This past week, while going about my business on the second floor of the library, my attention was abruptly redirected from my to-do list to the new display next to the service desk, titled Banned Books Week: Censorship is a Dead End.
Ericca Long, our newest staff member, was working on the display. Each book was creatively hidden under a flyer that must be lifted to view the title. The first book I peeked at was one of my favorites, “The Color Purple” by Alice Walker – a required read on many high school lists, but due to its “controversial” content regularly threatened by bans and challenges in schools across the country since 1984. Many other books have faced similar censorship threats over the years, including such classics as “Catcher in the Rye,” “Lord of the Flies,” “Catch-22” and George Orwell’s “1984.”
Banned Books Week (Sept. 27 to Oct. 3) is an annual celebration of the freedom to read, and every year when it arrives I wish we didn’t need to have such an event. Typically held during the last week of September, Banned Books Week spotlights current and historical attempts to censor books in libraries and schools. It brings together the entire book community — librarians, booksellers, publishers, journalists, teachers and readers of all types — in shared support of the freedom to seek and to express ideas, even those some consider unorthodox or unpopular.
Each year, the American Library Association’s office for intellectual freedom records hundreds of challenges by individuals and groups to have books restricted or removed (banned) from libraries and classrooms. The office tracked 377 challenges to library, school and university materials and services in 2019. Overall, 566 books were targeted.
The most-challenged book of 2019 was “George” by Alex Gino. Reasons for this included to avoid controversy; for LGBTQIA+ content and a transgender character; because schools and libraries should not “put books in a child’s hand that require discussion,” for sexual references; and for conflicting with a religious viewpoint and “traditional family structure.”
“I see the human costs of censorship every day,” said Abena Hutchful, coordinator of the Kids’ Right to Read Project. “I know that each book removed from a library for its discussion of race or sexuality means thousands of kids will be deprived of the opportunity to feel understood and see they are not alone, that theirs is a story worth telling. And thousands of kids will miss the opportunity to read about lives beyond their own, to better understand the value of difference, to explore ideas they hadn’t yet considered. Every week I hear from educators and youth advocates who fear protests or lost jobs for sharing great books like “The Hate U Give” or “And Tango Makes Three” with children they know will benefit from them.”
The Library Bill of Rights affirms protection of the First Amendment’s right to freedom of expression. It encompasses intellectual freedom, which includes an individual’s right to receive information on a range of topics from a variety of viewpoints. Publicly funded libraries play an important role in facilitating this free and open access to information. I am thankful for Errica’s display, which caused me to reflect on censorship and renew my commitment as a librarian to facilitating free and open access to information.
Halley is assistant director at the Round Rock Public Library.