Stop Reading That- A Voyant Tools Adventure Into the Realm of Banned Books

Let’s start here, shall we?

What word do you see front and center?  School.  Voyant Tools populated this word cloud from the American Library Association’s analysis of challenges and bans related to the top 100 novels of the 20th century per Radcliffe Publishing (I was not consulted on their selection.)  The word school makes a little more sense in this context.  It is not surprising when you consider where books are most likely to be challenged, censored and banned….. in places of learning, but I digress.  When looking at a word cloud this small it stands to reason the word school would stand out a bit.  Now let’s expand the cloud.

When all unique terms are included this is where we land. Please note, I see the word high but not elementary. I’m sure it is in there, but it is actually our high schools where most books are challenged. I was hoping this initial assessment would actually give me some insight as to themes in banned books.  Profanity, sexual content, violence…why are most books challenged?  Then I discovered the stopword feature!! This was a game changer. I modified my prior analyses and reran Voyant Tools adding stop words such as: school, districts, novel, book, reading, banned, challenge, etc.  In doing so, I was able to generate new visuals without language that would be frequently used in the context of discussing banned books. Here is what generated:

Interactive Word Cloud

The above word cloud represents themes associated with 100 classic novels across the 20th century.  You will see: sexuality, profanity, drugs, offensive, violent, unsuited, etc.  I was interested to see how this compared to reasons for censorship more recently. A quick search led me to the American Library Association’s visual display of data related general censorship. The link below takes you to multiple infographics representing the categories of the 156 Office for Intellectual Freedom tracked challenges in the year 2020. These graphic representations present information about the reasons content is most frequently challenged in addition to a number of other data points.

ALA Unveils Top 10 Most Challenged Books of 2020

Words and phrases like profanity, sexual content, LGBTQ+, and Black Lives Matter stand out in their graphics.  There were some themes in common, but also some significant differences between their visuals and mine.  An initial review of the data leads me to believe that many “hot topics” of the times are mirrored in content associated with banned books.  Communism, for example, appeared in searches for banned books in the 1950’s and 1960’s, while LGBTQ+ and BLM appeared in searches for banned books over the past decade. I did try to assess the context of each term by using the links feature in Voyant. The link below is reflective of the data of banned classics from the 20th century, but similar themes appeared in an analysis of ALA’s more recent articles. Many words linked back to words like: family, values, Christian, Catholic, and conservative, providing some context for why they were cited as reasons for challenging a book’s content. This is absolutely not an exhaustive list, and many other commonalities could be noted as well, but this is something that stood out to me as I went down the rabbit hole that is Voyant Tools.

Interactive Linked Words Analysis in Voyant Tools

Check out the bubble representation below to see what else sticks out to you. This first thing I notice is how many other words I could have added to the “stopword” list, but there are many key terms here listed with their frequency of use within ALA’s article on banned 20th century classic novels.

Interactive Bubble Words Analysis

For the sake of full transparency, it should be noted that I spent a tremendous amount of time trying to appropriately embed content into this blog. I generated roughly 25 different word clouds, scatterplots, linked webs, mandalas, and other graphics (some of which I am still not sure I was interpreting correctly.)  Only a small portion of the graphic representations generated were used in this blog in order to lay the groundwork for my story.  The story itself is too long to tell within this project, but I have certainly learned a tremendous amount about graphic representations of data and Voyant Tools as I engaged with this research over the last three weeks. I also learned a tremendous amount about banned books, how challenging of content occurs, and how to become more engaged in this ongoing issue.

If I were to continue my analysis, I would love to look at correlations between previously banned books and current required reading. Many of the titles listed have fallen into both categories over the course of the last century. There is something very interesting about that overlap, but my primary focus was on how to use Voyant Tools effectively.

Voyant Tools provided me a number of creative ways to analyze a large amount of qualitative data in a relatively short amount of time. Some of the limitations associated with this program are likely due to the limitations of the user, as this was my first time using this tool. I would like to investigate ways I can account for synonyms within the data, how I can assign theme like coding to specific terms, and how I can more efficiently embed live graphics into blog posts (I fought the blog and the blog won).


If you are interested in learning more about the history of banned books both in North America and globally, check out the following resources:

Leave a comment

Privacy Statement