Indian librarian S. R. Ranganathan conceived of five laws, or rules, for libraries. His second rule states, “Every reader his or her book,” and his third rule states, “Every book its reader.” Within these statements it is clear that the way a reader interacts with a book will differ; therefore, it is necessary for a library to offer access to diverse thoughts and ideas.
The freedom to read and the access to knowledge are the ideals, and the very foundation, upon which the First Amendment in our Constitution is based. When citizens seek to limit those freedoms by challenging or banning books, even in schools, they do so in the name of censorship. The ability to self-select reading material is a personal liberty that should not be denied.
The U.S. Supreme Court, in its 1985 ruling in Island Trees Union Free School District No. 26 v. Pico, found that “local school boards may not remove books from school library shelves simply because they dislike the ideas contained in those books” and that “school officials may not remove books from school libraries for the purpose of restricting access to the political ideas or social perspectives discussed in the books, when that action is motivated simply by the officials’ disapproval of the ideas involved.” Additionally, using Pico as guidance, the federal lawsuit Case v. Unified School District No. 233 found that a school board’s removal of a book from the school library was a violation of the “plaintiffs’ constitutional rights under the First Amendment of the United States Constitution.”
The American Library Association Bill of Rights provides seven articles stating the rights of libraries and individuals. Articles Two, Three and Four specifically focus on access to materials of opposing viewpoints. The library association states that these materials should not be removed due to the objections of those who may disagree with the stated perspective. Additionally, libraries are to challenge censorship and protect the “abridgement of free speech.” The association’s Education and Information Literacy interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights states that libraries “foster education and lifelong learning by promoting free expression and facilitating the exchange of ideas among users” and, “In their roles as educators, library workers create an environment that nurtures intellectual freedom.”
When a community challenges a book, it seeks to censor that perspective and silence that voice. By doing so, the community members also silence the thoughts, ideas and conversation inspired by that particular work.
Of the top 10 books challenged in 2020, half were written by authors of color. Two of the titles on the list were written by award-winning author Jason Reynolds, who is the current Library of Congress National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature. In 2019, the majority of titles challenged were due to LGBTQ content. The danger here is that the voices being challenged are the voices that are already marginalized in our communities. Recent challenges in the Central York School District and Warwick School District underscore this fact. By seeking to censor their stories, we are stating that these stories do not matter — or worse yet, are dangerous. What message does that send to the people in the community who most identify with these titles?
In her article, “Mirrors, Windows, and Sliding Glass Doors,” literary scholar Rudine Sims Bishop, professor emerita at The Ohio State University, uses those terms to illustrate how books allow readers to identify or understand the human experience. These windows allow us to see into another world that we may not otherwise understand. This in turn allows us to empathize with the “other,” one whose life may vary greatly from our own. Mirrors reflect to show us the world around us, “to hold as ’twere the mirror up to nature: to show virtue her feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure,” to quote challenged and banned playwright William Shakespeare.
The danger in challenging and censoring books, especially in schools, is this: Where does it stop? If we as individuals were to ban every book that we disliked or objected to, what would remain in our school libraries?
The list of titles that have been challenged or banned is long, and includes beloved children’s books, cherished classics and revered sacred texts. Titles include: Martin Handford’s “Where’s Waldo?,” Bill Martin Jr.’s “Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?,” Dr. Seuss’ “The Lorax,” Shel Silverstein’s “A Light in the Attic,” the Bible, J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter” series, Shakespeare’s “Romeo & Juliet,” “Anne Frank: Diary of a Young Girl” and E.B. White’s “Charlotte’s Web.” This is but a small sampling and demonstrates that even innocuous children’s books are found objectionable by some.
This is not to say that families and parents should not discuss the literature their children are reading. Parental guidance and influence are to be honored, as it is the right of families to instill their deeply held values and beliefs. Parents have a responsibility to know what their children are reading and to determine whether the material is appropriate for their children. Those same rights must extend to all parents and families in the community. Therefore, schools and libraries must offer resources and literature that provide multiple viewpoints on a subject.
Librarians and educators seek to challenge students to think critically about the world around them, to examine ideas, investigate history and solve problems … ultimately, to grow as individuals and build a better future for all. When censors challenge books, they seek to undermine that essential process. In some cases, school libraries are the only resource students may have to access books and information.
Challenging or censoring books in schools only serves to further isolate the marginalized and create a homogeneous society. We live in a place where acceptance of conflicting ideals has been the foundation of our society. When we challenge the freedom to read in schools, we subvert the very first of our constitutional freedoms, endanger free thought and jeopardize new ideas.
Matthew Good (he/him) is a school librarian and the librarian for the Educators’ Institute for Human Rights. He is an alumnus of the Holocaust and Jewish Resistance Teachers’ Program and a member of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Teacher Fellowship (2014-15). He has presented his work at the Pennsylvania School Librarian Association’s annual conference, Millersville University’s Holocaust and Genocide conference and the American Association of School Librarians conference. He is a member of the Pennsylvania School Library Association, the American Association of School Librarians and the American Library Association.
Success! An email has been sent with a link to confirm list signup.
Error! There was an error processing your request.
Support local journalism. Click here to learn more about the role the Lancaster County Local Journalism Fund plays in Lancaster County and to make a tax-deductible donation.