Promoting free speech by highlighting banned books

In recognition of Banned Books Week, many libraries across the country, including the Marshalltown Public Library, are showcasing books that have been controversial through the years, encouraging people to support freedom of speech and access to information.

Suicide. Profanity. Sexuality. Genocide. Politics. Religion. All reasons why books have been censored, banned or destroyed since the invention of the printing press. In recognition of Banned Books Week, libraries across the country, and locally, are spotlighting these controversial tomes.

Marshalltown Public Library Reference Services Librarian Jasmine Fisher designed this year’s banned books display, which is viewable adjacent to the checkout desk. Using caution tape and paper bags, Fisher has placed several books on display, labeled with the reasons in which they have been regarded as contentious.

“I’ve always been a ‘banned books nerd’ because I think it’s important for people to understand how important access to information is and some of the books that have been challenged are surprising,” Fisher said. “One book that has been challenged in a lot of public libraries because it has religious references in it is the Bible. A lot of people think that because Christianity is a religion, it shouldn’t be in a library, but we have information about all kinds of religions and people have the right to access.”

Banned Books Week was first started in 1982 by First Amendment and library activist Judith Krug. That same year, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in Island Trees School District v. Pico that school officials cannot ban books from a school library merely because they find some ideas expressed in the works objectionable.

“The library is very committed to freedom of access to books. There will always be books through history, that for one reason or another, someone is going to be unhappy with, but we try to provide a wide range of viewpoints here and try to make sure we have something for everybody,” Library Director Sarah Rosenblum said.

Fisher said not all the books in question were successfully banned, but rather, have stirred debate.

“So many books have been challenged, but you only hear about it when it has been banned entirely,” she said. “We want to be able to have a discussion about it, instead of pushing it aside and saying it doesn’t exist anymore.”

Not all these “controversial” books are examples of classic literature, such as “Of Mice and Men” and “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

“‘Thirteen Reasons Why’ is a teen book that a lot of school libraries have challenged because they think it promotes suicide,” Fisher said of the 2007 book written by Jay Asher. “I think people get especially sensitive (about a book) when it is focused on teens and children.”

The Gutekunst Public Library in State Center is also recognizing Banned Books Week. Its director, Mara Edler, said a variety of books are in the spotlight, including “Catcher in the Rye,” “A Separate Peace” and “Harry Potter.”

“As I was putting together the material for our display, I realized that there was a great deal of overlap between this display and the material that we have pulled for the Great American Read display,” she said. “Many of the 100 titles that have been identified as Great American Read titles are books that have frequently been banned or challenged over the years. I thought this was very telling, and speaks volumes to the importance that Americans place on free speech.”

“There’s tons of books that have been challenged over the years whether more recently or over the span of a few decades. We encourage people to open their minds and read new things,” Fisher said.

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