Banned books: Director's Watch column
Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck. The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood. Beloved by Toni Morrison.
What do these titles have in common? In addition to being considered great works of literature, all appear on the American Library Association’s list of 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books for 1990 to 2001. Libraries have traditionally protected your right to have the opportunity to read these books.
American libraries of all types have taken a strong stand for “intellectual freedom." The American Library Association Office for Intellectual Freedom (ALA-OIF) provides the following simple definition of this principle:
Intellectual freedom is the right of every individual to both seek and receive information from all points of view without restriction. It provides for free access to all expressions of ideas through which any and all sides of a question, cause or movement may be explored.
The development and sustenance of institutions that foster intellectual freedom and that provide open access to the “intellectual commons" is one of the bedrock principles of librarianship. Most librarians agree that a democratic open society requires the free flow of ideas and some mechanism to assure equity of access to information in a context that is not driven solely by economic relationships.
As libraries have historically been conceived and developed in this country, they function as gateways to the universe of knowledge and culture. These gateways are subsidized by their host communities (towns, cities, colleges, universities) to provide a communal good. In its broadest terms, that communal good can be conceived as an educated citizenry.
Again, as the ALA-OIF Web site puts it,
Intellectual freedom is the basis for our democratic system. We expect our people to be self-governors. But to do so responsibly, our citizenry must be well-informed. Libraries provide the ideas and information, in a variety of formats, to allow people to inform themselves.... Intellectual freedom encompasses the freedom to hold, receive and disseminate ideas.
In a democratic society, censorship is anathema to the ideal of an informed community that can embrace and debate ideas in an open manner, even if some of those ideas are odious to particular factions or individuals within the community. Librarians have consistently construed this to mean that library collections should aspire to inclusiveness, certainly to the representation of many different points of view on any given topic. Even items deemed objectionable by some deserve a place on our shelves and Web pages and, increasingly, in our digital repositories.
This commitment to access pre-dates recent controversies about Internet pornography and similar materials. The recent history of librarians' professional stance on access includes the establishment by ALA in 1982 of “Banned Books Week" celebrations in libraries across the land. These celebrations call attention to books that have recently or, historically speaking, been frequently challenged on library shelves.
As the ALA Web site states,
Banned Books Week celebrates the freedom to choose or the freedom to express one’s opinion even if that opinion might be considered unorthodox or unpopular and stresses the importance of ensuring the availability of those unorthodox or unpopular viewpoints to all who wish to read them.
In Falvey Memorial Library, we stand for this principle of inclusiveness and believe unwaveringly that a healthy intellectual culture can and must support access to all points of view. As an ongoing statement of that value, we are going to publish a feature on banned books in future issues of Compass .
If you have interest in the topic of book banning in libraries and the types of material called into question, the ALA Banned Books Web site provides a substantial overview of the issue.
(The Banned Books posters are courtesy of the American Library Association. Print posters and bookmarks can be purchased from their Web site.)