Friday, September 20, 2013

Banned Books Week | Celebrating the Freedom to Read

American Censorship
You may have heard in history class about Nazis burning books in Germany in the 1930s and 1940s.  Teachers and textbooks like to include that information to illustrate the repressive nature of the Nazi regime.  But did you know America has a long history of institutionalized censorship?

Many of the books that are now considered classics were challenged by censors for years after their publication, and many books are challenged today.  The Scarlet Letter, now required reading in many American middle and high schools, was censored heavily in its day and through the 20th century for being "pornographic and obscene."

Ernest Hemingway, now considered to be part of the vanguard of 20th century American literature, faced heavy censorship of his works during his lifetime.  Many of Hemingway's novels were banned by booksellers and schools.  The United States Post Office considered For Whom the Bell Tolls unsuitable to send through the mail because it contained “propaganda unfavorable to the state.”

Why is censorship dangerous?
Censorship in the United States highlights a fundamental contradiction of American society.  Though the country was founded on classical liberal ideals like freedom of expression and the marketplace of ideas, a deeply conservative vein also courses through America and demands that defined values be respected, promoted and protected.  Often, challenges to printed materials are motivated by good intentions: to protect people, and especially children, from potentially harmful material.  However, this need to protect our values becomes censorship if it becomes a call to ban books, or to otherwise silence voices.

The problem is this: the notion of established, accepted values that must be protected is typically a way to protect the viewpoints of the majority and the opinions of persons with power.  Censoring or silencing minority voices, controversial opinions, or unpopular views because they do not fit in with normative values not only deprives persons of free expression, but nullifies the freedom of the marketplace of ideas, excludes the values systems of minority groups and deprives minority groups of opportunities for empowerment through information.  Censorship can also have what is known as a "chilling effect," whereby persons begin to voluntarily censor their expression and information seeking because of a climate of restriction and fear.  Censorship based on values is an obstacle to social and political change, artistic advancement, intellectual freedom, and the right to information. 

Libraries, Values, and the Right to Information
Libraries are charged with providing communities with access to information.  Librarians are trained to select books for collections, preserve materials, and assist library users with information requests while remaining as neutral as possible toward materials and their contents.  Libraries provide access; they do not restrict it.  In the words of the American Library Association, while it is encouraged for people to "restrict what they themselves or their children read... they must not call on governmental or public agencies to prevent others from reading or viewing that material."

Values are important.  In libraries, we value neutrality, access, and intellectual and informational freedom.  Values held by individuals to guide their choices for themselves and their families are important.  But we cannot publicly mandate what individuals' values ought to be.  That is why public libraries emphasize neutrality  - so persons of all belief and value systems can access information of interest to them.  The goal is to exclude nothing, and therefore include everyone.

Banned Books Week is an annual awareness campaign from the American Library Association's Office for Intellectual Freedom.  More information can be found online at: and

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