Reading for Our Lives

The rise in censorship is a litmus test of our democracy

May 1, 2023

Photo of ALA Executive Director Tracie D. Hall. Text says "From the Executive Director by Tracie D. Hall"

In mid-March, I spoke on a panel at the South by Southwest EDU conference in Texas to discuss the alarming and increasingly weaponized attempts to ban and remove books from public and school libraries. Joining me on the panel were Carolyn Foote, retired school librarian and FReadom Fighters cofounder; Kelvin Watson, executive director of Las Vegas–Clark County (Nev.) Library District; and moderator John Bracken, executive director of the Digital Public Library of America.

I looked out at the crowd and—understanding both the weight of the moment and where the conversation was taking place—I commented on the connection between attempted book banning today and the McCarthy-era attempts at cultural disenfranchisement. The rationale behind these attempts is the same: silencing people who are errantly believed to be aberrations.

I said to the audience, “Those of you who would have imagined yourself being on the right side of history 70 or 80 years ago, now is your time. If we are silent and lose the right to read freely, it will be our own fault.”

That quote and the wisdom shared by my co-presenters were included in local media coverage. The next morning my email inbox included messages that suggested I be sent “back to Africa” and warned that espousing intellectual freedom might put me in harm’s way. Those are not the first threats that I and other ALA colleagues have received as we work toward ALA’s mission to “enhance learning and ensure access to information for all,” ideals that have become fighting words.

Similarly, the content of these specific threats reiterated the connection between race and the right to read. The fact that my belief in intellectual freedom was grounds for dispossession of my citizenship and being “sent back” to Africa (a continent that, to be sure, is home to some of my favorite places) emphasizes a point that Toronto Public Library’s keenly insightful city librarian, Vickery Bowles, made at the recent Knight Foundation library conference: Racial equity and intellectual freedom operate as mutually reinforcing principles.

It is no accident that attempts to discredit BIPOC and LGBTQIA people are accompanied by legislation to silence them.

It is no accident that attempts to discredit BIPOC—and LGBTQIA—communities are accompanied by legislation to silence them. And attempts to silence these communities are redoubled by efforts to portray them as the “other.”

It is because we have seen this playbook before and cannot afford to be silent that I am grateful to NBC affiliate WMAQ-TV and its talk show Chicago Today for partnering with ALA to create the country’s first on-air banned books club, which launched in January.

To date, the show’s cohosts and I have profiled George M. Johnson’s All Boys Aren’t Blue and Sandra Cisneros’s House on Mango Street. Both authors have also appeared on the show to discuss their works in their own words to great response. The collaboration is a collective effort to combat silence and complicity around censorship and to champion libraries as institutions that uphold our right to encounter new and different ideas.

As then–US Sen. John F. Kennedy said at a literary gathering in 1959, “If this nation is to be wise as well as strong, if we are to live up to our national promise and live up to our national destiny, then we need more new ideas for more wise men reading more good books in more public libraries…. [We must] know all the facts and hear all the alternatives and listen to all the criticisms. Let us welcome controversial books and controversial authors. For the Bill of Rights is the guardian of our security as well as our liberty.”

Please join me and ALA in upholding this promise of democracy.


Photo of ALA Executive Director Tracie D. Hall. Text says "From the Executive Director by Tracie D. Hall"

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