We just finished Banned Books Week and so I have censorship on my mind. It’s not just me, either: next year’s Provincetown Tennessee Williams Festival has taken censorship as its theme. Some gremlins just keep coming back.
Or maybe they never left.
I remember when Sarah Palin crossed my shock threshold when on three occasions she asked a librarian about willingness to remove books from the library if/when asked to do so (and, in fact, subsequently attempted to remove the librarian herself). These days, that doesn’t even rise to the level of surprise.
I worry about censorship, and not just because I write for a living. I worry about censorship because it limits and even destroys the one thing that might combat ignorance, fear, and injustice: the free flow of ideas.
And let’s not bring the children into it, okay? In discussions of censorship, there seems to always be the requisite reference to “our children,” as though all community decisions need to make life easier for parents. Let me be clear: if you do not want your child to read something, then it is your job to make sure he or she does not read it. It’s not my job, and it’s certainly not the library’s job.
A public library — which is supported by the taxpayers — has no business censoring books it will stock, and nor does anyone (politician, religious leader, den mother) have the right to dictate what appears appear on its shelves. The library exists to provide access — to books, to magazines, to computers, to research, to ideas. Because it is supported by the public, there is no faction of that public with the right to tell it what ideas are okay. That’s what the “community” part of “community library” is about.
Bookshops are owned by individuals (fewer and fewer of them, alas) and by companies. If the owner of a bookshop decides not to stock a certain book, that is (in capitalist countries, in any case) that owner’s prerogative. Different kettle of fish altogether. We may deplore their choices, but the choices are theirs to make.
Dictating what a library may and may not stock, on the other hand, is a knee-jerk reactionary response. The instinct to censor for the common good is one of the oldest, basest instincts in human nature, but censorship has never improved society. We have enough historical examples to blow that notion away.
The reality is, of course, that libraries don’t have limitless space. Not all published books can live on every library shelf; someone is making decisions about what will be stocked and what won’t be. But I’d far prefer that person to be someone with a degree or two in library science who is more likely to be nonpartisan than those who announce their agendas from the start.
“Any society that would give up a little liberty to gain a little security,” Benjamin Franklin is quoted as saying, “will deserve neither and lose both.” Let’s see — can we still find him in the library?