Tag Archives: intellectual freedom

Banned Books Week: Some Final Thoughts

Eleventh Stack brings Banned Books Week 2015 to a close with a guest post from Carl, who works at our West End location. We hope you enjoy his philosophical ruminations about censorship and intellectual freedom. Our regularly-scheduled monthly recap will return next week.

I’ve never been entirely clear as to why a book is banned. Particularly in this country, where the political culture is based on rebellion and allotments of freedom, it seems paradoxical. The champions of liberty gag an individual’s artistic expression while withholding that material from the community. The process is autocratic and reeks of distrust. Rather than acknowledging the complexity of life, banning a book assumes life to be a simple, black and white process. In other words, it is a denial of truth.

Literature and stories challenge readers to reexamine themselves while exploring and developing points of view previously unknown. Even the most nefarious text offers a glimpse into new ways of being and knowing for a reader. But exposure does not necessarily entail acceptance. A reader must question the work. The human intellect then serves as our bulwark against stupid. I’ve read plenty of text that I found banal and dry, oh such a bore! I’ve read text that is morally reprehensible, at least to my Catholic upbringing. Each time I’ve come away a better person. I’ve learned how to develop arguments against what I find disagreeable. Rather than throwing a tantrum and begging for salvation, I’ve developed my soul, or my intrinsic nature – those qualities that make me who I am, how I learn and choose to be.

Throughout history, publications challenging the status quo and/or “normal” ideas of propriety have been burned, desecrated or otherwise removed from view by figures of authority. Whether this is due to a ruler wanting a fresh intellectual start for the culture, as it happened in Qin China c. 200 B.C.; or because the publication was deemed a threat to society, much the way certain parents freaked out over imaginative representations of witchcraft in Harry Potter and Sorcerer’s Stone like it was 1692; such reactions, when successful, do indelible harm to intellectual freedom, creativity and individuality.

See copyright notice in comic sidebar. Additional copyright © 2015, Debbie Ridpath Ohi. All rights reserved unless otherwise noted. Click through for artist's comic use policy.

See copyright notice in comic sidebar. Additional copyright © 2015, Debbie Ridpath Ohi. All rights reserved unless otherwise noted. Click through for artist’s comic use policy.

Not to mention the sad cases of books being lost in a major disaster or to the slow ravages of time. Though items like those were not banned in any official sense, their destruction bans enlightenment. Legends of rivers running black with ink dot history. Whether these stories report full on destruction of a library, or represent a general brain-drain, the moral stays the same – the removal and/or destruction of books (and art work generally) forces thinkers to reinvent the wheel and desolates the cultural landscape.

There is no such thing as a bad book. Certainly it could be written poorly, but in such a case there is something to be learned from the author – how not to write. But what of the ravings of a racist lunatic as seen in Mein Kampf? What can be gained from that exposure? I wouldn’t know. I haven’t read it. But I’m happy that I have the choice to do so. Literature is a window to historical truth. It allows us to climb into the minds of persons no longer alive, but who, for better or worse, impacted our world. As much as we may want to vaporize aspects or persons from the historic record, doing so obscures truth and hampers humanity’s ability to grapple with change in a knowledgeable, peaceful and complex way.




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Freedom to Read

On Monday night, Sept. 27th, I had the privilege of introducing the Banned Books Week program the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh co-sponsors annually with the Western Pennsylvania chapter of the ACLU.  This national event was the idea of the late Judith Fingeret Krug, a Pittsburgh native who served for many years as the director of the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, as well as the executive director of the Freedom to Read Foundation.

As I never let an opportunity pass without explaining what it is that librarians do, I spoke briefly about the librarian’s role in the development of library collections.  Librarians choose the collections for libraries.  It is not a simple process of reading reviews, then picking one from column A and three from column B.  It is a thoughtful exercise based on several factors, and most public libraries do it in a very similar fashion.

The Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh has a collection development policy, which is an open document posted on our website that provides the overarching parameters for selection, namely:  “Our collections support the educational, leisure reading and general reference needs of the community.”  The policy also provides a description of our community, historical information about the collection, the diversity of available content and formats, and the criteria we use to select fiction, non-fiction, reference, journals, e-resources and audio-visual formats, etc.

Our website also affirms that the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh subscribes to the American Library Association’s Library Bill of Rights.  The new 8th edition of the ALA Intellectual Freedom Manual refers to intellectual freedom as an “enduring and all-embracing concept.”   It also states:

The First and Fourth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution are integral to American librarianship.  They are the basis of the concept librarians call intellectual freedom…which accords to all library users the right to seek and receive information on all subjects from all points of view, without restriction and without having the subject of one’s interest examined or scrutinized by others.

In other words, our librarians learn about, and consider deeply, the collections that they have at hand. In what subject areas are the collections strong? In what areas are they weak? Are classic texts available, or are they missing? What are customers asking for? Are there enough copies to meet the demand for popular items? Do we need to present another point of view on a subject?

Are the materials well-written and produced? Are they also well-made and durable? Are they available in a variety of formats? Can another library supply the item more readily? Will the item be used or just sit there on the shelf? Will the item be provocative or controversial? Will the book clubs love it? Will it be just the book needed to change somebody’s life, that provides humor, perspective, understanding, sympathy, empathy? Will the materials educate, elucidate, edify, enrich, or otherwise entertain?

So many questions to ask! And then comes the hard part: when I was a teen librarian many years ago, I read an article called “Battling the Censor Within,” which described yet another obstacle to collection development. Library workers must ask themselves, does the material under consideration, in language or perspective, challenge our own personal beliefs, political correctness, or popular opinion?

Librarians must remain neutral. I think that, aside from the helping relationships we develop with our customers, it is the most important thing that we do. We choose. We choose smartly. We choose for you.


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