Explore censorship through VCU Libraries Banned Book Week activities

September 26, 2023
3 open books with the word

Censorship is in the air these days. Book bans or challenges are seeing a record-breaking surge. In light of this trend, VCU Libraries plans educational programming and exhibits during Banned Book Week Oct. 1-7. 

According to the American Library Association, in a time of intense political polarization, library staff in every state are facing an unprecedented number of attempts to ban books.  ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom documented 1,269 demands to censor library books and resources in 2022, the highest number of attempted book bans since ALA began compiling data about censorship in libraries more than 20 years ago. The unparalleled number of reported book challenges in 2022 nearly doubles the 729 book challenges reported in 2021. Of the record 2,571 unique titles targeted for censorship, most were by or about LGBTQIA+ persons and Black, Indigenous, and people of color

These challenges to library books are continuing at a record pace in 2023. Through the first eight months of 2023, ALA tracked 695 challenges to library materials and services, compared to 681 during the same time period last year, and a 20 percent jump in the number of “unique titles” involved to 1,915. School libraries had long been the dominant target, but in 2023 reports have been near-equally divided between schools and libraries open to the general public, ALA announced in mid-September. 

Virginia libraries are also vulnerable to book challenges and bans. At least 23 school boards throughout the commonwealth have removed books from library shelves, according to a 2022 Richmond Times-Dispatch report. School boards have cited a recent policy allowing parental challenges of instructional material to continue challenging book titles, according to a Virginia Mercury report. VCU’s Capitol News Service published an article Sept. 21 detailing the state of bans in Virginia. Last year, 182 books were challenged in Virginia, according to ALA.  Most books are challenged for sexually explicit content, in addition to LGBTQ books and ones that contextualize racial issues, per analysis by ALA. 

“The numbers are significant and increasingly a concern to the profession,” said Student Success Librarian M. Teresa Doherty, a member of the ALA Intellectual Freedom Committee for more than 10 years.

“While most challenges to books are directed to school or public libraries, as an academic library, we have an obligation to share information with our university community about this fundamental threat to people’s right to read. We also encourage our students, faculty and staff to support their local public and school libraries and library staffs, who are targets of these challenges.”

VCU Libraries Banned Book Week events

  • “Ink & Rebellion: The Evolution of Censorship in Comics” is an exhibit on the 4th floor of James Branch Cabell Library that showcases the world class Comic Arts Collection and extensive collection of graphic novels housed in Special Collections and Archives at VCU Libraries. The exhibit, curated by Special Collections and Archives, features pre-code comics leading up to the establishment of the Comics Code Authority. The exhibit also showcases underground comix and graphic novels that have pushed censorship boundaries or have been banned. The exhibit opens Oct. 2 and will remain on view during library hours throughout the fall semester. 
  • The annual Jurgen Comics Contest focuses on censorship themes. For the Fall 2023 contest, students are invited to create a single-page, multi-panel comic that tells a story about a specific episode of seizure or censorship of visual art, books, movies, music or live performance. A grand prize of $1,000 is being offered. Submissions are due by Oct. 31, 2023. Contest managers will be staffing a table in the Cabell Lobby Oct. 3, 10 a.m. to noon to give out Jurgen buttons, talk with students about censorship, and answer questions about entering the contest. Previous winners’ artwork is displayed on the first floor of Cabell Library, and also showing on The Cabell Screen on the front facade of the library building. 
  • Whiteboard Engagement is popular at Cabell Library. Visitors will be invited to share their thoughts and questions about banned and challenged books, the First Amendment right to free speech and to read what you want, books you recommend to friends, and more as we ask for your input on our large public whiteboard in the lobby of Cabell Library, each day Oct. 1-7.   
  • Freedom To Read Pop-Up Libraries will mark Banned Books Week. Popup libraries of selected books will be displayed in the Cabell Library and Health Sciences Library lobbies. The popups will feature  titles that have been banned or challenged as well as nonfiction selections on intellectual freedom and censorship. While supplies last, patrons can also check out books wrapped in brown paper covers and go on a blind date with a banned book. Book displays will be up Oct. 1-7.
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