Banned Books Week, our annual celebration of our right to read, think and speak as we wish, has been around since 1982. Every September, we put up displays of books that have been banned or challenged, and remind our patrons that they have the Constitutionally guaranteed right to read them. It’s a great idea, and a noble effort. But is it enough? Let’s take a moment to think about what access to ideas and information means in the age of advanced technology, social media and rampant misinformation.
Here’s how the ALA defines censorship:
Censorship is the suppression of ideas and information that certain persons – individuals, groups or government officials – find objectionable or dangerous.
As librarians we know that opposing “the suppression of ideas and information” is crucial. The First Amendment rests on the conviction that a well-informed public is necessary to the functioning of a democracy, that each of us bears not only the right, but the responsibility to access any and all information, so that we can participate wisely in our government. As children’s librarians, we want to educate kids about their role as citizens in a democracy. But how easy is it to be a well-informed citizen today?
Since the inception of Banned Books Week, we’ve characterized censors as individuals or groups who want to limit our access to ideas deemed dangerous by removing books from the shelves of our libraries, schools and book stores. Those folks are still with us, of course. Just last month, in Ocala, Florida, 14 books were removed from school libraries because of the strong objections of a conservative group. Censorship of this kind – removing content – always requires our attention and vigilance.
But a newer and more insidious form of censorship is all around us: lack of access. Misinformation abounds and travels far, fast and wide on social media, in effect blocking our access to verifiable information. Messages sowing distrust in reputable, authoritative sources of information are everywhere, leaving us confused as to where to turn for facts. Entertainment masquerading as news fills our television screens. Audio and video technology continue to develop in ways that baffle even the most tech-savvy among us. If we adults find this state of affairs overwhelming, what must children make of it? Consider this viral video.
Jaw-dropping, right? And completely fake.
A recent Stanford study found that students from middle school through college have enormous difficulty evaluating information they find online. The study concludes on an ominous note:
“The authors worry that democracy is threatened by the ease at which disinformation about civic issues is allowed to spread and flourish.” (https://ed.stanford.edu/news/stanford-researchers-find-students-have-trouble-judging-credibility-information-online)
We have our work cut out for us. So let’s rethink Banned Books Week together. How can we use it as a starting point to teach our kids to protect their First Amendment rights and responsibilities? One way might be to celebrate these rights all year instead of only for a week. After all, censorship and false information take no breaks. Here are some other thoughts:
- Post the First Amendment prominently in your department and be willing to discuss it with interested families.
- Offer copies of the newly revised “Kids, Know Your Rights” pamphlet.
- Have a permanent Banned Books Display, keeping recent challenges highlighted.
- Program Banned Books reading clubs for all ages.
- Host programs in which parents can discuss censorship issues for kids.
- Constantly stress information literacy, beginning with the question,“Who is behind this Information?”
These are only a few ideas. I’d love to hear yours. Let’s start a conversation about how we can give our young patrons the tools they need to oppose Banned Books and Fake Facts.
And by the way, if you’re interested in how that “master knife-thrower” accomplished his amazing feats, take a look here.
Mary Michell is a Youth Services Librarian at Skokie Public Library and a member of the ALSC Intellectual Freedom Committee.
This post addresses these core competencies: Reference and user services, Knowledge, curation and management of materials, and Outreach and advocacy.