Imagine walking into your local library, wanting to check out Mark Twain’s classic The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Not finding it on the shelves, you ask the librarian at the front desk: why would such a great, important piece of literature be missing? She calmly explains that you do not have permission to read it, as certain community members have deemed it inappropriate for all audiences. Then she shows you a list of approved books that have been given clearance; you may select something from that list only.
This scenario may seem far-fetched, but similar scenes play out in schools throughout the United States every day. Various groups challenge, or attempt to remove or restrict access to, certain materials in school libraries. Taking it a step further, some community members — according to the American Library Association’s (ALA) website, frequently parents — wish to have certain books removed from the curriculum. If a book is successfully challenged, then it is banned, completely cutting off access to the particular work. Thankfully, concerned parents, teachers, librarians, students, and other community members have often prevented such outright banning; however, books continue to be challenged. The ALA draws attention to this important issue through its annual Banned Books Week, this year occurring September 25 through October 2.
Frequently, certain groups object to certain literature because it disputes their beliefs. According to the Office of Intellectual Freedom and the ALA, many challenges stem from the desire to protect children from materials containing sexually explicit scenes or offensive language. Understandably parents and other groups wish to shield children from difficult or disturbing concepts. Yet the Library Bill of Rights states that “only parents and guardians have the right and the responsibility to determine their children’s — and only their children’s — access to library resources.” In other words, libraries may not restrict access to material based on “the origin, background, or views of those contributing to their creation.” Libraries should always carry these books; only parents can determine whether they want their children to read them.
During the 2009-2010 school year, an astounding number of books were challenged, restricted, or removed from school libraries and curricula. Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings was restricted to students with parental permission because “the book’s contents were inappropriate for children.” The Culpeper County, Va. public school system announced earlier this year that they will not teach the 50th anniversary edition of The Diary of Anne Frank, due to complaints of “sexual material and homosexual themes.” Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird, Stephenie H. Meyer’s Twilight series, Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, and even the Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary also received challenges — some were even removed from library shelves. For a full list of challenged books (and lists from previous years), visit the ALA’s Banned and Challenged Books resources page.
While some may argue that this issue affects only minors, censorship impacts everyone. Years ago I took an educational research class, and a fellow student who worked in a grammar school learning center brought in an interesting object one day. It was a book filled with markings: words blacked out with a permanent marker. The student explained that a librarian who worked at the same school had read the book while wielding the black marker, and crossed out any terms she deemed inappropriate. One person made the decision for countless others: the librarian alone determined what was appropriate for all audiences. I’ll never forget flipping through the book’s defaced pages, those deleted words embodying the dangers — and physical destruction — of censorship.
Banned Books Week gives everyone the opportunity to celebrate freedom of speech and the open exchange of ideas. Reading opinions that may challenge our beliefs is crucial for learning and promoting understanding among different groups. John Stuart Mill wrote in On Liberty that
the peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.
This week, reflect on your freedom to read; read works that have been challenged and experience their beautiful writing or thought-provoking ideas. If you hear of books being challenged in your school district, get involved. Help educate others as to the importance of liberty from censorship. To paraphrase Mill, silence robs the human race of education, potential civic improvement, and, most importantly, our freedom to learn and simply enjoy a storyteller’s craft.
To learn more about Banned Books Week and how to get involved, visit the ALA’s dedicated website.