“You must find a way to get in the way and get in good trouble, necessary trouble.” – Representative John Lewis
In June of 2005, as a graduate student at my very first library job, I created a display for Gay and Lesbian Pride Month. I knew the display could generate controversy but after consulting with my supervisor, the display went up in a prominent location, right inside the West Gate Regional Library’s front doors. After three complaints, Hillsborough County’s chief librarian decided to remove the display; soon after the Hillsborough County Commission approved a policy directing county government to “abstain from acknowledging, promoting or participating” in gay pride events. This was my first experience with good trouble, and with the challenges librarians face as we promote equal access and recognition for the diverse communities we serve.
Thirteen years later, as I begin my first year of service on ALSC’s Intellectual Freedom Committee, I reflect on my personal experience and turn to the pages of books and journals that show the history of librarianship and intellectual freedom. Sometimes we need motivation to keep intellectual freedom at the forefront of our work as librarians. After all, our work on this issue doesn’t just concern complaints and threats to the freedom to read, it also requires self-reflection to avoid self-censorship, particularly in terms of collection development. The more I read, the more awed I am by the work of librarians before me, and the more inspired I am to continue to do my best to uphold one of the core values of librarianship.
A statement by the Kansas Library Association’s Intellectual Freedom Committee in 1962 included a justification for opposing censorship (and offered practical suggestions for librarians facing book censorship challenges):
“We believe that the library is the storehouse of the record of man’s thoughts, of his achievements and of his failures, of his dreams and of his hopes. We believe that an important part of our duty as librarians is to collect, preserve, and make available this record–all of it. There can be no curtailment of what can be read, learned, thought, or discussed, or there is no freedom.” (Carson, 1962)
Students for a Democratic Society’s (SDS) rallied for free speech in Missouri, 1969, after an underground student newspaper was banned from campus. Mrs. Joan Bodgers (consultant to Children’s Services of the State Library) was dismissed after requesting the newspaper for the library. Bodgers penned a letter protesting the suppression of the free press, stating:
“It is my strong belief that the best of the young people today are trying to tell us something important through their music, poetry, costume and political action. The very things we don’t want to hear may save our everlasting souls. At the least, it may keep us from blowing up the world.” (Mcleod, 1969)
Pamela Ellen Procuniar, an attorney and associate professor of law, reflected on the intellectual rights of children after the 1976 U.S. Supreme Court’s decision (in Tinker v Des Moines) regarding students’ First Amendment rights:
“To give democracy a chancy of success, we need to develop adults who are capable of choice and decision-making. The more we protect and shelter our children, the less they will be able to participate meaningfully in the democratic process…To the extent that we believe in democracy we must be concerned with the education of our children. Books play a central role in that education. They transmit the past to the future. We must decide to risk exposing our children to knowledge of mankind’s ideas and history, its mistakes and its successes. We must decide to risk exposing our children to knowledge of mankind’s ideas and history, its mistakes and successes.” (Procuniar, 1976)
For several years, the October edition of the Wilson Library Bulletin “explored significant concerns in the area of library work for children”. In 1976, the focus of the discussion was intellectual freedom for children.
“One of the biggest ironies in all discussions of intellectual freedom for children, it seems to me, is the fact that the more one is involved with children—whether as librarian, judge, teacher, or social activist— the more one tends to be a part of the structure that sets children apart, treats them as “different,” and by this separation and treatment, perhaps contributes to the idea that children are different and that their rights can or must be treated as such by the rest of us. Further complicating the issue is the fact that most of us are drawn to work with children, in whatever field, because we love them. Later we learn to respect them. But I wonder how things might be if the process were reversed, and our love were based on respect. We might,from the start, be more concerned with the need for children to develop toughness of mind and independence of taste and less concerned with protecting them.” (Sullivan, 1976)
Reading the words of librarians from decades past really drives home that nothing is new in this world, and many of the issues and even the political climate faced by librarians – particularly youth services librarians – in the past have not gone dormant, but rather persist. After all, it took eight years for Hillsborough County Commission to unanimously repeal the ban of gay pride recognition, and libraries in many communities still confront censorship and challenges today. Emily J. M. Knox, assistant professor in the School of Information Sciences at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, recently questioned the act of censorship in modern times: “Censorship in an age of ubiquitous access seems to be an entirely futile act. What is the point of trying to remove materials from collections when they are readily available online or in the next town?” She answers her own question: “Censorship is primarily about power and control” and further reflects:
“The freedom to read, along with the freedom to speak, is integral to life in a democracy, and it is librarians who are on the front lines protecting these rights…In this time of turmoil, we must both celebrate and defend the right to read.” (Knox, 2017)
This post addresses the following ALSC Core Competency: V. Outreach and Advocacy.
Our guest blogger today is Meagan Albright, member of the ALSC IF Committee. Meagan is a Youth Services Librarian III at the Nova Southeastern University Alvin Sherman Library, Research and Information Technology Center in Fort Lauderdale, FL. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please note that as a guest post, the views expressed here do not represent the official position of ALA or ALSC.
- Carson, D. M. (1962). Price of liberty. Wilson Library Bulletin, 36392-393.
- Holan, Mark. (2005, June 16). Commission Bans County From Recognizing Gay Pride. Tampa Tribune.
- Knox, Emily J. M. (2017). Opposing Censorship in Difficult Times. Library Quarterly, 87(3), 268-276.
- Lewis, John. (May 2016). Commencement Address. Speech presented at Bates College. Lewiston, Maine.
- McLeod, R. (1969). Dissent and reaction in Missouri. Wilson Library Bulletin, 44269-276.
- Procuniar, P. E. (1976). Intellectual rights of children. Wilson Library Bulletin, 51163-167.
- Sullivan, Peggy (1976) Freedom and constraint in children’s literature. Wilson Library Bulletin, 51144-176.
- Varian, Bill. (2013, June 5). Hillsborough County Commission unanimously repeals ban of gay pride recognition. Tampa Bay Times. Retrieved from https://www.tampabay.com/news/localgovernment/public-hearing-under-way-over-hillsborough-county-ban-on-acknowledging-gay/2124940