Mapping Banned Books Project

by on Oct.03, 2009, under media, papers

Soon after the WSJ article criticizing the Banned Books Map, I was approached by one of the administrators of the Barnes & Noble Unabashedly Bookish blog community. He wanted me to write about my experiences setting up the map, what I had wanted, and what I thought I could achieve.

The article is now up (and reproduced below the fold). Furthermore, I have a special announcement:

Today, I’m launched the Mapping Banned Books project. As you can read below, the project intends to create a grassroots, ground-up documentation of all the book bans and challenges that go on in the U.S. today. The website is still under heavy development – I’m rolling this out very quickly – but please, check it out, contribute what you can, and help us along the way. I’ll have more in the next few days.

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.


In August 2009, a friend of mine named Alita Edelman – about to begin her senior year at Smith College – spent a month volunteering at theAmerican Booksellers for Free Expression (ABFFE). ABFFE is a tiny organization that operates within the long shadow of theAmerican Library Association (ALA). Her job was to organize data on banned and challenged books across America. The ALA compiles these records, and every year releases a long list of what books were reported challenged where, by whom, and why.


The list is fascinating. It provides an incredible window into the psyche of those who challenge books in public libraries (according to ABFFE, one sex education book targeted at girls was challenged in Texas for being “happily nonphallocentric”).

But what it doesn’t do is provide a environment within the data can be understood and contextualized. It doesn’t allow for the abstract data (title, reason, result) to be attached to concrete touchstones like time and place. It doesn’t, in short, do for books what WikiCrimes does for crimes.


So I created a Google Map for Banned Books. I issued a strident call on my blog for contributors. My dream was that librarians everywhere – from the New York Public Library to Podunk Public – would begin placing pushpins every time a parent held a copy of Harry Potter in front of their face, demanding that this instructional manual for witchcraft and wizardry be burned like its practitioners. Of course, that didn’t happen, because I’m just some guy on the Internet, and not a media mogul with millions of eager readers with too much time on their hands. Instead, Alita and I began the arduous task of translating the hundreds of ALA records onto the map.


View Book Bans and Challenges, 2007-2009 in a larger map


The pattern that emerged was as striking as it was surprising. One commentator on Huffington Post wrote that “[s]tick a pin in each place where there’s been a challenge to a school or library book, and you’ll have a map of the United States that looks like a hedgehog in need of a haircut.” And she was correct: contrary to expectations, the challenges and bans were spread across the nation, appearing to cluster not by political or religious affiliation, but rather by simple population density. “And Tango Makes Three” – a true story about two gay penguins at a New York zoo who adopted an egg – was the most frequently challenged book in America in 2008, raising the ire of parents in Virginia and California.


Is this map perfect? Not even close. I don’t actually like it very much. The model is all wrong. These data, which tell us so much about who we are as a people, and to what extent we believe in deliberative democracy, are too precious and fragile to pass through so many filters and failure points. I’m willing to bet that for every challenge reported to the ALA, a dozen more go unrecorded. There are holes in our mosaic. It’s a Magic Eye: the patterns are there, but distorted, visible only if you squint, and then only if you’re lucky.


So what can we do?


We can start by spreading the word to librarians and civil libertarians across the country. Before the ink is dry on an official challenge form, bibliophiles should be dropping pushpins onto a massive map, so that we can detect patterns in censorial sentiments as they arise.


We need to reverse the communications model that built this map. We shouldn’t be getting these data from the ALA: the ALA should be getting these data from us. Someone from Los Alamos shouldn’t have to go through Chicago to find out if a book was banned in Albuquerque. It’s time for we who favor free speech to converse amongst themselves, networking our knowledge of censorship like we’ve networked our computers and phones. I want a WikiCrimes for book bandits, documenting dangerous assaults against the free flow of information and ideas.


So today, we’re launching the Mapping Banned Books Project We’ve created a new Google Map, one which is totally open to anyone to edit from the comfort of their local library and will rely upon concerned and active individuals to provide the critical data. The idea goes something like this: when a book is challenged at your local library, you get a copy of the formal documentation, scan it, and upload it. Then you drop a pushpin on the location of your library and provide a report of the book challenge, the reasons why it was challenged, and link to the documentation for verification. As more and more people begin to use the map, we’ll see more and more data, visualize new patterns, and learn new, wonderful, and terrifying things about the world around us.


It won’t be easy. The site is still under development, and we’re all busy people with too many things to do and not enough time. We’re going to have to get word out to all the people in big cities and rural towns who might be able to contribute to the cause. Such a massive undertaking won’t be easy, but here’s the good news: it’s easier than it’s ever been before, and we owe it to ourselves to give it an honest try.



Chris Peterson is an Associate at the National Center for Technology and Dispute Resolution. You can find his blog at



:, , , ,
No comments for this entry yet...

Leave a Reply