In Censure of Censorship: A Brief History of Power and Censorship in Public Libraries by Katherine Atherton

Before the start of the 2019 school year, Reverend Dan Reehil of the St. Edward Catholic School in Nashville quietly decided to remove some books from circulation at his school’s library, the most prominent of which is the Harry Potter series by polemical author J.K. Rowling, reported Antonia Noori Farzan of The Washington Post in her 2019 article titled, “A Catholic school removed Harry Potter books from its library, warning that readers ‘risk conjuring evil spirits’” (1). This unilateral decision reportedly raised many concerns from the parents of students at St. Edward Catholic School ranging from “the priest’s ‘fringe’ views and his ability to ‘critically assess and discern fact from fiction’” (Frazan 2), but only a few short years prior his decision might not have been seen as controversial at all, especially within the context of a religiously affiliated institution. Similar behavior is not unheard of. The American Library
Association notes that Harry Potter was one of the top 50 most challenged books from 1990 to 2009; Sorcerer’s Stone, the first of the seven-book series, topping that list in 1999 (Peters, 4). Though the decision to consult an exorcist before removing a book from public access might raise some eyebrows, book banning, or challenges as they are commonly referred to today, have been the hallmarks of political and religious power struggles during turbulent and progressive times.

Historically, censorship in the form of book burnings has been used to stifle the opinions opposing the powers of the era, including books seen as scandalous, lacking piety, or against the predominant beliefs of the area and time. Notable archival accounts of this form of censorship include the destruction of the Confucian opposition in 213 BCE, Pope Innocent VII call to extirpate books containing Jewish or Muslim ideology in 1847, and the destruction of the Bosnian National Library by Serbian military troops in 1992 (Hillerbrand pp. 6-8). Libricide, though one of the more conspicuous forms of people in power using censorship as a means to an end, is not the only historically relevant occurrence.

When the first popularly recognized catalog library was established by Benjamin Franklin in 1731, its patrons were required to be landowners or tradesmen and, of course, white. This practice ensured that people of color and impoverished peoples could not access the books that could, theoretically, assist in improving their station (Oliver pp22-25). When the first Carnegie Library was built, by Andrew Carnegie in 1883, he emblazed the motto “Let There Be Light” over the door; a promise to its patrons to bring the light of education to everyone, though the creation of the poorly funded Colored Carnegie libraries in 1908 calls into question just to whom and how far that light extends (Blackpast 3). Again, discrimination prevented a large swath of the populace from equal access to libraries and their services effectively censoring a range of information from marginalized people. Discrimination was still the norm in tax-funded public libraries until the Segregation Act in 1964 marking the beginning of a seemingly slow and
painful end to the history of censorship in public libraries.

More modernly, public libraries have been hailed as a bastion of free speech and protectors of first amendment rights. The first two amendments of the American Library Association’s (ALA) Library Bill of Rights codify this when stating “Materials should not be excluded because of the origin, background, or views of those contributing to their creation” (2) and continuing this emphasis on freedom of speech in stating “Materials should not be proscribed or removed because of partisan or doctrinal disapproval” (3). This code of ethics and standards is regularly reassessed by the ALA Council and was reaffirmed in January of 2019, indicating the ALA’s strong interest in preventing the abridgment of the freedom of speech, regardless of individual personal or political interest. Though librarians are burdened with the
responsibility of managing the dissemination of information to their communities and deciding how and when readers, especially young readers, should be given access to controversial information, historically libraries have not been bastions of free speech and protectors of first amendment rights, but messy political institutions somehow tasked with molding and safeguarding the morals and minds of communities.

There is an innate tension created by the conflicting ideologies that libraries, and librarians, are apolitical, bound to disseminate freely all possible views on a subject, and yet not neutral to political concepts that would harm intellectual freedom. Laura Childs maintains in her 2017 essay “To Uphold and Resist: Protecting Intellectual Freedom through Progressive Librarianship” that “A long-established and increasingly criticized trend has been to approach librarianship from a neutral stance, insisting that the librarian takes no sides and serves as an objective intermediary between users and information sources. Neutrality is a problem because intellectual freedom is a political issue with real implications for how citizens think and live” (11). Neutrality cannot exist in political structures that see intellectual freedom as a threat. Book banning, and challenging, are at their core a reflection of this subversive attempt to maintain
control of the social and political narrative.

There is a cyclical nature underscoring the debate on the ethics of censorship in public libraries. Books that are dramatically challenged one month soon fall out of cultural consideration and are often quietly returned to public shelves, displayed in all their recalcitrant glory every September for Banned Book Week. As Librarian Fiona Duthie explained in a 2010 article published in the Australian Library Journal, “Literature deemed to be unsuitable for public circulation by a particular cultural authority at a particular point in time is almost invariably resurrected and even lioni[z]ed at a later time by another cultural authority with a different view” (3). Though access is temporarily restricted, the challenged books subsequently gain notoriety, calling into question what damage is truly done by these seemingly futile entreats? Richard Price, professor at Weber State University in Ogden, Utah, and the creator of the
Adventures in Censorship blog, contends that challenged books do not truly become socially accepted once the wave of public concern is concluded; “Most of the time, I would say books kind of fall off, not because they get acceptance with the people who challenge them or even mainstream society, but because something else comes along… It’s just that they got overshadowed by this new wave of anxiety” (6:54). Additionally, Miranda Doran-Myers, a Technical Serviced Librarian at the Colorado Department of Education, argues, “Thinking about waves of censorship provides the important perspective that this wave will end. It doesn’t make it less scary for those involved, or minimize the damage it will do, or mean that it will end without the hard work of those of us who care about free access to information. It’s likely that
before this wave ends, these challenges and censorship will affect your library or community in
some way” (4).

Books concerning communities of color and other marginalized groups are disproportionately on the receiving end of such challenges. Culture Writer at Rolling Stone Magazine, Andrea Marks, recounts in her incendiary 2022 article, “during the first four months of this school year, parents and community members across 100 Texas school districts made 75 formal requests to ban books from libraries, compared to just one request during the same period in 2020. Most of the contested texts involve race, gender, or sexuality” (2). Challenging and subsequently removing literature reflective of marginalized experiences effectively suppresses the stories of differing cultures and prevents the people who have lived those experiences from feeling seen and validated. While shielding children from materials seen as age-inappropriate might be admirable, removing specifically and majoritively literature of this nature smacks more of racism, sexism, and ableism.

Removing Harry Potter from one private school library will assuredly have minimal negative effects on the attending children or the community at large. Removing “The Hate You Give” by author Angie Thomas, will undoubtedly negatively affect more. Add to that “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” by Sherman Alexie, “All Boys Aren’t Blue” by George M. Johnson, and “Out of Darkness” by Ashley Hope Perez, and you are bound to affect the whole community. Banning hundreds of books that confront and explore the experiences of marginalized people not only serves to disempower their stories but also removes the patrons’ ability to determine what narratives they find worth engaging with. It is within the power of our communities and publicly funded libraries to refuse this subversive attempt at controlling the narrative of our lives. Reject the call of censorship and protect the ideologies of intellectual freedom by ensuring free and equal access to information in our communities.

Works Cited

Frazan, Antonia. “A Catholic school removed Harry Potter books from its library, warning that readers ‘risk conjuring evil spirits’”. 3 September 2019. Accessed 11 April 2022

Hillerbrand, Hans J. “On Book Burnings and Book Burners: Reflections on the Power (And Powerlessness) of Ideas”. The Journal of the American Academy of Religion. Vol. 74. No. 3. 2006. Accessed 18 April 2022.

Oliver, Amanda. Overdue: Reckoning with the Public Library. Chicago Review Press, 22 March. 2022, Accessed 30 March. 2022

Griffis, M. “Colored Carnegie Library, Houston, Texas (1913-1961).”, (17 November 2019). Accessed 30 March. 2022

“Library Bill of Rights.”, 29 Jan. 2019, Accessed 26 March. 2022

Childs, Laura. “To Uphold and Resist: Protecting Intellectual Freedom through Progressive Librarianship.” Serials Librarian, Vol 73, no. 1, Sept. 2017, pp. 58–67. EBSCOhost, Accessed 6 May. 2022

Ringel, Paul. “How Banning Books Marginalizes Children.” The Atlantic, 1 October 2016. Accessed 30 March 2022

Duthie, Fiona. “Libraries and the Ethics of Censorship.” Australian Library Journal, vol. 59, no.
3, Aug. 2010, pp. 86–94. Accessed 6 May. 2022

Price, Richard. Interview by Michel Martin. “All Things Considered.” NPR. 25 July. 2021.
Accessed 5 April. 2022

Doran-Myers, Miranda. “Navigating Waves of Censorship: Resources for Public and School
Libraries.” Colorado Virtual 24 February. 2022, Accessed
3 March. 2022

Marks, Andrea. “‘Dangerous and Cruel’: YA Authors Say Unprecedented Book Bans Hurt Kids
Most”. Rolling Stone. 4 February, 2022. Accessed 30 March 2022