Creating Technology for Social Change

Mapping Banned Books 2012

In August 2009, I helped create a map of banned and challenged books in the United States, using data from the Kid’s Right to Read Project. In a blog post for Barnes & Noble I described the idea behind the map:

The Brazilian state capital of Fortaleza sits snug along the northeast coast of the enormous South American nation. Its thrumming metropolitan area is home to more than 3.4 million people, and as with any city of its size, its bustling culture, cuisine, and commerce are darkened by crime.

In most places, residents learn about crime from police blotters, meaning they rely on a complex information chain of citizens, police, journalists to tell them about their world. And even if all those links in the information chain hold true, there’s still the problem of internalizing raw data on the pages of a newspaper and transposing it into the context of the physical world.

In Fortaleza, however, citizens have a choice. And that’s because a few years ago the Brazilian professor Vasco Furtado launched WikiCrimes. On the WikiCrimes Google Map, individuals can drop a pushpin near where a crime occurred and annotate it with a description of the circumstances – when, where, and how it occurred.

In other words, WikiCrimes does two things. First, it makes the invisible visible: it takes the data floating like jellyfish through the milieu and connects them to concrete places and times, making it easy to visualize trends and clusters out of previously abstract information. Second, it collects hitherto disaggregated information, revealing new patterns in the mental mosaic. It digests raw knowledge and turns it into useful information.

Since then, I’ve been working with the National Coalition Against Censorship and the American Library Association to try and do more, better mapping of banned books data.

This turns out to be a really difficult problem to solve. We know that there are a lot of books challenged and banned in the United States every year. And we know, both anecdotally and through some initial investigative journalism, that many of these challenges go unreported. The data we do have are messy and incomplete. The data we don’t have…well, we don’t have it.

With that said, I’d like to share some initial findings from our partnership with you:

The data featured on this map were culled from the public reports available in the Banned Books Resource Guide compiled by the ALA Office of Intellectual Freedom. I did some relatively simple cleaning of the data (to exclude, for example, incomplete and duplicate reports), geolocated the listings, and arranged them on a map.

Each point on the map represents a challenged book in the ALA’s records over the last twenty years. Clicking on each node will display the title, author, location, initiator of the challenge, and result of the challenge. The results are also themselves crossreferenced by the color of the node.

I stress, again, that the data is incomplete, and are known to be incomplete. The purpose of this exercise was not to definitively display all banned and challenged books or be able to draw correlations. It was to explore what the data told us, what it didn’t tell us, and what it might tell us.

The first striking conclusion is how widespread book challenges and bannings are. The geography of book challenges does not map to stereotypes of intellectual intolerance or political correctness. Instead, book challenges generally occur wherever people live.

The second immediate observation is how much we don’t know. The majority of reports are colored black for “unknown.” This means that even when we do know that a book was challenged, we usually don’t know what happened to it: that is, whether it was ultimately removed or retained.

These findings do not provide actionable intelligence or insight for policymakers along the lines generally provided by social science (e.g. “educational level correlates with challenge rates”). Instead, they provide some guidance for activists and bibliophiles in further developing this knowledge project. How might we track more – all? – book challenges from inception to conclusion? If we could track all the challenges, what might their patterns tell us? For that matter: would there even be a pattern? Or is book challenging and banning – as manifestation of cultural contestation – might be infinitely more complex than that?

This map, and this data, barely helps us get our arms around this black box of a problem. But with a little bit more work, I’m hopeful that one day we will be able to peek inside.