Freedom to Read

From the desk of Library Director & CEO Peter Coyl
February 2, 2022
Some of the most powerful examples and lessons of love, compassion, and courage have been found in the written word. Growing up, my parents took us to the library because I read so fast and buying books was (and is) expensive. They also understood the importance of reading and how powerful books can be. Books allowed me to learn and explore people, places, and things I was interested in. Whether it was from the past, present, and future; dinosaurs, politicians, or scientific inventions, I could experience and learn about them unfettered from restraints. 

As I got older, I learned about banned books. I couldn’t understand why. Why would anyone want to keep someone from reading? So, I started reading through a list of banned books in an effort to understand. Catcher in the Rye. The Martian Chronicles. Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Brother Grimms’ Fairytales. The Grapes of Wrath. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. The Diary of Anne Frank. As I read I was exposed to a broad range of stories, concepts I had never thought about, and lives of people in places I had never been.

My parents never objected about what I was reading until one day my mother asked about the copy of Mein Kampf I brought home from the Library. “What interested you about that book?” she asked. I told her Hitler’s autobiography was on a banned book list. I wanted to know what made a man hate a specific group of people. She didn’t tell me to stop reading it, but told me that I should ask if I had any questions. I only read the first few pages because it was (in my recollection) so horribly written.

My mother made a choice to let me continue reading the book. That was her right as a parent.  Another parent may have made a different choice in the same circumstance based on their child. I think my mother’s choice was the right choice for us.

Books can be an opportunity to educate and teach children. Sometimes a book has content that is too mature for a particular reader, which is why we encourage the adults in a child’s life to take an active interest in what they are reading. Instead of asking your child how their day was, ask them what book they are reading. Open the conversation and show them that you are interested. Encourage them to talk about what they like and don’t like. If something makes them uncomfortable, talk about it. You can also tell the young readers in your life it is ok to stop a book if they don’t like it. 
Today, parents are petitioning school boards to remove books, legislatures are proposing to fine library staff for the books children check out, and in some case remove them outright from schools. Is the problem the involvement of the parents or the legislators? Not in my mind. The central issue seems to be the unilateral decision regarding the appropriateness of a book for all children. One adult should not decide what is right for everyone.

Often the objections to books are based on political or religious views. Most of the books that are being targeted have to do with race or sexual orientation, or facts (for example, the graphic memoir Maus) and truths that are uncomfortable or embarrassing. We cannot change the past by destroying records of what happened or removing a book from the shelf.

Some have argued certain books are inappropriate for a certain age because of the topics they discuss.  What may be inappropriate for one child, may not be for another. You may not want your child to read a book that mentions drugs or abuse, but there may be a child who lives in that situation and desperately needs to know others share their experience. Imagine the power a book can have on a child who may feel alone or who may need a catalyst to start a difficult conversation!

Librarians don’t advocate for one book, we advocate for all of them, even the ones we personally don’t like, disagree with, or find objectionable. We do this as a service for everyone. If libraries only offered books with one view point, we wouldn’t be fulfilling our mission. Libraries are for all and we want all our community to find themselves here. You should find books that reflect you and your experiences. You should find books that help you learn. You should find books that challenge your beliefs and understanding. You should find books that point out new points of view and ways of thinking. There may be books that shock or offend, but there will also be books that reassure and comfort. All of these are part of the human experience, and we hope that’s what you’ll find in your library.