News outlets have been reporting an increase in book challenges and book bans, especially in school libraries across the United States. Books that deal with racism, LGBTQ+ characters or themes, and social justice issues are especially under fire. While reading The Library: A Fragile History by Andrew Pettegree and Arthur der Weduwen, however, I have come to realize that, while these reports are alarming, they are not anything new. Every generation seems to have its political upheavals, and book bannings inevitably seem to follow. What also does not change is that groups on both side of a question will find reasons to deny others access to books–always, of course, in the name of protecting readers (especially the young or otherwise (presumably) easily impressionable). The realization that book bannings apparently are as old as books themselves should not make us take these challenges less seriously, however. Rather, it is an opportunity to reflect on what censorship is, how it manifests, how its proponents justify it, and how it ultimately harms everyone.
Reading The Library: A Fragile History proved surprisingly relevant as I reached the pages where the authors recount the effects of the Reformation on libraries in Europe. As Catholic and Protestant governments and religious leaders grappled for supremacy on the continent, libraries were typically the casualties. Catholic monasteries were ransacked for their books, but Protestant literature also faced being forcibly removed or destroyed. One library, in a eerily timely description, advised their readers that they were not allowed to cross out or deface passages in books they disagreed with! All of this sounds horrifying to readers today, probably, or at least overly dramatic. But the reality is that the culture wars continue, just with different values at stake. Readers continue to call for the suppression of books they disagree with.
The funny thing about censorship, however, is that its proponents rarely seem to identify as censors. In their eyes, they are merely people trying to protect others from harm. They can always justify their aims. Their demands, they think, are ones every rational person must agree with. If anyone is a censor, trying to keep books from readers, it must be their opponents! Censorship, however, as defined by the American Library Association (ALA) is as simple as “the suppression of ideas and information that certain persons–individuals, groups, or government officials–find objectionable or dangerous.” That’s it. There is no caveat that provides for the suppression of books that are “actually dangerous, though” or for making certain titles inaccessible because, “These reasons are valid this time.” Censorship can never be justified–not if people wish to continue to be free to read materials and make up their own minds, without self-appointed judges approving it first.
In their “Freedom to Read Statement,” the ALA calls the freedom to read “essential to democracy.” The right to the freedom to read rests on the belief that individuals are able make up their own minds about works, and do not need to be protected from books. The ALA explains:
“Most attempts at suppression rest on a denial of the fundamental premise of democracy: that the ordinary individual, by exercising critical judgment, will select the good and reject the bad. We trust Americans to recognize propaganda and misinformation, and to make their own decisions about what they read and believe. We do not believe they are prepared to sacrifice their heritage of a free press in order to be ‘protected’ against what others think may be bad for them. We believe they still favor free enterprise in ideas and expression.”
Making books inaccessible to others in name of protecting them from harm may seem like a laudable goal. However, it is important to remember that setting a precedent for suppressing books–even if someone believes they have a good reason–means that, in future, censorship could become more widespread. In future, people with opposing perspectives could point to the precedent set as a reason for materials they dislike to be removed. Fighting censorship, no matter what side it comes from, even if a person does personally find the material objectionable, keeps the flow of information open for all. Because the freedom to read means that a handful of people cannot dictate what everyone else is allowed to read, to know, and to think.
Allowing people to access any book they wish, any viewpoint they wish, may seem terrifying. But isn’t that the point? People with access to information and ideas are people who can change the world, instead of unquestioningly accepting the one they have been given. No one has to agree with every book that is written or published. But allowing books with different viewpoints to be accessible ensures that we ourselves cannot be censored.