Banned Books Week comes to the University of Miami

Richter Library is displaying books for Banned Books Week, which runs September 18-24.
Richter Library is exhibiting books for Banned Books Week, which runs September 18-24. Photo credit: Sarah Perkel

A crowded, colorful table at the entrance to the Richter Library proudly displays some of Florida’s most controversial banned books.

Banned Books Week is an annual, nationwide event that encourages people to read books that have been banned or challenged. It’s in direct response to mounting censorship attempts across the country and will run from September 18-24. Richter has worked to ensure that banned books are acquired so that they remain accessible to students and has set up an exhibition that will run throughout the week to further raise awareness.

“The banned book show is basically a list of titles that were eventually banned from certain school districts,” said Elisiene Jean, a University of Miami graduate student and current distribution manager at Richter. “The title that is being shown is very relevant to our society because many of these titles have recently been banned.”

Statistics on the judges’ Banned Books Week website suggest that books are being condemned in increasing numbers. According to the website, a record-breaking 729 challenges were issued for 1,597 books across the country. Critics mostly dispute them on the basis of the inclusion of LGBTQ+ content or for discussing race or racism.

“We have a banned book show almost every year, but this one was really surprising,” Jean said. “These books are from November 2021. This is new. That’s not even a year. So what does the future hold? In the spirit of progress, we should not go backwards.”

As a parent, Jean finds this year’s rising numbers particularly worrying.

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“I want my kids to have the opportunity to read whatever they think they need to read to enrich themselves,” Jean said. “I don’t think you should censor a person’s enrichment.”

Julia Arwari, a junior public health student and peer research consultant at Richter Library, has particular concerns about the type of books being targeted.

“There was an article listing over 200 books that were banned in Florida,” said Arwari, who helped set up the exhibit. “I went through the list and checked which books the library didn’t have because the librarians wanted to acquire all the banned books just so they would be available to the students.”

As Arwari read the list, she noticed a striking pattern.

“The trend I noticed as I went through the 200 books was that many of the stories dealt with race, sexual violence, different religions, LGBTQIA+ issues, sex education – very important and representative stories that the book ban takes away from students.” said Arwari. “So it’s a great thing that the library got them so the students can be educated and read all these important stories, especially because the university prides itself on diversity and equity.”

She believes banning books means pushing a “less inclusive agenda” under the guise of protecting children.

“Right-wing extremism is more prevalent than ever lately,” Arwari said. “Much of politics today is based on misinformation. When you limit access to books, you limit people’s knowledge. It’s really very sad. They want to take these books out of school because they think these subjects are unsuitable for children, but they can actually be very representative and educational.”

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Arwari advocates awareness as a solution and suggests that UM continue to make banned books accessible. She also advocates speaking out against banning books.

Anjolie Scott, an English major, is an avid reader and a passionate advocate of book bans. She is happy that UM is making strides to stand in solidarity with libraries whose content has been questioned.

“I’m delighted that the exhibit is for all to see in the library and that UM is making a statement and promoting knowledge and education in this way,” said Scott. “With the amount of people walking through the Richter library, I hope they had a huge audience.”

Scott said she believes the recent censorship rash stems from ignorance and fear of the unknown.

“I think people are afraid of what they don’t understand and parents are afraid to have these conversations with their kids,” Scott said. “They want to take away children’s freedom of choice, but we all have the right to think for ourselves.”

She hopes that the open, tangible nature of the exhibition will make the subject more concrete.

“It’s extremely important to be aware of what’s happening in the country because the ban on books itself encourages ignorance and prevents the spread of knowledge,” Scott said. “I think it’s crucial to have this exhibition where you can see some examples of the banned books. It gives people a good picture.”

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Others, like Jean, look to the future. Professor John Funchion, who has worked at UM for 14 years and specializes in 19th-century American literature, is particularly concerned about the consequences of limited access to basic literature for the next generation of students.

“In terms of impact, especially since this happens from state to state and even varies so much from community to community, I think it has a tremendous impact on a university like UM where we attract students, not just from Florida but from across the country,” said Funchion.

Funchion predicts that students in Florida high schools may struggle to keep up with their peers from other parts of the country once they meet at the university level.

“In the future, students will come to campus with incredibly different understandings of literary and cultural history,” said Funchion. “I don’t think Florida high school students, whether they’re coming to UM or going to college elsewhere, are necessarily placed on the best foundation.”

For him, the exhibition at Richter and the Banned Books Week at UM as a whole are emblematic of what universities should be doing to ensure that knowledge remains accessible.

“I don’t think we want to live in a society where we’re told which books we can and can’t read and which books can or can’t be accessed,” Funchion said. “I think it’s also an important reminder of what universities should be.”