Proclaiming the Freedom to Read at Columbia College

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By Steve Zalusky

Glossy black tables were covered in yellow tape with black letters bearing the phrase Art + Activism. Brochures, buttons and a reference guide to banned books were spread across the table.

A black rolling library cart with books stacked horizontally was also wrapped in yellow tape. On its shelves are books with fake covers masking the real ones, their spines displaying the reasons they were challenged – “Violence,” “Filth,” “Dirty Talk.”

The Columbia College Library in Chicago was making a statement against a censorship and sending a salvo in support of the fight for intellectual freedom.

The occasion was the library’s Banned Books Read Out, held during Banned Books Week, Sept. 27 – Oct. 3, our nation's annual celebration of our First Amendment freedom to read.

Those who visited the “Rebel Room” at HAUS, 623 S. Wabash received a free banned book.

Several visitors and library staff could be seen reading from books it might surprise some people to find had been challenged, including such classic works as Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451.”

The event was attended by representatives from the American Library Association’s (ALA) Office for Intellectual Freedom (OIF).

Deborah Caldwell-Stone, deputy director of OIF, said, “It's a wonderful opportunity for communities to come together and affirm publicly their support for everyone's right to choose what they want to read and to celebrate our freedom to read.

Caldwell-Stone also read aloud from Sherman Alexie’s “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian,” which is No. 1 on the American Library Association’s (ALA) Top Ten List of Frequently Challenged Books for 2014.

“Speaking aloud the words of a banned or challenged book helps to highlight the absurdity of censorship and allows the author's voice to be heard in the censorship debate,” Caldwell-Stone said.

Last year, the Columbia College Library celebrated Banned Books Week by co-hosting a Deep Fried Banned Books event. Participants selected books to butter, batter, and top with cereal. Books were then deep fried in hot oil and vacuum sealed.

Read Outs were also held in front of the college library, during which passersby were invited to ask questions and raise awareness.

“Everyone has a book that helped shape them into who they are today, said Molly Hart, the Columbia College Library’s student engagement coordinator. “Unfortunately many of the stories that we hold so dear have been banned or challenged in the United States, even within the last 100 years. Banned Books Week is a time to reflect on how these stories changed us, and to consider who we might have been without them.”

Banned Books Week is sponsored by the American Booksellers Association; American Booksellers for Free Expression; the American Library Association; American Society of Journalists and Authors; Association of American Publishers; Comic Book Legal Defense Fund; the Freedom to Read Foundation; National Coalition Against Censorship; National Council of Teachers of English; National Association of College Stores; People for the American Way; PEN American Center and Project Censored.  It is endorsed by the Center for the Book in the Library of Congress.

The week provides an opportunity for library staff to bring together the entire community –- booksellers, publishers, journalists, teachers, and readers of all types, to discuss the dangers of censorship.

Attempts to challenge or ban books permanently from public and school library shelves continue to occur throughout the United States. Thousands of library patrons are at risk of losing free access to information and the right to choose books for themselves and their families, as a select few attempt to ban books and other library materials.

In both schools and public libraries, librarians are protecting the freedom to read by educating parents and community members about the harms of censorship and demonstrating how sharing ideas, even those some consider unorthodox or unpopular can transform lives.

For example, Stephen Chbosky’s coming of age novel “The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” which has appeared on the American Library Association’s (ALA) Top Ten List of Frequently Challenged Books six times over the past decade due to issues of sexuality and drug use, has actually prevented teen suicides.  Other frequently challenged books such as “And Tango Makes Three,” by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell, a tale of two male penguins raising a chick, has helped parents talk with their children about different types of families and has fostered tolerance.

With more than 75 years of collective experience in fighting for free access to information, the ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom (OIF) collects reports from libraries, schools and the media regarding attempts to ban books in communities across the country. The OIF compiles and analyzes information to develop the ALA’s Top Ten List of Frequently Challenged Books, a list that is released annually to inform the public about attempts made to remove materials. 

2015 Banned Books Week Read-Out at Columbia College in Chicago

The top ten most frequently challenged books of 2014 include:

  1. “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian,” by Sherman Alexie
    Reasons: anti-family, cultural insensitivity, drugs/alcohol/smoking, gambling, offensive language, sex education, sexually explicit, unsuited for age group, violence. Additional reasons: “depictions of bullying”
  2. “Persepolis,” by Marjane Satrapi
    Reasons: gambling, offensive language, political viewpoint. Additional reasons: “politically, racially, and socially offensive,” “graphic depictions”
  3. “And Tango Makes Three,” by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell
    Reasons: Anti-family, homosexuality, political viewpoint, religious viewpoint, unsuited for age group. Additional reasons: “promotes the homosexual agenda”
  4. “The Bluest Eye,” by Toni Morrison
    Reasons: Sexually explicit, unsuited for age group. Additional reasons: “contains controversial issues”
  5. “It’s Perfectly Normal,” by Robie Harris
    Reasons: Nudity, sex education, sexually explicit, unsuited to age group. Additional reasons: “alleges it is child pornography”
  6. “Saga,” by Brian Vaughan and Fiona Staples
    Reasons: Anti-Family, nudity, offensive language, sexually explicit, and unsuited for age group.
  7. “The Kite Runner,” by Khaled Hosseini
    Reasons: Offensive language, unsuited to age group, violence
  8. “The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” by Stephen Chbosky
    Reasons: drugs/alcohol/smoking, homosexuality, offensive language, sexually explicit, unsuited for age group. Additional reasons: “date rape and masturbation”
  9. “A Stolen Life,” Jaycee Dugard
    Reasons: drugs/alcohol/smoking, offensive language, sexually explicit, and unsuited for age group
  10. “Drama,” by Raina Telgemeier
    Reasons: sexually explicit

For additional information regarding Banned Books Week and tools to report issues of censorship please visit ala.org/bbooks

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