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Sep 29, 2015 — Each year, libraries across the country celebrate Banned Books Week during the last week of September. We make lists and curate displays, showing our commitment to the fight against censorship. For the most part, librarians are champions of promoting the free transmission of ideas and information.
But there will always be some people who aren’t happy with what’s on our shelves. They are offended that their tax money supports immorality—books, music, and movies with foul language, sex, drugs, anti-family attitudes (whatever that means), and so on. Sometimes the offended parties challenge these items, asserting they have no place in a publicly funded building—a building with poor, innocent children in it. Parents press the majority of challenges, with most of the attacks on books in public libraries or in schools as part of curricula. Most complaints and challenges never result in actual bans, so the impetus behind Banned Books Week might seem much ado about nothing.
Instead, Banned Books Week is a good time to focus and reflect on censorship in general—not simply the rare banning of books. Libraries face other types of censorship, and not all challenges to intellectual freedom come from patrons. Librarians need to be aware of interior—so-called self-censorship—too. This occurs anytime we preemptively limit access because of personal beliefs or from a desire to avoid even the possibility of controversy. If we pull an LGBT book from a young adult display or cover up a sport magazine’s swimsuit edition (worrying a parent might complain), we’re censoring. And, whether we face it or not, restricting CDs and movies based on age is censorship. Some libraries use the RIAA and MPAA ratings (for music and movies, respectively) as guides for restricting access, but these ratings are arbitrary and subjective and have absolutely no legal standing. They should have no bearing on any item found on a public library’s shelves.
Of course, if parents want to restrict their underage children from certain items, that’s their legal right. Libraries and librarians, though, have never acted in loco parentis—in place of the parent—so we can’t decide what content is appropriate for each individual. We can’t determine each item’s “appropriateness.” It’s the parent’s responsibility to moderate the content a child consumes. Once inside the library, everyone—regardless of age—has the right to access any of the information we own. The American Library Association argues all of this based on court cases which uphold minors’ right to First Amendment protections, including the right to access information without worry of censorship.
But why do some people want us to censor? Most of the time, it comes from good intentions: they want to protect certain people from certain ideas. It’s important not to demonize would-be censors. They’re afraid being exposed to certain information might cause harm in some way. But librarians can’t be guardians of morality. We have no right to say what is moral or immoral for our patrons. We must be neutral parties in the information world, conduits through which anyone can access anything (barring illegal content, of course). We’re all entitled to our own prejudices and biases (and everyone has prejudices and biases of some sort), but when we assume our role as professionals, we set aside our personal convictions in order to do our jobs.
It’s been said that a truly great library contains something in it to offend everyone. We resist censorship so everyone’s opinions can have their place. That way, every point of view can be examined—as well as defended and attacked, celebrated and hated. Censorship from without is something we should resist, but it’s also a bad habit from within that librarians should be careful about. Information is our livelihood. Why would we want to restrict it?
Banned Books Week for 2015 is September 27 – October 3. To learn more, visit http://www.ala.org/bbooks/bannedbooksweek