On Reading: Freedom to Read Week

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“A truly great library contains something in it to offend everyone.” ~ Jo Godwin

Some of the most popular titles in literature have been banned or challenged at some point in their history: To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee; The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien; Slaughterhouse-Five, by Kurt Vonnegut; The Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger. That’s just a few of many.

February 22 to 28 marks Freedom to Read Week in Canada. It’s a week to raise awareness on issues of intellectual freedom and to celebrate freedom of expression. It’s an important cause, especially for raising awareness, because it seems many people think books aren’t challenged anymore – that this battle is won.

After all, in Canada our freedom to read is protected by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. In the United States, it’s protected by the First Amendment. However, this doesn’t stop people from trying to take away our right to read. In 2013 alone, 307 challenges were reported in the United States and 85 challenges were reported in libraries in Canada. These challenges may very well have included your favourite titles: The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins; The Perks of Being a Wallflower, by Stephen Chbosky; Looking for Alaska, by John Green; The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie.

One person or group didn’t like what these books had to say, and so they sought to take away your right to interact with the ideas in these books. The people behind these challenges often feel without a doubt that these books should be challenged and that they should not be available. It is often the case that these books contain ideas that are unpopular or offensive.

Certainly not every book is right for every reader. Everyone is entitled to their opinion, and readers have the right to not read certain things (and for children, their parents may choose to decide what is appropriate). But one person or group should not be allowed to limit the reading choices of everyone just because a book conflicts with their worldview or they don’t think it’s appropriate for their child. In fact, it is essential that libraries contain books that reflect the experiences and worldview of every reader. The Canadian Library Association’s statement on intellectual freedom reads: “it is the responsibility of libraries to guarantee and facilitate access to all expressions of knowledge and intellectual activity, including those which some elements of society may consider to be unconventional, unpopular, or unacceptable.”

For example, I loved Sherman Alexie’s book The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. It’s powerful, engaging, and tragic. But it’s been challenged and banned because some believe the offensive language, drugs, alcohol, and sexual content is not age-appropriate (it’s a young adult book). Yes, the experiences of teenage protagonist may not resonate with all (especially the more privileged), but there are certainly First Nations teens or teens living in poverty that will see themselves in the protagonist. And those that do not see themselves can learn something about the experiences of their peers. That’s why it’s so important this book be available for those that want to read it.

The third law of library science is “every book its reader” (S. R. Ranganathan). A book may not be important to you, but it could be supremely important to someone else. Readers should have the right to access any book, regardless what others may think of them. That’s why I believe in freedom of expression and that’s what I’ll be contemplating this Freedom to Read Week.

Some of my favourite banned/challenged books:

  • The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie
  • Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl, by Anne Frank
  • To Kill A Mockingbird, by Harper Lee
  • Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, by J. K. Rowling
  • Little Women, by Louisa May Alcott

Thanks for reading my librarian rant. What’s your take on Freedom to Read Week? I’d love to hear from you in the comments below.

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