On the banning of Books

I was born into a family that valued education above all else.  Both of my parents were teachers.

One of my earliest memories was taking long walks with my mom, once a week, to the Brooklyn Public library main branch on Eastern Parkway.  I was allowed to get a library card at age 4, because I learned to read by age 3.  I still remember the astonishment of the librarian when she asked  me to read her a bit from a book she selected, prior to granting me the right to my very own card.  To some coming of age was a draft card.  To me, the most important event in my life was that very first library card.

I grew up during the McCarthy era.  A dark time in America's history of violation of  Constitutional rights to freedom of speech.  There were teachers who were persecuted, hounded and harassed, who lost their jobs, based simply on their beliefs or p.o.v - there were books that disappeared from libraries, and music and free speech was banned from the airwaves (with the exception of Pacifica radio, founded in the year of my birth, 1947).

For those interested in the history of US library censorship, the battles within library associations, and with government policy, suggest you read Stephen Francoeur's well written master's thesis, available online:
McCarthyism and Libraries: Intellectual Freedom Under Fire, 1947-1954

Here's his introduction:


This essay will analyze how library organizations, such as the American Library Association, and individual librarians responded to the pressure placed on libraries during the McCarthy era to deal with alleged subversion. Although libraries have always been the target of censors, it was during the first decade of the Cold War that those Americans most fearful of Communist subversion swept up large numbers of their fellow citizens in a crusade to rid libraries of Communist influence. That effort by the self-proclaimed "loyal Americans" to save libraries put more than just library collections under the microscope. The librarians themselves were scrutinized to ensure that they harbored no troubling past or present connections to radical political groups. Pressure groups examined library services closely as well, keeping an eye out for subversion in library exhibits or making sure that controversial books were only available by request, not on open shelving.

Events from 1947--the year of the first major library censorship battles in the postwar era--through 1954, when the tide of anticommunist hysteria receded somewhat from the steps of libraries and other institutions (a development that may have had something to do with the censure of Senator Joseph McCarthy in December 1954) will be covered in this study. The first section will discuss the range of sources available and what was used. Following that will be a brief background section detailing what libraries and the profession of librarianship looked like in the mid-1940s, just as one hot war ended and a cold one began. This section will elaborate on the significance of the professional associations to which librarians belonged, including the American Library Association (which, since its founding in 1876, has served as the main organization librarians joined).

The American Library Association has designated September 29 - October 6 as Banned Books Week 2007. Please pay  a visit to "Banned Books Online, to explore the history of book banning, and to see texts that were removed from the shelves. You may be surprised by what you find on the list.

I am thankful that my parents never censored my reading material, and made sure that certain texts that disappeared from library shelves, in places we lived around the country were available in our home.  I was encouraged to question what I read, and we had lively discussions of books, magazine articles, newspaper articles around the family dinner table.

This brings me to the questions just coming to light, first in the blogosphere, and now in the traditional media about Sarah Palin's excursion into the arena of book banning or censorship in her home town.  We still know little about this, and in the bevy of press frenzy and diaries that come and go here - I hope someone will be able to break the wall of silence around this issue that is dear to my heart.

The NY Times has reported:


Shortly after becoming mayor, former city officials and Wasilla residents said, Ms. Palin approached the town librarian about the possibility of banning some books, though she never followed through and it was unclear which books or passages were in question.
Ann Kilkenny, a Democrat who said she attended every City Council meeting in Ms. Palin's first year in office, said Ms. Palin brought up the idea of banning some books at one meeting. "They were somehow morally or socially objectionable to her," Ms. Kilkenny said.
The librarian, Mary Ellen Emmons, pledged to "resist all efforts at censorship," Ms. Kilkenny recalled. Ms. Palin fired Ms. Emmons shortly after taking office but changed course after residents made a strong show of support. Ms. Emmons, who left her job and Wasilla a couple of years later, declined to comment for this article.

Time Magazine:


Stein says that as mayor, Palin continued to inject religious beliefs into her policy at times. "She asked the library how she could go about banning books," he says, because some voters thought they had inappropriate language in them. "The librarian was aghast." That woman, Mary Ellen Baker, couldn't be reached for comment, but news reports from the time show that Palin had threatened to fire Baker for not giving "full support" to the mayor.

I know that the person I became as a adult, had much to do with my early childhood exposure to ideas and books, in the safety and comfort of my family.  

As a teacher myself these days, I am encouraged by efforts of the librarians on my campus to expand the selection of books available to students - even those that provoke controversy.

I am distressed as a professor of anthropology, that Ms Palin's ideas about books coincide with her ideas about teaching "creationism" in schools as a hard science, rather than as something that should be explored within the realm of anthropology and comparative religion and mythology..

How many of you have a library card?  How many of you visit local libraries regularly?

Does your library display the Library Bill of Rights?

There is also a version available in Spanish.

As an action item, please take a trip to your local library and talk with the librarians, to see how they feel about this issue, and to see if they are encouraging the discussion of censorship and book banning.

Your children and grandchildren will depend upon us to preserve the freedoms vested in the First Amendment to the Constitution.

From the ALA's pages:

http://www.ala.org/ala/oif/firstamendmen t/firstamendment.cfm

CONGRESS SHALL MAKE NO LAW RESPECTING AN ESTABLISHMENT OF RELIGION, OR PROHIBITING THE FREE EXERCISE THEREOF; OR ABRIDGING THE FREEDOM OF SPEECH, OR OF THE PRESS; OR THE RIGHT OF THE PEOPLE PEACEABLY TO ASSEMBLE, AND TO PETITION THE GOVERNMENT FOR A REDRESS OF GRIEVANCES.

The Bill of Rights to the U.S. Constitution was ratified on December 15, 1791
"Censorship reflects a society's lack of confidence in itself. It is a hallmark of an authoritarian regime . . . ." -- Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, dissenting Ginzberg v. United States, 383 U.S. 463 (1966)

"The very purpose of a Bill of Rights was to withdraw certain subjects from the vicissitudes of political controversy, to place them beyond the reach of majorities and officials and to establish them as legal principles to be applied by the courts. One's right to life, liberty, and property, to free speech, a free press, freedom of worship and assembly, and other fundamental rights may not be submitted to vote; they depend on the outcome of no elections." -- Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson, West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, 319 U.S. 624 (1943)

"First Amendment freedoms are most in danger when the government seeks to control thought or to justify its laws for that impermissible end. The right to think is the beginning of freedom, and speech must be protected from the government because speech is the beginning of thought."--Supreme Court Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, Ashcroft V. Free Speech Coalition
"Almost all human beings have an infinite capacity for taking things for granted." -- Aldous Huxley, author of Brave New World

"Men feared witches and burnt women. It is the function of speech to free men from the bondage of irrational fears." -- U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis (1856-1941), Whitney v. California, 274 U. S. 357 (1927)

I'm headed to my small town library this afternoon.

Tags: 2008 eclection, book banning, Censorship, McCarthyism, Sarah Palin (all tags)

Comments

33 Comments

Recs for freedom to read

by NeciVelez 2008-09-03 06:25AM | 0 recs
Just want to say thanks

 to you all for reading and rec'ing.

by NeciVelez 2008-09-03 03:53PM | 0 recs
Library card

3 books waiting to go back, 1 cd.

We also made a weekly trip to the library, and my mom also enrolled me in two book clubs at a time.

Although I'd memorized a two-foot stack of Golden Books by 3 (my father read to us every night), reading wasn't encouraged -- or taught -- until 1st grade in my day.

At which point, I remember being immediately bumped up to the top reading group (from "robin" to "bluebird" -- named so as not to shame the slower readers, I suspect, but I figured the score immediately.)

I was very excited about finally learning to read at 7, remember thinking, "I'll never be bored again!"

Have inhaled books ever since (I got kicked out of a "Speed Reading" college course, 'cause I tested faster and better in comprehesion at the start of the class, than they expected us to test on the final.)

Know my local librarians by name, I'm proud to say.

by judybrowni 2008-09-03 07:32PM | 0 recs
Re: Library card

Ahhhhh, a woman after my own heart. I "inhale" books too - in fact I tried to learn to slow down - I started picking books off the shelves by their size - the longer the better. I finally learned that if I read aloud - I could slow down the automatic pilot speed-reading and savor the words.

by NeciVelez 2008-09-03 08:30PM | 0 recs
Re: On the banning of Books

Great piece.

Publicly entertaining the notion of banning books should be an immediate disqualification for anyone wanting to hold public office.

This tells me everything I need to know about this candidate.  Forget about debatable issues about taxes, trade, energy.  This is on a whole other level by magnitudes.

This.  Is.  Not.  A.  "Nice".  Person.

You should be terrified of someone like this.

by mydailydrunk 2008-09-03 06:49AM | 0 recs
Re: On the banning of Books

I am not a religious person, per se.  Libraries are the closest things to a church that I have.

Everything else negative about her aside, anyone who advocates library censorship is a sworn enemy of mine.

by Dreorg 2008-09-03 06:53AM | 0 recs
"Libraries are the closest things

to a church that I have", is a wonderful statement.

Thank you.

by NeciVelez 2008-09-03 07:58AM | 0 recs
Re: "Libraries are the closest things

Absolutely!  Thank you for writing this diary!

by Dreorg 2008-09-03 08:54AM | 0 recs
Re: On the banning of Books

"They were somehow morally or socially objectionable to her,"

Has anyone been able to find out what books and what parts she found "objectionable?"

That would be very handy information, but in all the references to this, I have not seen that info.

by WashStateBlue 2008-09-03 07:00AM | 0 recs
Harry Potter?

by sepulvedaj3 2008-09-03 07:04AM | 0 recs
Re: Harry Potter?

That is what I am wondering as well.

The whole "magic is devil worship" crap-ola these fundies push.

IF that is in fact what she tried to do, that is the kind of info that needs to get out to moderates and independents, folks who MAY see her picture on US magazine and figure she is just a regular soccer mom, instead of a card carrying wackjob.

by WashStateBlue 2008-09-03 07:11AM | 0 recs
Re: Harry Potter?

It's already been pointed out, but worth mentioning again that Palin became Mayor in '96.

The first Harry Potter book was released in the summer of '97, and, as far as I can remember, the whole H. Potter = witchcraft crapola didn't really get started till around 2000 or so.

So, while it could have been Potter (until we have a clearer sense of both dates and titles, there's no real way to know), it seems unlikely. Although, who knows, she may have jumped on that train later as well.

by vadasz 2008-09-03 08:13AM | 0 recs
Re: Harry Potter?

P. S.

an excellent diary, by the way. A fine example of what this selection really means and why this election is so important.

by vadasz 2008-09-03 08:15AM | 0 recs
Re: Harry Potter?

My guess would be that she probably didn't like books with explicit sexual content (though the bible has some really steamy passages as does Shakespeare)

or perhaps books on evolution, given her creationist bent.  But who knows?

Since the right even attacked harmless cartoons like the Teletubbies, she may have been going after Dr. Seuss.

by NeciVelez 2008-09-03 08:54AM | 0 recs
Re: Harry Potter?

Hell, a lot of libraries have cracked under pressure and banned Bridge to Terebithia . . .  ? ? ?

Honesty's pretty tough for a lot on the right to cope with.

by vadasz 2008-09-03 09:45AM | 0 recs
Bridge to Terabithia

Just so folks know what you are talking about:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bridge_to_T erabithia_(novel)

by NeciVelez 2008-09-03 10:26AM | 0 recs
I am also curious,

but unless someone can get the librarian in question to talk, we may never find out.  

I'm hoping that intrepid bloggers in Alaska can ferret out some of this information.

We shall see.  

by NeciVelez 2008-09-03 07:18AM | 0 recs
Re: On the banning of Books

Does it actually matter witch books she found "objectional"?

I posit that this is a fascinating insight into her thought process.  Did she try to have books banned before she was mayor?  Or did she think that as mayor, she could use her power to ban books?

Books, whether fictional or not, are ideas in written form that by the positive actions of selection, then actually being read can expose the solitary reader to their respective content. By this virtue they are a very private, individual matter.  Imagine then, what her reaction would be to the public airing of ideas that are in opposition to her own beliefs.

The free exchage of ideas is a fundamental basis of our collective identity.  Where you ban books, you ban ideas.  Where you ban ideas, you ban individualism.  Where you ban individualism, you ban society and are left with nothing but a hive of mindless drones.

This road has been travelled before folks.  Bee afraid, bee very afraid of this person.

(yes the alternative spellings were intentional)

by mydailydrunk 2008-09-03 08:52AM | 0 recs
Re: On the banning of Books

I think it does matter which books she tried to get banned, at least to the electorate as a whole.  In my own opinion it really doesn't matter, but as an issue to connect with the average voter I think the information would be important.

Was it sex?  Was it violence?  Was it language?  Was it beliefs that she disagreed with?

Exposing Palin as someone who would rather destroy a book or idea rather than have to argue against it or simply ignore it shows how radical (and dangerous) of a candidate she is.  This exposure is made even more powerful if we have the details about this incident, including which books she deemed burnable.

by thatpurplestuff 2008-09-03 10:48AM | 0 recs
Great line in Indiana Jones and Last Crusade

When the Nazi is questioning Sean Connery about why the grail diary is important.

Nazi: "Why did you go get the book? What does it tell you?" (slapping Connery)

Connery (grabbing Nazi's hand): "It tells me that whip-snapping fools like yourself should try READING books instead of BURNING them!"

Steve Jarding, Jim Webb's campaign manager, borrowed that line against George Allen when Allen attacked Webb's books. Most missed it, but I got it. Brilliant!

"George Allen should try reading books instead of burning them." great line!

by Dale Johnson 007 2008-09-03 07:29AM | 0 recs
Re: Great line in Indiana Jones and Last Crusade

I missed that one too - thanks for quoting it.

by NeciVelez 2008-09-03 07:54AM | 0 recs
Thank you for this.
I always like to see your pieces here.
My father was a college librarian and he would have been climbing the walls over this.  He died last November at 91, but lived to see his only two grandaughters born right before his last birthday.  Other than not living to see Bush leave the presidency, he died a happy man.
by Mumphrey 2008-09-03 07:49AM | 0 recs
Re: Thank you for this.

Thank you.  My parents are also deceased - but I have every book they ever owned, and I still re-read many of them.  I can remember my mom deciding that we didn't need new couch covers - and buying a book instead.  Growing up, with my dad a struggling grad student, we had very little money, so access to the library was key.  

by NeciVelez 2008-09-03 07:53AM | 0 recs
Re: Thank you for this.

Like you I grew up in Brooklyn and had a similar reading history.  I remember the excitement of coming home with 6 new books with each trip, and savoring them, and the sense of unlimited adventure with each trip there.  I remember limiting myself to a certain number of pages a day so that I wouldn't finish them too quickly.

I also remember my mother reading for hours in the bath with a stack of books and boxes of jujubes, and, when I was 7, my mother finding me reading her copy of Spock's "Baby and Child Care," the hot parenting book of its day.  

I too grew up during the McCarthy period and my family was affected by it.

Palin defines, to me, what is un-American, in an increasing number of ways.  This is one of the worst.

by mady 2008-09-03 08:03AM | 0 recs
Re: Thank you for this.

I was another kid who stuck her nose into my mom's dog-eared copy of Dr. Spock :).

The McCarthy period had an amazing chilling affect on school curricula across the country.  I have college freshmen and sophomores who have no clue who Karl Marx was - several thought he was one of the Marx brothers!  :(

It is impossible to teach social stratification without examining his theories, along with those of Weber.  My international students are usually stunned when we have these discussions, since they all read these theories in High School - no matter whether they are capitalists, socialists, or from former Soviet controlled countries.

by NeciVelez 2008-09-03 09:02AM | 0 recs
Re: On the banning of Books

Fantastic diary.  Your introduction struck very close to home.  I too am an avid reader, having begun by reading passages from Louis L'Amour novels from Dad's lap when I was two years old.

Needless to say, it wasn't long before we ended up at the local library.  My parents taught me that there was never an excuse for boredom, and never a question that couldn't be answered as long as I had a library card.

I raised some eyebrows (and ire) in elementary school when I did book reports on Mein Kampf and Anton LaVey's Satanic Bible.  Parent/Teacher/Principal conferences were interesting.

I still maintain a library card and use it regularly, though I now spend too much time and money in bookstores.  My work often requires research, so I'm fortunate enough to be paid to visit libraries and historical society collections all over the country.

No doubt about it:  Libraries are temples, books are sacred.

by fogiv 2008-09-03 08:07AM | 0 recs
Re: On the banning of Books

Sadly, many public schools around the country have limited access to books, and there are parents who don't read to their children, because they can't.

I have donated many books to inner city schools in the past, and do the same now that I'm in a semi-rural area.

by NeciVelez 2008-09-03 09:07AM | 0 recs
Free speech is one of those things

that only exists in the absolute form.

I have long argued for free speech - sometimes to the dismay of those on the left as well as the right.  We must allow all ideas to be heard, no matter how offensive anyone may find them.

Often, in fact, it is the ideas that are most offensive that are productive to have spoken.  When they are spoken in public they allow the awareness and conversation to occur: "Why do you believe that?" "Why do you find that offensive?".  These are the questions that evolve understanding, without them ignorance and fear falls like a shroud.

When speech is stifled problems crop up everywhere.  Theocracies thrive, sick memes fester in dark places, public awareness is dangerously muted.  There is nothing more worth opposing than the gag of censorship.

by chrisblask 2008-09-03 08:31AM | 0 recs
Re: On the banning of Books

Your story reminds me of the part in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn describing how Francie learned how to read and what libraries meant to her :-)

I love the public library in my hometown. Whenever I have friends from out of town come and visit I always show them our library.

I've never been much of a reader. Partly because I'm very picky about books, partly because these days I prefer reading the newspaper and current events than books, and partly because I've always been very imaginative and as a child spent more time playing with dolls and stuffed animals than reading. Also, it might have something to do with the fact that I'm far more auditory than visual. I prefer listening to books on tape than reading and I absorb more and am able to analyze them better.

But I still love many books very much. And I have nothing but good thoughts associated with libraries.

by pomology 2008-09-03 08:46AM | 0 recs
Re: On the banning of Books

I am glad to see that my local library has a large selection of audio books these days.

I remember begging my mom to buy me a copy of Charlotte's Web, because I took it out of the library over and over again.

by NeciVelez 2008-09-03 09:11AM | 0 recs
Re: On the banning of Books

While there are many things about the McCain/Palin ticket that I do not care for, the fact that this woman supported book banning is deeply disturbing.  Censorship is anethma to our Constitution and the deepest of wounds, as it gives rise to further invasions into liberties, hence the First Amendment was created for our security.  America cannot afford another four years of Republican "values."  I fear if we do not return to real American values, as envisioned, created, and protected by our founding fathers, our future is bleak indeed.

by whognu 2008-09-03 08:57AM | 0 recs
Re: On the banning of Books

Funny how the Republican's are always mouthing slogan's about "American values" and yet their platforms and practices are the antithesis of all of  those values embodied in the Constitution.

by NeciVelez 2008-09-03 09:14AM | 0 recs
Re: On the banning of Books

Shall we start keeping a log of all the people Palin fired or attempted to fire while in public office.

The librarian in Wasilla, for not banning books.
The police chief in Wasilla, for irritating her campaign contributors, including the NRA.
The entire Alaska Agricultural Board, so she could replace one dairy with another run by her (and Ted Stevens') cronies.
The State Public Safety Commissioner, because he wouldn't fire her brother-in-law.

And the list goes on and on.  A pattern of abuse of power and questionable ethics.  And THIS is who McCain picked.

by writerswrite 2008-09-03 11:45AM | 0 recs

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