“Did you ever hear anyone say ‘That work had better be banned, because I might read it, and it might be very damaging to me’?”
-Joseph Henry Jackson
The above quote is featured on the fine exhibit on censorship, “The Bonfire of Liberties,” the library is currently hosting in honor of Banned Books Week. It pretty well encapsulates my views on censorship.*
No one ever accidentally reads a book. I highly doubt anybody has tripped, fallen, landed face-first in a book and inadvertently read a few hundred pages during their stay on the floor. There aren’t any documented cases of an eager novel leaping into the arms of some unsuspecting, unwilling bystander and reading itself to its innocent victim. I’ve yet to hear of someone imbibing a little too much, waking up the next morning to find a dog-eared copy of Fifty Shades of Grey staring at them from across their pillow and wondering just what the heck happened last night. Actually, that last one probably does happen on occasion.
Silliness aside, the point is, reading a book is a choice. If you don’t want to read something because you’re afraid it might scar you for life or for any other reason, you don’t have to; simply leave it on the shelf for the next potential reader and back away slowly. The “next potential reader” is the key here. You may not want to read something, and that’s all well and good; that’s your prerogative as an autonomous being. It’s possible you may also not want someone else, that aforementioned next potential reader, to read that something, and while such a desire in and of itself is relatively innocuous, acting on it would be neither well nor good. In fact, I would argue that it would be downright wrong, and the American Library Association agrees with me. No single person, or even a group of people, has the right to dictate what reading materials others should be permitted to read. That includes librarian types like me, whose job it is to select books and other items and make them available to the public. Once the items are actually in the library, that’s where any gatekeeping ends. While we’re happy to serve as guides and advisors, we’re not bouncers. We’re facilitators, not regulators. The library offers free access, and it’s up to individual patrons to decide what to read, watch, or listen to.
Library folks realize that it’s unrealistic for everyone to share our somewhat hippie-esque stance on freedom of access and acceptance of controversial materials, and so we welcome challenges to items in our collection. We understand opinions on an item’s value, merit, and propriety vary wildly, and we give all challenges the serious consideration they deserve. However, in any challenge incident in which I’m involved, unless a strong case can be made that the item in question has absolutely no redeeming value, I’ll make every effort to keep it on the shelf. What’s offensive to one person may very well be enlightening to another. It’s a win-lose situation, and while I’d like to appease everyone, I’d rather lose by standing accused of failing to protect the potentially offended than by denying access to those who may find value in an item.
“Won’t somebody please think of the children?!” some will say in defense of censorship efforts. To that I say yes, somebody should think of the children: their parents. In my opinion, and the opinion of many libraries, including BPL, the responsibility for children’s reading selections rests with their parents or guardians. Libraries will inevitably have items which some parents will not want their children reading but with which other parents and adults will have no objection. When it comes to such items, the onus of monitoring and regulation falls on the parents, not the library.
So, as another Banned Books Week nears its end, it’s my hope that you have taken a minute or two to mull over your own views on the tricky issue of censorship, and an hour or thirty to read a few banned books. If you haven’t, there’s still about a day and a half to get into the spirit. Click here to see a list of the most challenged and banned books of 2012-2013. For more lists of frequently challenged and banned books, click here.
*The views expressed in this post are those of the blogger and aren’t necessarily shared by Benbrook Public Library.