The Absolutely True Story of the Unbanned Banned Books List

(course journal entry assignment, December 2016)

My most memorable experience with book challenges wasn’t about helping with titles that had been targeted, but rather, helping with titles that had never been targeted.

(tl;dr version: Darn internet!)

Several years ago it had come to my attention that the Library of the American Library Association (ALA) was getting banned/challenged queries from students about titles that were not only not included in the ALA’s triannually published Banned Books Resource Guides compilations, edited by Robert Doyle, listing decades of book challenges — whose most recent edition was the 2014 Banned Books: Challenging Our Freedom to Read; it’s supplemented in the intervening years by annual PDF brochures published on the Illinois Library Association website, of which Doyle is executive director — or the confidential database of challenges that were never made public which is maintained by ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom (OIF) staff only, but were also, in checking other known sources, never challenged or banned by anyone. Asking students how those titles came to their attention as being challenged or banned books brought derivations of the same answer, “I saw it on the internet.” Oh, great. That’s specific.

We were aware of a previous website viewer comprehension error years before, in which a famous list of books at the time had been duplicated on the OIF section of the ALA website, with the notation that only the book titles in bold and italic lettering had ever been challenged. The notation was clear and visible — but viewers, especially students, weren’t looking for instructions, they were looking for book titles, that they could use to complete their assignments. The “confusing” page was later pulled and reconfigured, to list only the challenged titles and the reasons why and locations where they were challenged, along with the challenge’s outcome.

But the books that the ALA Library was getting questions about weren’t on that famous list either. Some of the books were very famous, making it nearly impossible that any challenges to these books would have gone unnoticed and unrecorded. And now articles and blog posts were starting to spring up online, passing on this same bad information. But one of the blog posts provided the source I needed to eventually solve this “unbanned banned books” mystery.

The blog post led to an older blog post by someone else, who had a list of banned and challenged books that included all of the books that I had been asked about lately, which had actually never been banned or challenged — including a title that I had never heard of but had been asked about, The Secret Within, by Theresa Golding. The post explained that the hefty list was a combination of the lists available from ALA and the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE). But I knew that NCTE did not track book challenges, so I went over to the NCTE website to see if maybe I’d missed something.

The NCTE indeed does not track book challenges. However, NCTE has put together so-called “rationales” that teachers can use for books in the possibility that someone questions or objects to the use of a title in the curriculum. The rationales themselves were sold on two separate CD-ROMs, but you could access the lists of books that were on them both on table of contents PDFs freely available from the website.

I wrote to NCTE to confirm these details about the rationales. Millie Davis, NCTE Affiliated Groups and Public Outreach Senior Developer, wrote back in an email to me directly:

The NCTE Rationales list is for books commonly taught, not commonly challenged (although many of them have been). The idea is that all teachers/schools should have rationales for the texts they use. I don’t know where the student found The Secret Within listed but if our rationales list were merged into a list of challenged books, that’s a big mistake that I hope you can help fix.

So really, again, another website viewer comprehension error. But in this case a blog post was written mashing all of these lists together and true confusion began. I later found that the list itself was copied from the blog post and pasted anonymously into a LibraryThing forum on banned books. And I was completely outdone to find this “unbanned banned books” list used as the source for listings of banned and challenged books on a public library’s website and in two college library LibGuides!

To combat the continuing confusion, I co-authored a blog post of my own with ALA Librarian Karen Muller about the situation for the Ask the ALA Library Blog. Muller titled the post, Ban Pooh?, which was actually in reference to the previous OIF misunderstanding.

The original Ban Pooh? post can be found via the Internet Archive, as the ALA Library recently deleted the post and imported most of the information itself into a tab on their Researching Banned or Challenged Books: Ban Pooh? LibGuide.

Works cited:

American Library Association. (2016, December 15). Researching Banned or Challenged Books: Ban Pooh? Retrieved from http://libguides.ala.org/Researchingchallengedbooks/banpooh

Illinois Library Association. (n.d.). Banned Books Week. Retrieved from https://www.ila.org/initiatives/banned-books-week

Internet Archive. (2016, December 15). Wayback Machine. Retrieved from http://web.archive.org


My best resource for finding the reasons why a book really was challenged and/or banned is the list of books I compiled on WorldCat.org which is free to access —

Why was this book banned or challenged #BannedBooksWeek

Titles reporting conflicts experienced with various books and media in school and library environments. Titles available for purchase at http://ow.ly/jUIy3024pGX at LibrariesVal Bookstore. ALWAYS see Illinois Library Association at https://www.ila.org/initiatives/banned-books-week Can’t find ANY info on that book? See possible explanation at http://ow.ly/nyNF307Bf4g ALSO see About Banned & Challenged Books http://www.ala.org/bbooks/about