On the Matter of Books and Banning 

My message to those who would ban books for whatever reason is this: Telling people they can’t read a certain book is the surest way to increase readership. Humans are naturally curious, and we need to do more to open doors than build walls between each other.

On the Thred platform, we acknowledge that various postures of faith can engage in spiritual dialogue together. While the viewpoints expressed here may or may not reflect the viewpoints of Thred, we hope to have a safe place to open up conversation about relevant topics. From time to time, we’d like to offer a look at some of the differing perspectives you will find online. Today, we are excited to hear from an atheist author, who joins us for a conversation about what open-hearted community and conversation looks like to him. 

For the last two years, headlines have been made as various attempts at removing books from libraries, especially school libraries, have played out coast to coast in the United States. 

It’s an incongruous turn of events for a nation that embeds freedom of thought and freedom of speech in its foundation.  Much has been written about this and the political and social implications of the march towards censoring books. Censorship makes headlines. In some ways that was a motivational element all along for those engaging in it. 

But does it even work? 

From the Front Lines 

From the point of view of my librarian desk, censorship is often very effective. But not always in the way many would-be censors intend. 

I have a 30-year career in school libraries. Every year, I promote banned books in the suburban high school library I run. There is a local community public library less than 20 miles from my workplace that has made national headlines the hard way as it was defunded after a critique of the books it contains. Yet here I am… 

For the last 18 months, I have had a permanent display near the front hallway door of my library featuring the cover art of dozens of censor-targeted books available to check out in the library.  The display is well-marked and includes a statement on the freedom to read. I just added the cover art for the book The Sun and Her Flowers to the display this week. The book of poetry was released to critical acclaim in 2017 by Rupi Kaur. 

A neighboring school district just received a formal challenge regarding the book being in the high school there. I checked to make sure I had a copy. And then I put up the cover art on the display. 

The School Librarian Target 

Shouldn’t I duck and cover and wait for the storm to blow itself out? 

No. I can’t do that. It goes against my professional canon of ethics to do so. And contrary to stereotypes, many librarians are far from shy and retiring. Especially when it comes to the freedom to read. 

I count myself among those who do not fear the censoring party but rather look to engage with them. I seek comity wherever possible. It’s not my religion. To me, censorship is not about moral high ground. But the freedom to read is a deep belief around which I have molded my life. It is the type of world I want to help create. It is the type of world I want to leave behind for my son. 

Because I believe this is how we learn to respectfully engage with people who have differing opinions. 

Who Is Winning?  

My message to those who would ban books for whatever reason is this: Telling people they can’t read a certain book is the surest way to increase readership. Humans are naturally curious, and we need to do more to open doors than build walls between each other. 

Take it from an old librarian. We display banned books all the time to get kids motivated to read them. It works marvelously. Besides that–just about any book can be obtained nearly anywhere in a matter of days if not hours on the Internet. It is like holding back the tide with a broom if you are attempting to put an end to the messages contained in the books you have identified as a danger. 

Then there are literally thousands of school librarians out there like me. I’m just one librarian.  No danger to anyone, really. It’s not like I’m sitting here in my suburban high school with an open taxpayer-funded purchase order, humming a pleasant tune intermittingly as I go through the banned book list and say quietly to myself, “Got it, got it, got it, need it, got it, got it, already on order, got it, need it, got it.” Ok… I may have done that once or twice.  

Battling against librarians–and anyone with an opposing viewpoint to you–does necessarily accomplish the goal you seek.  

Forward Together 

Despite all the headlines and furor people should know one very important thing, school librarians are not the enemy. We are doing the job we were hired to do: providing good stewardship of library collections and providing relevant books for students to read. 

We are happy to help select materials with any parent for their child, and we are also going to hold the line when people infringe on other’s right to read. 

So what is there to do?  

In the case of books, meet with us. Have a dialogue. Ask questions. You will find librarians to be an accommodating bunch of professionals. 

And in the case of life, remember you always have two options when you face conflict with another person. You can react to differing viewpoints by shutting down or shutting out, OR you can lead with a posture of listening.

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