Writing in the 1st to 2nd centuries AD, Roman poet Juvenal asked a haunting question: Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Or: “Who will watch the watchers?” In other words, who will regulate those who seek the authority to regulate others?
In the present age of neo-censorship—which journalist Rohan Jayasekera describes as “a kind of control on opinion that moves beyond the traditional model” (that of the state, the law, and the secret police) to now include “big business, courtrooms, schools, newsrooms [that] block ideas out of habit, or prejudice, or fear”—the contemporary answer to Juvenal’s question would be librarians.
Speaking to two dozen librarians and library associations for a recent New York Times article, reporters Elizabeth A. Harris and Alexandra Alter observed: “As highly visible and politicized book bans have exploded across the country, librarians … have found themselves on the front lines of an acrimonious culture war, with their careers and their personal reputations at risk.”
These past two years, ALA has registered the highest numbers of censorship challenges since its Office for Intellectual Freedom (OIF) began tracking them two decades ago. OIF has been actively involved in providing legal and personal counsel to hundreds of librarians embroiled in these challenges. When I spoke to one such librarian who was placed on involuntary leave for highlighting how parents and their children could use Gender Queer by Maia Kobabe to foster open dialogue, she wearily protested, “But I am not an activist.”
Activism, according to its Merriam-Webster definition, is “a doctrine or practice that emphasizes direct vigorous action, especially in support of or opposition to one side of a controversial issue.” Resistance, by contrast, is “the inherent ability of an organism to resist harmful influences (such as disease, toxic agents, or infection).”
If our colleague is not, by her own interpretation, an activist, then she is certainly part of the resistance when it comes to censorship.
And so are we—as a profession, and as members of ALA.
Writing in 2003, Judith Krug, OIF’s founding director, noted: “The attitude of librarians toward intellectual freedom has undergone continual change since the late 1800s when, through ALA, the profession first began to approach such issues with the semblance of a unified voice.”
During the height of McCarthyism, ALA held its first Conference on Intellectual Freedom in New York City. Books like Civil Disobedience and The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood were being pilloried. Authors such as W. E. B. Du Bois and Langston Hughes were being tried as “un-American,” and librarians like Ruth W. Brown of Bartlesville (Okla.) Public Library (and later the library’s entire board) were fired because of efforts to preserve public access to censored books and to desegregate library services.
Contesting the notion that book selection should be taken away from professionally trained librarians in the name of censorship, the 1952 convening concluded: “You don’t object to the doctor impressing his point of view upon you when he tells you that you are dangerously ill. You don’t talk about his ‘point of view.’ Librarians should be expert or else they are not a profession.”
It is fitting then, that seven decades later, ALA is the first organization to launch a nationwide public-facing anticensorship campaign, Unite Against Book Bans. We seek to fulfill one of the closing tenets of the Library Bill of Rights: to “cooperate with all persons and groups concerned with resisting abridgment of free expression and free access to ideas.” In so doing, we inhabit our full charge—to not just be the resistance but to grow it.