Friday, August 14, 2020     Volume: 21, Issue: 24

Santa Maria Sun / Commentary

The following article was posted on September 27th, 2012, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 13, Issue 29 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [] - Volume 13, Issue 29

Celebrate the freedom to read

Enjoy a week honoring an important First Amendment right and cornerstone of our democracy


Every year in late September, librarians celebrate Banned Books Week. It is a time to recognize the power that words, ideas, and illustrations in books can have to change lives and perspectives, and make some people and groups uncomfortable. This year, Banned Books Week falls between Sept. 30 and Oct. 6. Library and bookstore visitors will probably find displays of books that have been challenged as offensive for one reason or another, yet thankfully are still available to read. Typically at this time, authors of banned or challenged books will appear in many American communities reading from their works and reminding us that we cannot take our freedom to read for granted. According to the American Library Association, Banned Books Week is a celebration of the freedom to seek and to express ideas, even those considered unorthodox or unpopular. This marks the 30th Banned Books Week. 

Have you ever read a banned book? Chances are that you have read one of the many classics on the list of banned books without knowing it. John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, and Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest are all on that list. Even if you are not a reader, you have probably seen a movie that was made from a banned book, such as Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, or Watchmen.

What is a “banned” book as compared to a “challenged” book? It is a book that someone or some group has found objectionable for stated reasons; it has been reviewed by the institution—e.g. library or school—owning it and removed. It is no longer available to be read from that institution. The objection may have been that the book was racist, sexist, erotic, scary, occult, subversive, violent, profane, insulting of religion, promoting of particular lifestyles, or containing provocative illustrations or photos. A “challenged” book has also been objected to; it has been reviewed by the owning institution, and not removed. It is still available for readers who frequent that library, school, or bookstore.

Why do people or groups want to ban certain books? Often those who object want to make the judgment of what is right or wrong for others to read or believe. They fear that certain ideas or information may disturb or hurt the readers. If that thought doesn’t worry you, it should. Your freedom to read whatever you choose is an important First Amendment right that is a cornerstone of our democracy. Thankfully, most books that are challenged are not removed from their institution. There are many people who will take a stand and defend your freedom to read whatever you want.

Concern for protecting children’s innocence is the motivation behind many book challenges, whether the concern is a picture book that seems too scary, a teen book about edgy adolescent dilemmas, or something else. Librarians who select materials for youth areas are also concerned about selecting age-appropriate library materials for children and teens and assuring they are assigned to the correct area of the library. When selecting books, librarians generally take many factors into consideration, but most importantly they abide by a library selection policy that specifies criteria to select materials, and they look for positive book reviews. Librarians often seek out literary award winners, respond to public demand, look for subject matter on all sides of issues, and try to have a balance with something for everyone and all points of view represented. It is a tall order in this day of poor budgets, an abundance of new books published every day, and insatiable public demand for new reading materials in a variety of formats, including print books, talking books, and eBooks.

Librarians are among those who are often called upon to defend books on the shelves of the library. In my 30 or so years of librarianship, I have reviewed and defended many books and movies that well intentioned citizens have requested for reconsideration. While I often understand and can empathize with the objecting person’s point of view, I know that others may want to read the book or see the movie in question without their access to the materials being restricted. My interactions with library patrons from many walks of life has taught me that there are many different realities and value systems and that everyone should have the right to make his/her own choices. When it comes to children, parents and guardians have the right and responsibility to determine their own children’s (not other people’s children) access to library resources. The guiding principals of intellectual freedom that librarians ascribe to are largely contained in the “American Library Association’s Bill of Rights,” which can be found in the Intellectual Freedom Manual or on the American Library Association’s website at

This year has seen many cases of censorship, including the recent international catastrophe and mayhem in the Middle East sparked by the anti-Muslim film Innocence of Muslims, which has now been banned from YouTube in many countries (but not the United States), and the banning of the erotic bestseller Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James from libraries in three states. Most notably and closest to our state is the removal of many books by notable Chicano and Native American authors from Tucson Unified School District schools as a result of the elimination of the Mexican American Studies program. The program was terminated when the state of Arizona threatened to withhold $14 million from the district’s budget. The courses in the program were viewed as violating Arizona law HB 2281. Consequently, the Librotraficante movement was born to collect the books banned in Tucson and distribute them via underground libraries that offer access to the books.

The author of one of those books banned in Tucson, Diana Garcia, will read poetry from her book When Living Was a Labor Camp, at the Santa Maria Public Library on Oct. 1 at 6:30 p.m. Also at the library on Oct. 1—from 2 to 5:30 p.m. in Shepard Hall—local community author and publisher Dorinda Moreno, along with Los Angeles area authors Yolanda Miranda, Anna Nieto-Gomez, and Maria Guardado will read their poetry and selections from other books banned in Tucson this year.

You won’t have to look far to find more events celebrating Banned Books Week, including author, screenwriter, and director Stephen Chbosky’s presentation at Cal Poly’s Chumash Auditorium on Friday, Oct. 5, from 4 to 5:30 p.m. Chbosky’s book Perks of Being a Wallflower was banned in 2009 and will soon be released as a movie. At Lompoc Public Library, Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston, author of Farewell to Manzanar, which is also a banned book, will speak on Oct. 15 at 7 p.m.

Let freedom ring during Banned Books Week by celebrating your First Amendment right to read what you want. Read anything, even a banned book if you wish. But most of all, celebrate your local public library’s role in our democratic society by stopping in to see what’s new.

Mary Housel is the Santa Maria city librarian. Send comments to the executive editor at

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