This past weekend was the start of Banned Books Week. Banned Books Week emphasizes and celebrates the readers’ right to choose, access and read any book they want, and celebrates books that were or are challenged and/or truly banned because of their unorthodox or controversial content or theme.
Groups and individuals, with the best of intentions, challenge a book’s suitability for a library’s collection, often because of objectionable or inappropriate material or content, and request it to be removed. Libraries take these challenges and the parties seriously. But part of the mission of most libraries is to uphold the right of individuals to have access to books and materials of varying viewpoints and ways of expression, as well as the authors’ right to free speech and expression. Upholding these rights often conflict with the convictions and interests of the challenger, resulting in heated struggles like those seen over the Harry Potter series.
One such struggle that I’ve been reading about involves Ruth Brown, a librarian in a small Oklahoma town in the 1950’s. Miss Brown acquired periodicals and books on Communist ideology for the library’s collection. At the time, such literature was seen by many as dangerous and un-American, and Brown soon lost her job. But the real reason behind Brown’s dismissal was not the acquisition of “subversive” literature, but her permitting African-Americans to access materials and services considered off limits to them. The book The Dismissal of Miss Ruth Brown chronicles the events leading to her firing, and actions taken by various civic and professional organizations to right the wrong.
Brown’s case may seem extreme to us today, or typical in the era of segregation and of the “Red Scare.” But situations where groups and/or individuals use power and influence to force the removal of certain materials and/or to intimidate library administrators still exist in this era: Recently, then mayor Sarah Palin’s supposed threat to fire the city’s librarian for not censoring books has come to light.
The varying reasons behind people’s desire to remove certain books from libraries are understandable; it is unfortunate that, in their quest, the rights of others to choose and access information on even controversial topics are ignored, if not deemed irrelevant.
Banned Books Week runs from September 27 to October 4 this year. Check the websites below for more information, and for lists of challenged book titles. Then exercise your right to choose and read!
Amnesty International’s Banned Books Week page, concerning individuals who are persecuted because of their writings.
Books A to Z Banned Books and Censorship page