Freedom to Read Week 2011

We can never be sure that the opinion we are endeavoring to stifle
is a false opinion; and if we were sure, stifling it would be an evil still.
~John Stuart Mill, On Liberty, 1859

I disapprove of what you say,
but I will defend to the death your right to say it. ~Voltaire

As we celebrate Freedom to Read Week this year, I would like to share some thinky thoughts with you. I became a librarian for a myriad of reasons, but mostly because I love to read. The written word is a powerful tool, the transmitter of ideas, culture, and history.  The public library has a critical role to play as not only the repository of the written word, but the librarians as guardians against censorship. As citizens of the world, we are all in this fight together, but as a librarian, I’m especially cognizant of my professional responsibility to uphold and fight for our intellectual freedoms.

I do not want to assume a parental role nor presume to decree which materials people should be reading and what library shelves should contain; that power must remain in the hands of individuals at a personal level, rather than commandeered by the government, police, military, or your local neighborhood librarian. The intrepid duty of librarians is to provide access to all sides of an argument, not simply the most amenable and least offensive. This is what linguist Noam Chomsky was referring to when he said: “If we don’t believe in freedom of expression for people we despise, we don’t believe in it at all.”

The librarian’s role should be to inform people of what is good, rather than what is good for them. This is a vital distinction to make; the latter is too subjective and laden with moral implications providing fertile ground for censorship, whereas the former simply addresses the need to sensibly assess any piece of writing on the basis of its merits. The librarian’s role is to provide individuals with the tools needed to foster independent thought, not to hide away any materials they or others have dictated as confusing, morally ambiguous, or offensive.

As a librarian it is not my job to stand in judgment of anyone, regardless of what they want to read or the type of information they seek. It is my job to assist in finding it and make it available. I am duty bound to facilitate, not obstruct. Ultimately, it is up to the individual to decide what to do with the information the librarian has provided, it is not up to the librarian (or anyone else) to decide whether or not the person ever sees this information to begin with.

May cooler heads (rather than irrational hearts) always prevail, and that the principles of intellectual freedom remain the librarian’s crusade in place of a misguided sense of “duty” to protect society from itself.

The following books are classics for a reason; they are great stories meant to entertain, but they will also make you think about who we are and who we want to become. It starts with our freedom to read what we want.

1984, George Orwell
Brave New World, Aldous Huxley
Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury
The Giver, Lois Lowry
The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood

Read a Banned / Challenged Book:

ALA Banned and/or challenged Classics
Lists of books banned by governments – Wikipedia

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