Life Lessons from the Library: Care about Censorship

This week is Banned Books Week, the week that we library people celebrate freedom of reading and draw attention to efforts to censor books and ideas. We have an exhibit that features books that have been banned and challenged.  

A student commented that challenged books are not the same as banned books and, therefore, should not be part of the banned books exhibit. I respectfully disagree. In fact, when a book is challenged, it is perhaps in just as much danger as when it’s banned. It can have a freezing effect on other libraries. Does a library really want to add a book to the collection when it’s going to be challenged with all the resulting paperwork and bother?  With so many other books out there, maybe another book can be bought that won’t cause the trouble. You get the picture.

We don’t have that problem so much at our community college library where it’s assumed our patrons are adults. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever had a student complain about a book being on one of our shelves. However, there have been comments made by others that remind me that it’s good to police ourselves for the tendency to censor as well:

  • A faculty member (long moved on) saw a Harry Potter book on the banned books exhibit and expressed his approval for its being banned since the idea of wizards came from evil sources.
  • A staff member was unhappy with Bertrand Russell’s Why I  Am Not a Christian being on display.
  • A visitor asked if we had any books for children. When I mentioned the Harry Potter series, she visibly recoiled as if I’d suggested that her kids could play with live snakes in the library.

And the thing is, I’m sympathetic to their complaints. There are certain books that turn my stomach, make my political blood boil, and disgust my religious sensitivities. I may not like them, but it ‘s not my job to censor them. In fact, I would argue that it is my job to make sure that books representing all views show up on my library shelves. The biggest mistake I could make is to assume that everyone thinks and believes the way I do and that the library should represent only my point of view.

So I work hard to make sure that all sides of issues are covered in the library. And I feel pretty good when librarians report stories such as this one: A student came up looking for research on some current political issue. (It was a couple of years ago, so I’ve forgotten the particulars.) He told one of the librarians in no uncertain terms that he didn’t want any of those liberal publications that college libraries were stocked with. She simply nodded and rattled off a bunch of “conservative” titles that he could use. He was surprised and impressed.

But librarians should not be the only ones who care about censorship. We all should. I don’t want my choices to be determined by someone else’s religious or political beliefs. I may choose not to read a book based on my beliefs, but that should be my choice. Alone. And yours. Individually.

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