Interview of Amanda Glenn-Bradley, Research Librarian at UNC Asheville, March 1, 2018. Interviewed by Cara Forbes.
CF: It is March the first. I am in Ramsey Library with Amanda Glenn-Bradley, a librarian who works here at UNC Asheville. How are you doing, Amanda?
AGB: I’m doing great. How are you doing?
CF: I am doing very well this morning. I just wanted to start out by thanking you for taking the time to speak to me today about book censorship and regarding The Bluest Eye in Buncombe county. So, are you familiar with The Bluest Eye – have you read it?
AGB: Actually, yes . . . so I’ve read it a couple of times. I was fortunate enough to have a high school English teacher that had us read it as one of our alternative readings, but also I read it in college. I’m a huge fan of Toni Morrison’s work in general though.
CF: What do you like about her work specifically?
AGB: As an author she creates these wonderful, immersive experiences. There are some authors – and I appreciate these authors too – that will create environments that require you to do most of the imagining on your own. Toni’s work sucks you in and it creates these beautiful immersive spaces that you feel as if you’re a part of.
CF: What do you think you gained from The Bluest Eye after you read it – having read it as a student?
AGB: I think after reading it as a student, and – goodness gracious – it’s been like twenty years since I read this book for the first time – but one of the things I think it brought up was a diversity of experiences. I grew up outside of Asheville, but I went to a . . . let’s just say not very diverse school . . . where people lived in the dark, for a lack of a better term. We weren’t a diverse community at all. And it brought different perspectives in. And I think that one of the most important things you can get when you’re reading as a young person. You need as many different experiences presented to you as possible. You need as many points of view presented to you so you can think outside your somewhat limited world view.
CF: One of the things that we’re looking into for this project is the censorship of sexually explicit content, especially in high school settings. The case that were looking at was an Honors, Junior level class that the book was banned in. So, one of the questions we had was, in regards to censorship, do you think there is an age group where it is appropriate to censor material, especially in the context of sexually explicit material.
AGB: That’s kind of a difficult question to answer as a librarian. So as a librarian my job is information access, so it’s less censorship and more introducing material. As someone who has worked with youth, I realize that sometimes that there can be age ranges that aren’t prepared to deal with that type of material yet, but I hesitate to censor anything because when you put material behind a wall, one of two things is going to happen, it’s either going to be vilified or it’s going to be coveted to the point that someone will access it no matter what. So, I say introduce the material, but give a lot of context. Explain that there will be somethings in a piece of material that might be disturbing, that might give you pause, that might have questions. Get the community involved, get the parents involved, make it a group read instead of “Oh, my child has to read this for school,” situation. I shy away from the word censorship because, very much, I am a librarian, I don’t do that. Especially being a university librarian. my job is to make sure people have access to as much material as they possibly can, without putting my own personal views into it as well.
CF: That is completely understandable and I totally respect that. One of the arguments that we’ve been hearing is that there are other books that you could be reading to get the same message that aren’t as offensive. Do you think there is a value to offending readers?
AGB: I think there is a value to offending readers because what happens when we get offended? Maybe it’s a belief that we hold, maybe it’s an opinion that we have being challenged. If you are not challenged as a learner, you are not going to grow. You have to take a step backwards and think, wait a second, why is this offending me? And be able to address that and move forward. There is going to be no one book that I think everyone could agree on either. Trying to quantify what makes an inoffensive or offensive book can also be a little twitchy as well. I actually have colleagues that are elementary school and middle school and high school librarians and they don’t let their personal opinions override the curiosity of there readers. It’s one of those things that I think you do need to be offended as a reader, because if you’re not offended your not going to figure out why you were offended, and you’re not going to grow.
CF: A lot of the time, when we talk about the parents coming in and they’ve read a passage, or a chunk of the book, and they assume that is what the whole book is about. They don’t read the book and use the context to understand it. In your experience, has that generally been an issue when you have seen books be challenged during your work as a librarian
AGB: Very much so. As I mentioned earlier, I’m at a college, so we typically don’t deal with a lot of challenges, because we are very much information for everyone, but I’ve studied quite a bit on banned materials because I very much believe in freedom of access. Context is incredibly important because people will just pick and choose passages to take issue with without looking at the whole picture of a particular title. For The Bluest Eye, yes there are mentions of rape, yes there is sex, you’re going to find that in so many different novels, why cherry pick those sections without looking at the book as a whole. There have been so many instances of individual sections of books being called into question as a part of a challenge or a successful ban.
CF: What would you recommend to readers who are wanting to gain more context about what they are about to read?
AGB: That’s a really good question. So, when you’re looking at any type of material and you’re about to start reading it, one thing that I would encourage folks to do is a little background research on the setting and the time period. So, for example, if you were looking at All Quiet on the Western Front, that’s another book that has actually been challenged before, I would encourage folks to do some research on what was happening in the world at that point in time. Why was this set in the middle of a war? What kind of war was going on? What were the behaviors that were common at that point in time? Because that’s going to give you context for you to be able to understand the book even better. There are great resources on library websites to do that, even though I love Wikipedia and I’m not going to vilify it, but check out something like, for example through our library we have a service called ____ reference. It’s got short reference articles that are either on books, events, people, places and it gives you that background information so that when you go into a book you are an informed reader rather than being just a reader.
CF: There was an argument that my research partner and I came across in favor of not censoring; it was that you can skip the sections that offend you. Do you think that this could be detrimental to using the book as a learning tool or do you think that it would be beneficial?
AGB: That is an interesting question because, yes, you can skip the things that offend you, but is it going to take away from the meaning of the book as a whole? Are you going to miss something by skipping over those chapters that might depict sexual violence? Is that going to take away from the narrative? Is it going to take away from the overall view of the book? So, if it comes down to it, sure you could do it, but I would be hesitant to do that because it would take away from that overall picture of the title.
CF: For this book specifically, one of the things challenged was not just child molestation, but the way that it depicted child molestation. They said it depicted it in a positive way which was what people seemed to find so offensive. Do you think there could be a benefit to understanding a perspective that is so deeply disliked?
AGB: It’s one of those issues that goes back to challenging your own world view and looking outside what you typically hold to be the truth. I don’t think that a positive depiction of something that occurred such as that should be held up as the gold standard, but I think it’s a good way to challenge conceptions of it and maybe even levy some constructive criticism at a title. Here’s the thing, when youre reading a title in any kind of English class, what you’re really doing is you’re learning from the structure, but you’re also learning to take a critical view of items and maybe that’s something that instead of just skipping over that part, or skipping past it, you can use it as a point of critique and be able to deconstruct and learn from it.
CF: Do you have any other comments that you would like to address before we end this interview, just anything that’s on your mind.
AGB: It’s always intriguing to me to see what types of material are challenged and banned. There are great stats that are available a couple of places. So, there’s the Office of Intellectual Freedom from the American Library Association; they collect statistics on what books are banned and challenged and why, and they will actually offer help to organizations that have a ban or challenge going on. So, for example, if a school system has had something banned or challenged, they can often reach out to the OIF and get information on the title itself. Marshall University’s library has a great website specifically on banned books. And they will have a timeline of what titles were challenged and if the challenge was successful or if it failed. I pulled up The Bluest Eye before we did this interview, and interestingly enough they do not mention the challenge from Buncombe county, but there was a recent challenge at the end of 2017, and it was challenged for a similar reason. The school board actually voted that AP student’s parents have an option to choose between works that cover oppression or poverty. So, there’s always a time to have a discussion about the use and themes of a piece of material. I don’t think that reading lists should be stagnant. I think they should change over time, they should be open for debate, but censorship, not so much.
CF: So, in terms of historical context, you mentioning that this is all happening in 2017, why do you think that censorship pieces, such as this one, are happening with our current political and historical framework in mind.
AGB: I think right now its people are being encouraged, for better or for worse, to voice their opinions on everything, and social media and the internet make it very easy for people to voice their opinions on everything. Even, sometimes if those opinions are either not very well formed or maybe misinformed. Bans and challenges have always gone on but now we’re paying more attention to them. We’re learning about them. For example, the ban in Buncombe county got picked up by a major website, who said that they were going to follow it, it’s actually a advocacy group around comic books in libraries, and years ago, back when I would have been in highschool, back in the dark ages in the nineties, news like that would have barely gone outside our community. So I’m not sure that more challenges are happening, I think there being better covered now.
CF: Well, I think that that ends our interview, thank you so much again for your time and and for all of your commentary and for sharing your expertise.
AGB: No problem, thank you.