On the banning of Books
by NeciVelez, Wed Sep 03, 2008 at 06:24:48 AM EDT
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.
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:
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.