Last week was Banned Books Week, a time to spotlight censorship and attempts across the country to take books off library shelves.
You may not have noticed that in the past several months, a number of libraries in the U.S., including some in schools, have pulled books from their shelves, and though they might not have burned them, they have effectively prohibited people from reading them.
Book bans have become more frequent in this country, and the censoring efforts appear to be organized. It’s not just random parents pushing the bans. PEN America, an organization that celebrates and defends free expression, reports that some 50 groups have been created, most of them since last year, to challenge books, and they were involved in nearly half of the book removals.
More than 1,600 books were banned from American schools over the past year, impacting 4 million students who might now be exposed to ideas that could help them grow and learn, according to PEN America. A majority of those books highlight LGBTQ+ and racial themes. We find it abhorrent that, as has been the case for many decades, ideas that people disagree with, and possibly fear, are the subject of book bans.
Here on Long Island, there was the infamous Island Trees book ban in 1975. A community group complained to the Island Trees Board of Education about 11 books that group members considered “anti-American, anti-Christian, anti-Semitic and just plain filthy.” The district removed nine of the books from its schools’ libraries. Five students, led by Steven Pico, then a high school senior, challenged the district’s decision.
The case wound its way to the Supreme Court, where, in 1982, the court ruled in the students’ favor, noting that the right to read is implied by the First Amendment of the Constitution. Indeed, reading freely is fundamental to the education of citizens of a healthy democracy.
Nearly 50 years after Island Trees, however, a similar scenario is unfolding in this country. “This is a dangerous time for readers and the public servants who provide access to reading material,” Deborah Caldwell-Stone, director of the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, said. “Readers, particularly students, are losing access to critical information, and librarians and teachers are under attack for doing their jobs.”
That should not be. We have more access than ever to written material and ideas, from books to eBooks to websites, full of ideas that should be read, discussed and considered thoughtfully. The vitality of our lives, and the possibility of creating a more enlightened world, depends on the freedom to exchange ideas. Banning books that some find objectionable will only take us backward as a society.
Because books explore and illuminate differing points of view, they help to build connections among people by deepening their understanding of those points of view. Those who censor books are creating barriers to the building of relationships among diverse thinkers, and instead feed the divisiveness that threatens to do so much damage to this country.
As the keepers of books, librarians are on the front lines of this battle. One local librarian said it is not up to her to prohibit people from reading books. From the adult section to the children’s room, her philosophy is to let the people decide what they will read, and, in the case of children, let their parents decide what is appropriate for them.
We urge everyone, regardless of politics, to adopt the theme the ALA promoted for this year’s Banned Books Week — “Books Unite Us. Censorship Divides Us” — and reject the idea of censoring books.
“If you can read, you can rule the world,” a teacher once told her seventh-grade junior English class. You might not be interested in ruling the world, but you should want to understand it, and do your part to help make the world more enlightened and less divided. Reading books, not banning them, is one of the best ways to do that.