necessarily. However, if the ALA is going to continue to be secretive about their process and not offer a better explanation as to why, I think we do have to take their future reports with a grain of salt. The American Library Association does a lot of great work, including providing resources to fight efforts to ban books, and their lists of banned and challenged books are certainly still valuable, as well. However, going forward we should probably keep in mind that they aren't quite as definitive a list as they might claim.