by Colette Hayes
As Banned Books Week rolled around this year, I found myself thinking a lot about freedom, and my own relationship to that word. I tried to agitate my slightly complacent attitudes towards these concepts. What did I really feel about freedom, censorship, and information? Would I help a library user find information about making drugs, for example? Would I steer a pre-teen away from John Updike novel? Would I include a book in my library’s collection even if its politics were incredibly, in my opinion, passe?
I came to no easy conclusions, except for the realization that freedoms, like relationships, are very complex and take work. Lots and lots of work. I’m proud that many, many librarians do not shy way from this difficult work — that they step up to defend the freedom to read, even when it is not popular. That they selflessly support freedoms even when it causes them to be thrown into the spotlight. That they tirelessly think about these freedoms, and what they mean, the best ways to advocate for them, and to ensure that they are protected. Librarians know that freedom isn’t easy or simple or without difficult, murky gray areas, but that the alternative — censorship — is far more dark and frightening.
For my own small part in this work, I decided do a Banned Book Week display/activity at our university library. I organized this with two of my library colleagues. We met to plan our display and immediately decided on a couple of things. We wanted to highlight the history of banned books, but also the idea that libraries are fierce defenders of the freedom to read. Towards these ends, we wanted to provide a bit of context around the week. We also definitely wanted our display to be interactive. Instead of chaining up our books, or yellow-taping them, as many displays choose to do, we decided to make our display/activity as colorful and inviting as possible — more like a celebration than an admonition. We printed out several past ALA Banned Book Week and Freedom to Read flyers, and made one of our own. We also chose several historically banned books and, playing up an element of surprise, hid the books under bags. Our display asked library users to “guess” which book was under each bag, based on the reason that it was banned.
Our display turned out great, and we witnessed lots of people interacting with it. Several people even told us at the front desk that they appreciated the message and reminder that we were trying to convey — that we should celebrate, respect, and defend our freedom to read what we please, instead of taking it for granted or overlooking infringements upon it. I’m pleased the display and activity came together this year. In future years, I would further encourage people to remember that word freedom, instead of, perhaps the “banned” part of banned books week. For, it is looking forward with an open mind that progress is forged, however challenging that road may be.