Censorship and Intellectual Freedom

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By Kristin Pekoll, assistant director at ALA's Office for Intellectual Freeodom

It’s called a “challenge” for a reason.

I’ve never met a librarian who wishes their books would be censored or who invite complaints about their work. I think that’s one of the reasons going through a book challenge is hard on librarians. People decide to become librarians because it is a passion. It’s not just a career. It’s a mission. They take it personally when the critics throw around words like “obscenity” and “child pornography.”

Librarians invest time, energy, and enthusiasm into providing resources for readers. Then out of the blue, there’s a call, an email, or a letter left in the book drop, explaining how poorly they are doing their job. Often times this communication can include very harsh language and name calling. It’s not fun. It takes courage. It takes integrity and character.

Librarians are held to a high ethical standard as gatekeepers of knowledge and diverse ideas. And while there are those in our society who don’t value access to that knowledge as librarians do, it’s essential that our profession holds true to the principles of intellectual freedom. Part of that is speaking up when books are challenged. Each challenge, each library, each community is different. Each librarian is different. But the principle behind our mission is universal to us all. ALA’s Library Bill of Rights states, “Libraries should challenge censorship in the fulfillment of their responsibility to provide information and enlightenment.” That censorship can take a thousand different forms. Censorship happens in silence. Censorship happens when abuse of power occurs. Censorship happens in the gray areas. Each librarian has a choice when confronted with a situation that is in conflict with intellectual freedom.

“Do I question my principal’s directive to remove a book from the shelf without following policy?”

“Do I refuse to put labels on books that prejudice readers?”

“Do I betray the privacy of a patron because an authority figure demands it?”

“Do I protest the use of restrictive shelving?”

“Do I speak up when I see unethical behavior?”

“Do I stand strong against the onslaught of vocal parents demanding cleaner libraries?”

“Do I defend the right to read, to speak, to learn, to explore, to question, to differ, to contradict, to grow, and to think?”

Librarians are brave. They risk their jobs. They risk their reputation. They risk their serenity. They do this because that’s how important the freedom to read is. The freedom to read is essential for our democracy, informed decision, and creative culture. It’s important but it’s not easy. It’s called a challenge for a reason.

During Banned Books Week, thank your librarian. You may never know that your favorite book is there, on that library shelf because a librarian defended its right to be read.

For a list of the most challenged books in 2014 and information about why they were challenged,  check out this infographic.

Learn more about banned and challenged books and Banned Books Week at: www.ala.org/bbooks/bannedbooksweek.

Participate in the 2015 Virtual Read-Out and find local and online events at: bannedbooksweek.org.