To many people, the library is a place to borrow books and movies, get research help, learn something new, and get some much-needed quiet time. But there is more to libraries than meets the eye. Libraries and librarians have a long history of protecting intellectual freedom and preventing censorship, and this is particularly true of American libraries.
Why on earth would librarians be interested in defending intellectual freedom and combating censorship? Before we answer that question, let’s define intellectual freedom.
The American Library Association defines intellectual freedom as
“…the right of every individual to both seek and receive information from all points of view without restriction. It provides for free access to all expressions of ideas through which any and all sides of a question, cause or movement may be explored.”
Put simply, librarians will not censor your access to ideas and information, even if others (individuals, groups, or the government) find that information objectionable or dangerous. A librarian’s job is not to question why someone needs the information they are asking for. Librarians provide information of any kind without bias or judgment. When you are in the library, you are in a judgment-free zone.
Because libraries do not censor the books and media they collect, librarians must often fight against censorship and defend intellectual freedom within their local communities. This is especially true of public libraries and libraries in K – 12 schools. In the United States there have been numerous calls for books to be banned from libraries, and this has been documented going back to at least the late 1800’s. One of the earliest attempts at library censorship in the U.S. occurred in 1876. Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” was banned from the children’s section of the Brooklyn Public Library because the citizens of Brooklyn thought the protagonist was of “questionable character.” Attempts to censor and ban books in libraries still continues to this day.
Your NCTC Libraries have quite a few of these banned books available for checkout. Here are a few non-fiction books to get you started.
Stayed tuned later this month for a podcast on banned fiction, banned poetry, and a quick overview of the history of censorship in other parts of the world.
Soul on Ice by Eldridge Cleaver
E 185.97 .C6 1999 – Corinth Campus Library
Eldridge Cleaver was a political activist and an early leader of the Black Panther Party. Cleaver had a difficult upbringing and served several prison sentences as a youth. While at the Soledad State Prison he began reading the works of Karl Marx, Machiavelli, W. E. B. Du Bois, Malcolm X, and others. Inspired by his reading, in 1968 Cleaver wrote “Soul on Ice,” a memoir and collection of essays on politics, race, and gender.
Eight years later (1976), “Soul on Ice” and 11 other books were banned by the Island Trees School Board in Long Island, New York. The reason given for this ban? “…for equating Malcolm X with the founding fathers of our country.” Despite the librarian’s and superintendent’s objections, the school board took “Soul on Ice” off of the library shelves. The students attending Island Trees middle and high schools sued the school district, and the case went all the way to the U. S. Supreme Court (Board of Education v. Pico). It took them seven years, but eventually the students won and “Soul on Ice” returned to the school’s library shelves.
The Autobiography of Malcolm X: As Told to Alex Haley by Malcolm X
E 185.97 .L5 A3 1999 – Corinth, Flower Mound, and Gainesville Campus Libraries
As indicated by the title “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” is an account of Malcolm X’s life. Since it was first published in 1965 parents, teachers, and school boards have tried to ban this book from library shelves claiming that it is too radical, that it is a “how-to-manual for crime,” and that it contains “anti-white racism” (rather ironic). In 1993 parents in Duval County, Florida called for a ban of “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” at all Duval County school libraries. Debate between parents and school librarians became heated, and eventually the school librarians attempted a compromise. They would keep the book on the shelves, and students could check out the book, but only if they had a parental permission slip. Even though the book wasn’t physically taken off of the library shelves, this was still a form of censorship – it restricted access to specific persons only. Malcolm X’s autobiography continues to be challenged to this day, all across America.
Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West by Dee Alexander Brown
E 81 .B75 1971 – Gainesville Campus Library
Written in 1970, “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee” tells the history of America’s westward expansion from a Native American point of view. In this book all of the U.S. government’s broken promises and injustices are documented here, including definitive evidence of the government’s attempts to outright destroy Native culture and religion. The early 70’s saw an increase in Native activism, and Brown’s book helped to further the cause. In 1974 a Wisconsin school district banned “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee” because it was seen as too polemical. The school official that called for the ban is quoted as saying “If there’s a possibility that something might be controversial, then why not eliminate it.” Now that’s a controversial statement if I’ve ever heard one.
*Bonus trivia info – the author of “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee,” Dee Alexander Brown, was a librarian.
Our Bodies, Ourselves by the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective
RA 778 .N49 2011 – Corinth and Gainesville Campus Libraries
“Our Bodies, Ourselves” is a book about women’s health and women’s sexuality. It was first published in 1971 by the feminist group the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective (BWHBC). Historically, books on women’s health and sexuality have been written by male doctors. These books have contained a great deal of medical misinformation and promoted myths of females as passive, docile, and lacking in desire. The BWHBC set out to dispel these myths and empower women to seek out and evaluate information about reproductive health on their own. “Our Bodies, Ourselves” incorporates first-person accounts and covers a range of topics, including those considered to be taboo at the time like abortion, postpartum depression, birth control, and homosexuality. Many of these topics continue to be highly controversial.
From its inception “Our Bodies, Ourselves” has been targeted by parents and religious groups calling for its ban from school and public libraries. As times have changed there have been fewer challenges to “Our Bodies, Ourselves,” and new editions continue to be published. The most recent edition, published in 2011, includes a chapter on gender identity and provides current information regarding activism and the politics of women’s health.
Carrying on the tradition, in 2014 a book similar in style to “Our Bodies, Ourselves” was published specifically for the transgender community, “Trans Bodies, Trans Selves: A Resource for the Transgender Community,” written by Laura Erickson-Schroth. You can find “Trans Bodies, Trans Selves” at the Corinth Campus Library (call number HQ 77.9 .T714 2014).
Contributed by Michelle McLaughlin–Librarian, Corinth Campus