Freedom to Read week begins this year in Canada on February 26th and runs through March 4th. As a librarian, I support the right to intellectual freedom and stand firmly opposed to censorship. As to what is censorship, I find the following definition of what constitutes censorship formed by the American Library Association the most comprehensive and inclusive:
Censorship is the suppression of ideas and information that certain persons—individuals, groups or government officials—find objectionable or dangerous. It is no more complicated than someone saying, “Don’t let anyone read this book, or buy that magazine, or view that film, because I object to it! ” Censors try to use the power of the state to impose their view of what is truthful and appropriate, or offensive and objectionable, on everyone else. Censors pressure public institutions, like libraries, to suppress and remove from public access information they judge inappropriate or dangerous, so that no one else has the chance to read or view the material and make up their own minds about it. The censor wants to prejudge materials for everyone. (American Library Association)
The critical point in this definition is the fact that “the censor wants to prejudge materials for everyone.”
While I support the right to intellectual freedom, freedom of expression and freedom to read, I understand this includes the right of individuals to determine for themselves what they “find objectionable or dangerous.” Currently, I work in a university library in a job where I do not serve the public. However, when I started out as a librarian, newly graduated from library school in 1993, I worked in public libraries in contract positions. I worked as a children’s librarian under contract for the Smiths Falls Public Library back in 1995-1996. Part of my job was the provision of readers advisory to library patrons. Among those I served were families with strong religious convictions who homeschooled their children. Parents of these families asked for my help in finding books to bring home for their children to read. They were strict in their insistence that they did not want their children reading books that had anything to do with the occult, paganism or behaviour they considered overly permissive or sexually suggestive. At the time I had no problem with this, and neither is it a problem for me in the present.
The collection of books for children and young adults in the Smiths Falls Public Library was well stocked at the time with materials suited to the tastes of the public. The Goosebumps series by R.L. Stine was popular with young readers at the time as was The Baby-Sitters Club by Ann M. Martin. The books in these series circulated a great deal. These are also good examples of the kinds of materials that did not meet the approval of the families mentioned in the preceding paragraph. In suggesting titles other than Goosebumps or the Baby-Sitters Club for them I drew on my own experience, looking to some of the books I read growing up. One series of novels written for children and young adults I remember from my childhood is the Three Investigators, created by Robert Arthur. Another favourite series I remember from my formative years are the books published by Geoffrey Trease. The novels Geoffrey Trease published featured characters living and interacting in historical eras with prominent figures from these eras. They are fascinating adventure stories written for young adults. In the end, I succeeded in helping these library patrons finding books for their children that suited their tastes and values.
Some might claim I facilitated censorship in acceding to the requests of these families in helping them keep books they did not approve of from their children, but I disagree with this claim. In this instance, the families I served exercised their right to determine for themselves and their children what they found “objectionable or dangerous.” On the other hand, had they come to me with the demand that I remove from the public library collection materials they found “objectionable or dangerous” for the sake of the children there would be a problem. In that case, I would refuse their demand summarily, no matter how noble their intention in doing so, because this would mean letting them “prejudge materials for everyone.” Clare Boothe Luce understood this very well when she observed that “censorship, like charity, should begin at home, but, unlike charity, it should end there.” Individuals have agency and rightfully decide for themselves what is and is not appropriate to view, read or listen to and legitimately leave it to others decide for themselves to the same. I hope people get this message as Freedom to Read week proceeds and come to appreciate that censorship properly begins at home and there it should remain.
Posted by Geoffrey