Challenging Censorship


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This is a pecha kucha presentation that is mainly visual. It was presented by Rebecca Blakiston as part of a panel at the University of Arizona Libraries in August, 2009. The panel focused around core library values - the value represented here is "Challenging Censorship."

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  • Today I’m going to talk about an important library value. About challenging censorship: libraries as advocates for freedom and democracy. I’m going to first give some background, and then make some arguments as to why this remains an important issue for libraries and for democracy.
  • ALA lists core values to the library profession – values that should bind us together.One of these is: DEMOCRACYALA states: A democracy presupposes an informed citizenry. The First Amendment mandates the right of all persons to free expression, and the corollary right to receive the constitutionally protected expression of others.
  • In1948, ALA adopted a Library Bill of Rights, including a statement on censorship, which reads:Libraries should provide materials presenting all points of view on current and historical issues. Materials should not be proscribed or removed because of partisan or doctrinal disapproval.Libraries should challenge censorship in the fulfillment of their responsibility to provide information and enlightenment.
  • But why?John Stuart Mill said:The peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race…  If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth:  if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.
  • The free flow of information is indeed necessary for an informed citizenry, which is necessary for a successful democracy.JFK said, “We are not afraid to entrust the American people with unpleasant facts, foreign ideas, alien philosophies, and competitive values.  For a nation that is afraid to let its people judge the truth and falsehood in an open market is a nation that is afraid of its people.”
  • Some may argue that while freedom of expression is fine and dandy, there is still a clear role for censorship in a civilized society. Primarily it is to protect people from harmful images or ideas. Children aren’t allowed to see Rated R movies or purchase for this reason. We don’t want obscene, offensive materials just out in the open for everyone to see, right?
  • BUT – as a library what we’re primarilytalking about books, and we’re mostly talking about ideas foundin books and other published material.What criteria can possibly be used in censorship, for us to say “yay” or “nay”? What makes something offensive? Some find the Harry Potter books inappropriate, but some children are learning to love reading because of Harry!
  • What would criteria look like? Something that is rude. Is anti-religious. Is immoral. Is violent. Is about sex. With so many different perspectives on how these things are defined - how can a list of criteria ever possibly be agreed upon?
  • What is decent to one is indecent to another.As Mark Twain wrote, “Nature knows no indecencies; man invents them.” Over time and across different cultures, what is widely considered decent or indecent varies greatly.
  • Theodore Schroeder said: “Obscenity is not a quality inherent in a book or picture, but is solely and exclusively a contribution of the reading mind, and hence cannot be defined in terms of the qualities of a book or picture.”A book or picture or idea therefore cannot be defined as obscene. But don’t most of us know that something is obscene when we see it?
  • Is this offensive? Or this? Or this?So many factors come into play when we determine what offends us - our political views, religious views, culture. If we take something off the shelves that offends some people, must we take of the shelves what offends anyone? Who are we to determine what is offensive and what isn’t? There’s something they didn’t teach us in library school.
  • Ok so we can’t define what is offensive and what isn’t. Individuals have to define this for themselves.The musical comedy team The Smothers Brothersfought CBS censors in the 60s to sneak in references to religion, recreational drugs, sex, and the Vietnam War. Tommy Smothers said:"The only valid censorship of ideas is the right of people not to listen."
  • It’s true. People usually don’t have to watch TV shows, read books, or look at artwork that is offensive to them. In a free society we not only have the right to free expression, we have the right to not be subjected to other’s free expression.Author Joseph Henry Jackson asks, 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?" Of course not.
  • Yet, over the past eight years, American libraries were faced with nearly 4000 challenges.Due to “sexually explicit” material, “offensive language”; “unsuited to age group”;“violence” “homosexuality,” “anti-family,” and “religious viewpoints.”These challenges were in classrooms, in public libraries, in college classes; and yes – even in academic libraries.  The majority were initiated by parents, while patrons and administrators followed behind (11% and 6% respectively). 
  • So books are definitely still questioned. Some books are placed in closed stacks, making them less accessible. Others are taken off library shelves completely. Some are left on the shelves and then stolen.Some are even burned, although not usually by librarians.
  • But it does seem that ever since the written word has existed, there has been controversy, and there have been people willing to burn those words in protest.From 213 B.C. when philosophy and history books were burned by orders of the Chinese Emperor, until as recently as 2008 when a large number of New Testaments were burned in Israel.The good news is, as Ralph Waldo Emerson writes: “Every burned book enlightens the world.”
  • It’s true that the act of burning or banning a book makes it ever more enticing. There is definitely something exciting and intriguing about banned or questioned materials. We all want to read what is censored to find out why it’s being censored.Advocate for freedom of religion in the 18th century, John Aikin agreed. He believed that “To choose a good book, look in an inquisitor’s prohibited list. ”
  • But do we really want material on our shelves that we feel is morally inappropriate, politically deceptive, religiously slanderous, or just plain distasteful? Absolutely. As Voltaire put poignantly – “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”
  • We need to make controversial literature and questionable information available.We need to encourage diversity of opinion. We also need to encourage critical thinking and evaluation of information.The moment we forget the roots of this library value, and the reasoning behind the Library Bill of Rights, is the moment we forget our goal of promoting freedom and democracy in society.
  • Challenging Censorship

    1. 1. Challenging Censorship<br />Libraries as advocates for freedom and democracy<br />
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    14. 14. Take those books off the shelf!<br />I don’t think so!<br />Concerned parent<br />School librarian<br />
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