A reflection on Banned Books week

When we use the verb banned in a sentence, we immediately imagine something legally or officially prohibited, something that is not accessible, an item, a space, an idea not suitable for all. But, when we think of a book, our minds are filled with the possibility of reading: the exploration, the unknown, the pain, the pleasure, the shock. We imagine an open and boundless space filled with all sorts of emotions.

Banned books is an oxymoron, an association of words that opposes an open door full of possibilities and fulfilment to a closed one, filled with limitations and preconceptions. Books should not be banned, books should be read.

However, for as long as books have featured in human history, censors have argued over their contents. Books are banned daily in every corner of the world.

Banned Books Week 2018, the annual celebration of the freedom to read, reminds us that Banning Books Silences Stories, and encourages everyone to speak out against censorship. But what does it mean? And how can we limit effectively censorship? Can we do that by reading? Can libraries help?

The reasons given for banning books might differ from country to country but arguably, the ban usually reflects social mores or politically constructed scenarios that seek to limit any form of dissent or difference. It has to do with power and dominant groups dictating a view of the world that is their own, often based on stigmatization of the views of “others”.

As James La Rue, Director of the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom argues, “there’s been a shift toward seeking to ban books focused on issues of diversity—things that are by or about people of colour, or LGBT, or disabilities, or religious and cultural minorities and that shift is very clear”.

So, differences, and different individuals, are over time attacked, censored and ostracized because we, the us, oppose them, the other on the ground of “supposed marginality”. But when we start to create divisions, how do we know where it will stop? When might we find ourselves on the wrong side of these divisions, if we are not already? What can libraries do to oppose this situation?

For this Banned Books Week of 2018, it is important to emphasize the essential role libraries play in informing citizens and in helping them develop a critical spirit and to be mindful, engaged consumers of information. By supporting the simple idea of reading, libraries create empathy, encourage imagination, and so help sustain a sense of community and togetherness. The alternative – simply becoming a sum of disconnected individuals – makes us prey to manipulation by those in power, and so limited in our basic freedoms.

As gateways to knowledge, libraries are the enemies of censorship and champions of free, democratic societies. “They create opportunities for learning, support literacy and education, and help shape the new ideas and perspectives that are central to a creative and innovative society”. In a world without libraries, it would be difficult to advance research and human knowledge or preserve the world’s cumulative knowledge and heritage for future generations” (White, 2012).

But we, as individuals, also need to do our part. We need to read our books, we need to support our libraries, we need to defend our freedoms and defy censorship. As Ray Bradbury wrote “you don’t have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them”. So, on this Banned Books week, go to the library, grab a book and read it. It is for everyone’s sake.

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