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Just Say Yes to Banned Books Week outside the United States!

Last week we celebrated Banned Books week in an event called BANNED: A Virtual Banned Books Read-Out & Discussions on the Freedom to Read at Rutgers. In my flash talk at the online event, I mentioned a library and information science-related weekly newsletter called KIT Hírlevél (Library, Information & Society News) in Hungary. The newsletter polled its readers regarding whether professional organizations should raise their voices about books being challenged or banned and eventually removed from a library, denying access to information. The impetus this time was a children’s book Meseország mindenkié (in various translations: Fairyland belongs to everyone, Fairy tales are for everyone, Wonderland belongs to everyone) that was challenged in a public library, largely because of a new Hungarian law. Even with the small sample size, the outcome was obvious.

chartThe following week, the same newsletter asked our Hungarian librarian colleagues whether there should be a Banned Books week in Hungary. In addition to yes and no, the third option suggests that it’s a moot point, as there are no challenged books in Hungary. Before the poll is closed (and assuming that option 3 serves just as an attention check question), here is my two cents.

As a simple academic librarian rather than a policymaker (i.e., not much of an expert), I personally find Banned Books Week extremely important. The week-long events provide an opportunity for American libraries to dedicate special attention to emerging factors that can limit intellectual freedom, and raise awareness in the library and beyond to make sure for people to understand that censorship, silencing voices, and suppressing opinions should not be the solution to problems.

Our event at Rutgers was actually once again initiated by student organizations in the library school and jointly sponsored by New Brunswick Libraries (NBL) and the School of Communication & Information (SC&I). At first sight, it might seem to be only a fun read-out, where participants read 2-minute excerpts from challenged books they select, and provide background information about the reason, time, and location the title was challenged. Additionally, a few NBL librarians and SC&I professors were invited to give flash talks on related topics.

Fun and engaging indeed, the event was over after about 90 minutes. However, we believe that its impact will be much bigger, thanks to the organization process and the afterlife of the actual event. In preparation, not only banned books are reviewed by participants, but related research materials are also prepared and updated by librarians, for example in our Banned Books LibGuide, available throughout the entire year. Reaching out to Rutgers throughout social media, this Books We Read blog shares well-designed and carefully scheduled posts to introduce and promote the event, then provide follow up, including a virtual exhibit and picture galleries of the books we read at the event. During the rest of the year, we also blog about related topics, incidents, and events, such as the Big Ben Lying Down with the Banned Books exhibit or a book written by our guest author being challenged.

Unfortunately, there always seems to be a Hungarian perspective for me to share. Last year I gave a flash talk about Samizdat, a topic our students are lucky not to be intimately familiar with. I chose an excerpt from György Konrád’s book,The Case Worker, as an example to read out aloud, which is also available in English in our collection. This year I had no choice, the topic was sadly provided by the most current incident related to the above mentioned Meseország mindenkié, the first Hungarian children’s book covering LGBTQIA topics, including the reception and retribution this title endured. The story I chose to read was actually a poem, translated and interpreted for Hungarian audiences from the Dutch version, which has also had an often challenged English language equivalent called King and King. Reading in Hungarian for speakers of English is always a treat and highly appreciated.

We are incredibly fortunate to have Nancy Kranich, a librarian colleague and professor at SC&I, as an active participant in these events and the preparations. As President of the American Library Association (ALA) in 2000, she chose “libraries, the cornerstone of democracy” as her presidential theme. Twenty years later, as a result of her initiative, the American library is “guarding against the tyranny of ignorance.”

Books are challenged and banned for a variety of reasons. Studying and analyzing censorship is important for us to be able to raise awareness and educate our readers. However, it is just as important to prepare librarians and library staff for these incidents and for provide guidance about what to do locally when they occur in our libraries.

This is exactly what ALA does for all of us through the Office for Intellectual Freedom, including support and training, as well as sharing guidelines based on ALA standards. The blog posts and the annually updated lists of challenged books are great sources. However, ALA not only advocates intellectual freedom, but empowers current and future librarians to practice it in their work every day. Notable is the remarkable collection of guidelines, interpretation, and documents including sample forms in the selection policy toolkit.

Dedicated to intellectual freedom and educating library users as well as current and future librarians, our colleague, Nancy Kranich wrote in her blog post last year that “Censorship succeeds when no one talks about it.”

This is why I voted YES to Banned Books Week outside the United States. It is increasingly important to advocate intellectual freedom and the role of libraries to promote as well as welcome related events in libraries all over the world.

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