Thoughts from Local Librarians: Reading Freedom & Book Banning

Freedom is a good thing.

At the public library, you’re free to read whatever you want. Librarians will help point you in the right direction, but ultimately, it’s up to you. We’re experts in the field of information, and we’re passionate about getting the right information to the right person at the right time.

At GFP_, we proudly call ourselves A playground for curious minds. We encourage you to follow your curiosity. Whether that means devouring stories about Greek mythology or quietly researching gender identity because you’ve got questions, we connect people to information.

The American Library Association (ALA), which opposes widespread efforts to censor books in U.S. schools and libraries, shares:

Books unite us. They reach across boundaries and build connections between readers. Censorship, on the other hand, divides us and creates barriers.

(Learn more about the ALA Statement on Book Censorship.)

Given the timely topic in North Dakota, we asked a few Grand Forks Public_ librarians to share their expertise on freedom to read, censorship, and book banning. Here’s what they expressed.

In simple terms, what is freedom to read?

“Freedom to read is your right to read whatever you want. It is your right to access and discover materials which represent a variety of viewpoints, subjects, and beliefs. The freedom to read is a fundamental component of the First Amendment and a free society.”

-Erica Sodeyama, Information Services Librarian

What is censorship?

“Censorship is the suppression of ideas or information because a particular person or group does not agree with the idea in question. Censors believe that because they find a particular idea objectionable, no one should have access to information about that idea.”

-Wendy Wendt, Library Director

“Censorship is a very slippery slope.”

-Aaron Stefanich, Children’s Librarian

“Censorship happens when individuals, groups, or government officials judge ideas or information on your behalf and seek to remove or restrict what they consider dangerous or offensive. Censorship, though sometimes motivated by good intentions, hinders free thought and takes away your right as an individual to decide for yourself.”

-Erica Sodeyama

Censorship is a very slippery slope.

Why do we offer a variety of materials for our patrons?

“As a public library, we serve the entire community, all of whom pay taxes that help fund the library. It is our responsibility to provide materials in a wide range of subjects, authors, and points of view to serve our diverse community. The inclusion of an item in the library collection doesn’t mean the library endorses its contents. It is up to individual community members to decide what appeals to them and what does not, what is most appropriate for their needs, and what is consistent with their personal or family values.”

-Wendy Wendt

“We offer a variety of recreational and educational materials to encourage lifelong learning, creativity, and social engagement. Diverse materials provide a sense of belonging and promote empathy.”

-Erica Sodeyama

Diverse materials provide a sense of belonging and promote empathy.

How do we determine which materials we purchase?

“Selecting which books we include in our collection is never a simple or trivial decision. As professional librarians, we have been trained to consider the merits of each work from multiple angles, weighing a book’s currency against its condition against its demand, and so forth. We take special care to acquire works on a wide breadth of topics and perspectives. As public servants, we cast these nets as far and wide as possible because serving the public means serving everyone.”

-Leif Fritzell, Information Services Librarian

“Library staff purchase material covering a wide range of subjects, taking care to avoid personal bias. Purchasing decisions are informed by the library’s mission and collection development policy, as well as community input and need. If you would like to see something at the library, please feel free to reach out and recommend it! Even if we don’t purchase it, we can still try to borrow it from another library for you.”

-Erica Sodeyama

What is the librarian’s role vs. the parent’s role in suggesting reading material for youth?

“The library’s policy is that parents are responsible for their children’s reading, viewing, and listening. My role as a librarian is to help people find materials based on their needs.”

-Aaron Stefanich

“Librarians seek materials on a broad range of subject matter that reflect the wide range of views of their diverse community. Librarians don’t select materials based on their personal beliefs or values but provide materials in accordance with Library policies and the Library Bill of Rights. Librarians are trained to provide book suggestions when asked, without judgment or personal opinions involved.

“Parents, on the other hand, are encouraged to select library materials for their children based on their own criteria, beliefs, and values. We encourage parents to be involved in their child’s selection of materials. Librarians do not serve in loco parentis and cannot take the place of parental supervision.”

-Wendy Wendt

Parents are responsible for their children’s reading, viewing, and listening.

Have you helped patrons find resources for tough topics or challenges specific to their lives?

“Often those who are looking for information on topics of a personal nature feel more comfortable searching our online catalog or browsing the shelves. While we are here to help and don’t make value judgments or assumptions about anything anyone reads, many people prefer privacy regarding their library materials.”

-Wendy Wendt

“I have helped people find information on tough topics. Individuals may also want to do research on their own, especially if it involves a sensitive subject. This is why it is important for the library to offer a variety of materials—we just don’t know who we might be able to help.”

-Erica Sodeyama

“Patrons have asked for materials to help them speak with young children about difficult subjects, such as death, divorce, and moving away. It helps people to have resources that deal with issues they are unsure of how to talk about with their kids.”

-Aaron Stefanich

What is the history of censorship?

Censorship and freedom of expression have been linked throughout history.

  • The first use of the term “censor” has been traced to ancient Rome, around 443 BC. As more books were written, copied, distributed, and talked about, ideas that were perceived as heretical spread, and, as a consequence, censorship became more severe.
  • The invention of the Gutenberg press in the mid-15th century caused an increase in censorship efforts. The suppression of the printed word became a religious and political battleground.
  • Later, the establishment of a postal system resulted in increased censorship efforts.
  • In 1766, Sweden was the first country to abolish censorship and pass a law guaranteeing freedom of the press.
  • In 1787, America followed suit with the First Amendment of the American Constitution guaranteeing freedom of the press.

Yet, censorship efforts persist. In 1933, over 25,000 offensive books were burned in Germany. Hitler implemented severe censorship policies, shutting down newspapers, publishers, and radio stations. More recently, extreme censorship efforts occurred in Yugoslavia in the 1990s, in Rwanda in 1994, and in China now.

None of these censorship efforts was successful, and the importance of freedom of speech and freedom of choice remains strong.

See the ALA’s top 10 most challenged book lists by year.

There will always be someone who is offended or doesn’t like what the masses are reading. As Jo Godwin so eloquently stated, “A truly great library contains something in it to offend everyone.” Not every book is for you—that’s okay. Just because you don’t like it doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be on the shelf for the next person who does. Maybe it’s the book that will change their life.

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