By Nancy Kranich, Special Projects Librarian, RU New Brunswick Libraries, Lecturer, School of Communication and Information
The freedom to read is one of our most basic freedoms in a democratic society. Throughout history, people have tried to ban books. More banning would occur without librarians, teachers, journalists and others speaking out to defend our freedom to read. So why do we refer to books as banned, when most are not? When a book is challenged, people attempt to remove or restrict materials or services based on content. Rapid responses and sound policies and practices ensure that these actions are countered with well-reasoned approaches to avoiding the ultimate censorship: banning. Without people resisting even well-meaning thought suppression, libraries, schools and books stores would remove materials or cancel services based on content.
Libraries withdraw books and cancel subscriptions all the time. But this is based on sound selection policies based on quality, diversity and community interests and demand that are determined using objective expert opinions applied using content-neutral criteria. Standing up to scrutiny requires us to follow best practices that offer challengers due diligence and fairness when they disagree with free speech principles. These issues are faced every day by individuals and organizations like libraries torn between public will and principle. What one person wants for themselves or their children differs from what others may want. That’s why they can come to the library and make those choices for themselves and their children–but not for others or others’ children. While not every book (or film, picture, web site, etc.) is intended for every reader/viewer/listener, all of us have the right to decide for ourselves which one is right for us. Indeed, if we removed every book that someone objected to, libraries would have bare shelves. When we choose or defend an item from the collection based on its merits, we must consider the work as a whole. When our selection is based on the likelihood of objections to a work rather than its value, we are falling into the self-censorship trap.
Censorship succeeds when no one talks about it. That is why celebrating Banned Books Week is so important and welcome. It allows us to raise our megaphones and bring attention to the chilling effects of attempts to suppress ideas. Silencing stories and discussions are not the answer. Discussing these actions brings the kind of scrutiny that raises awareness and strengthens the resolve to fight back against these censors. Otherwise, they succeed. So, celebrating the right to read amplifies our resolve to speak out against banned books.
Last year, more than 2/3 of challenges to materials in libraries occurred in public libraries, 20% in schools, and the rest in other libraries. Half focused on books while programs and meeting rooms constituted another third. The most challenged title, George, represented the majority on the list based on LGBTQIA content. Sexually explicit and political viewpoint are also central to these actions.
Vigilance prevents censorship. The freedom to choose what we want to read, view, or listen to is firmly rooted in the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment. Everyday vigilance of ordinary people prevents censorship. In short, the freedom to read is ours to use or lose.
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