The American Library Association’s annual Banned Books Week, Oct. 1-7, attracted more attention and interest this year than ever before. ALA’s view of this controversy partly states, “This is a dangerous time for readers and the public servants who provide access to reading materials. Readers, particularly students, are losing access to critical information, and reactionary extremists are attacking librarians and teachers.”
For more than 40 years, the annual event has brought together the entire book community of librarians, teachers, booksellers, publishers, writers, journalists and readers of all types in shared support of the freedom to seek and express ideas, even ideas that a few might consider unorthodox or unpopular. By focusing on the nationwide efforts to remove or restrict access to books, Banned Books Week draws national attention to the harms of censorship.
The debate over the freedom to read moved to the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee chambers, which held a hearing on Sept. 12, 2023, entitled “Book Bans: How Censorship Limits Liberty and Literature.” During the hearing, ALA revealed that between Jan. 1 and Aug. 31, 2023, there were at least 695 attempts to censor library materials and services and 1,915 separate challenges to other titles. In his opening statement, committee chair Dick Durbin said, “Efforts to ban books are wrong, whether they come from the right or the left.”
Hearing witness Alexi Giannoulias, Illinois’s Secretary of State and state librarian, spearheaded her state’s landmark anti-book banning legislation. In the hearing, Giannoulias said, “Tragically, the radical attacks on our libraries have divided our communities, and our librarians have been harassed, threatened, and intimidated.”
Some public school districts are adding policies to ban “inappropriate” student literature. These policies open the door for more book-banning attempts based on the subjective assessment by one person or a small group of people that a book is “inappropriate.”
Here is how the argument typically happens. Right-wing conservatives say, “I don't want my kids reading those books.” The rational response is, “Then don’t let your kids read those books.” Then the reactionaries say, “I don't want YOUR kids reading them either.”
The supposed “rationale” for this censorship ranges from protecting children from being groomed by pedophiles, to material related to alternative lifestyles, to altering one’s sexual identity, to religious hypocrisy, to outright political demands to prevent others from reading material found too “liberal” or that reveals the sordid truth about America’s history of slavery.
Today’s dangerous book-banning efforts follow the pattern set during the Hitler era of book burnings of anything not deemed “Aryan enough.” This growing effort to censor books sends the wrong message to students that the way to confront ideas or literature with which one disagrees is to prohibit or silence it, rather than find other constructive ways to engage with it.
There is a simple way to end the efforts of a vocal few to determine what others can read. If you don’t like a book or don’t think your children should read a particular book, then tell your kids and inform the libraries of your preference. Trying to prevent others from reading something you do not like is crossing the line. That is censorship and the suppression of ideas.
The best response to today’s Nazified censorship is to remind extremists of the First Amendment, which “prohibits Congress from restricting the press, or the rights of individuals to speak freely.” And we can also elect more rational, intelligent candidates for local school boards and city councils.