In the library world, access to information is a human right, not to be tampered with or controlled in any way.
The books that line the shelves have been carefully selected by a trained librarian to offer the reader a balanced approach to all topics – that is, we try to provide all points of view, whether or not we personally agree with them.
While this may anger some people and some groups, a balance in points of view is what any good library finds essential. Occasionally, some offended person asks to have a title withdrawn from being used, which is called a “challenge”; occasionally, these challenges are successful.
Personally, I know very well what happens when a book is banned locally – because I banned one. I am a librarian and academic library director and an ardent supporter of free speech and democracy, but in 2012 I banned a book at Mansfield University of Pennsylvania.
But before I get into the story of why I banned a book, it’s important to briefly touch on how often this sort of event happens – even in a land of “liberty and freedom for all.”
In times of mourning or conflict – when emotions are running high and fear is pervasive – people are more amenable to having their civil liberties restricted. Look no further than the Boston Marathon bombings in 2013: in the aftermath, militarized police searched the homes of citizens without warrants, while armored vehicles roamed the streets of greater Boston.
Later, when Rolling Stone magazine published a photo of bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev on the cover, several major retail chains refused to sell the issue, claiming it to be insensitive and in poor taste. One could argue a responsible approach would have been to allow the consumer the choice of buying it or not; however, many in New England were not given this option.
These incidents present two different types of restrictions – one dealing with unlawful search and seizure, the other dealing with the role of a free press.
Nonetheless, it’s a real tension in our democracy. Rights get restricted in the name of “safety” or “anti-terrorism.” Whether it’s magazine covers or books, year after year things get censored or banned.
For this reason, every September since 1982, libraries and similar organizations have celebrated our freedom to read with Banned Books Week, which fights for the challenged titles.
According to the American Library Association (ALA), since 1982 more than 11,300 books have been challenged for various reasons (being sexually explicit, being racially or religiously offensive, using offensive language, being unsuited for a certain age group, promoting a homosexual agenda, violence, among others). In 2014, there were 311 challenges reported to the ALA’s Office of Intellectual Freedom in 2014. Many more go unreported.