“Books won't stay banned. They won't burn. Ideas won't go to jail. In the long run of history, the censor and the inquisitor have always lost. The only sure weapon against bad ideas is better ideas.” — Alfred Whitney Griswold, Essays on Education
“Banned Books Week: Celebrating the Freedom to Read” has been observed since 1982 as a reminder to Americans not to take this precious democratic freedom for granted. This year's event is September 24 - October 1.
Censorship is a red flag word for librarians and members of the other professions represented by the Banned Books Week co-sponsoring organizations listed below. In a democratic society it is our job to make different types of literature and information covering the widest possible range of viewpoints on different subjects available to the general public.
Reading, thinking, and voting citizens are expected to consider available information and make choices. As Dolly Parton once said, “I don’t need advice. I need information. I’ll make up my own mind.”
Everyone has opinions. No two people think exactly alike nor are required to do so. Under the US Constitution, the viewpoint of a particular person or group cannot be forced on all the other persons in society. No one has the right to say, “Nobody else can read this just because I say so.”
Book banning promotes the thought that different ideas and the people who believe in them are to be feared and eliminated. While a tolerant attitude is difficult to maintain when viewing, reading or hearing something that makes one’s toes curl, the concept is essential to guarding a place for our own ideas.
One of the reasons librarians have long been vigorous protectors of the first amendment right to intellectual freedom is because there is no universal agreement among library borrowers on what is objectionable. Throughout the history of libraries, almost every classic work of literature has been objected to at one time or another, including the Bible.
A library does not function as a controlled information source presenting only sanitized or “safe” ideas. Guided by a thorough book selection policy, librarians purposely seek to challenge readers with choices along a broad spectrum of human thought and experience.
If someone thinks a particular book is absolutely the worst thing printed since Gutenberg cranked up the first press, librarians will defend both his right to hold that opinion and express it. However, if the same person goes on to demand that book be permanently banned from library shelves, then he is treading on the constitutional toes of others who have an equal right to make choices, read and form opinions of their own.
Who knows, but that the next person to check out that same book might think it’s the best thing she ever read? Next Person might also be of the opinion that the ideas held most near and dear to First Person should be erased off the face of the earth and take steps of her own!
When books are challenged, restricted, removed or banned we all lose part of our birthright as American citizens in the resulting atmosphere of suppression. An author may make revisions, less for artistic reasons than to avoid controversy. The editor and publisher may alter text or elect not to publish for economic or marketing reasons. Staff in bookstores and libraries may find published works too controversial and choose not to purchase those materials for fear of reprisal. Unexpressed ideas, unpublished works, and unpurchased books are lost forever.
All of which is why librarians think it is better to add viewpoints to a public collection of books rather than subtract any. There are as many ways of looking at the world as there are grains of sand on a beach. Wouldn’t it be boring if everyone was the same? Wouldn’t it be frightening if everyone was forced to read and think as though they were?
Banned Books Week is sponsored by the American Booksellers Association; American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression; the American Library Association; American Society of Journalists and Authors; Association of American Publishers; and the National Association of College Stores. It is endorsed by the Center for the Book in the Library of Congress. In 2011, the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund; National Coalition Against Censorship; National Council of Teachers of English; and PEN American Center also signed on as sponsors. An ALA press release with links to websites of organizations listed above is here.
For more information on getting involved with Banned Books Week: Celebrating the Freedom to Read, please see Calendar of Events, Ideas and Resources, and the new Banned Books Week site. You can also contact the ALA Office for Intellectual Freedom at 1-800-545-2433, ext. 4220, or firstname.lastname@example.org.