freedom of speech

National Library Week may be behind us, but authors continue to share their love of libraries!

In his new book FREEDOM OF SPEECH: Mightier Than the Sword, David K. Shipler, the New York Times bestselling author of Russia, The Working Poor, and the Pulitzer Prize-winning Arab and Jew, provides a provocative, timely assessment of the state of free speech in America.

Here, Shipler admires libraries as “Treasuries of Truth”:

The public library in my small hometown was near the scuffed field where we played Little League baseball. It was a cool sanctuary of whispers and contemplation. I spent a couple of weeks there once, shelving books to get a Boy Scout merit badge for citizenship or something. It was tedious work, but I liked the old-book smells and the calmness that quiet created.

In college I studied mostly in the elegant Baker Library at Dartmouth, either in a carrel tucked remotely into the stacks, or the dark-wood Tower Room (where deep leather chairs were too comfortable for sleepy students), or at the hard wooden tables of a long basement hall whose northern wall was covered floor to ceiling in the riotous colors and figures of a famous fresco by Jose Clemente Orozco, the Mexican artist.

During these retreats into libraries I did not fully appreciate their deep heritage, their long connections to the ancient libraries of Timbuktu and Alexandria, of Herculaneum and Ashurbanipal, of Pergamum, Caesarea, Celsus, and Nalanda University. Each was a “Treasury of Truth,” in the nickname applied to Nalanda. Each held that fragile and volatile substance called knowledge: tablets and manuscripts containing the words and symbols of literature and philosophy, of soaring religious ideas and mundane accounts of the everyday.

Today, when libraries are under assault by both ideology and technology, the continuity of that legacy seems more obvious and feels more precious. There is no point in lamenting the Internet—a formidable tool of research—but it has remade the library into a building with permeable walls, less a sanctuary than a gateway, a place now of constant redefinition. That’s good in its way, for words have always been paths to broader worlds. Yet some quality of inquiry is lost, too: the rarer sotto voce consultations between librarian and patron, the willful struggle through volumes for a fact, the disciplined persistence required to check and check and check again.

How odd, then, that libraries should also be targets of resentment. Across the country, some 400 to 500 times a year, according to the American Library Association, residents of various communities demand that one or another book be removed from public libraries, school libraries, and classrooms. There is even a website, run by a New Jersey lawyer, called safelibraries.org, which portrays libraries as dangerous repositories of vulgarity and pornography. In this digital age, the printed word, bound and held in your hands, still has power.

Parents object most often to sexual scenes and language, even if they are oblique and valid for a literary purpose. The protesters wail at obscenities in books, even though the words can be heard in real life echoing through school corridors and locker rooms. They are scandalized by stories for “young adults” with sympathetic characters who are gay or lesbian. They resent passages that cast aspersion on religion. They bridle at empathic portrayals of the poor. (My book The Working Poor was challenged by parents in a Dallas suburb, and Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed is a frequent target.) They are uncomfortable with figures who defy parental authority, like Holden Caulfield in Catcher in the Rye. Some on the left decry racist terminology, even where used for anti-racist reasons, as in Huckleberry Finn.

However, concerned parents hardly ever raise an alarm about the portrayal of violence. Perhaps the words in books are simply overwhelmed by the ubiquitous violence in video games, lyrics, music videos, films, television shows, and online images.

Those who would deny others’ children access to certain books have their victories, usually in small towns where nobody is willing to face ostracism for standing up. When the school library in Republic, Missouri, removed Slaughterhouse-Five, nobody was willing to sue (although they would have had a First-Amendment case). The response came from the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library in Indianapolis, which offered free copies to any student who wanted one. Seventy-eight kids accepted the gift. “Anytime a book is banned,” said the director, Julia Whitehead, “it raises interest in the book.”

It also raises interest in the spirit of free inquiry in many places, where parents and other townspeople mobilize to fight the book challengers, to hail the teachers and librarians who keep the gateways open, and to guard their children’s rights of intellectual pursuit. These are not pretty fights: Librarians in West Bend, Wisconsin were vilified at gas stations and grocery stores for resisting conservative attempts to have “pro-gay” books removed from the young adult section. Some librarians, ducking a fight, don’t order controversial books in the first place.

But when the librarians are devoted to keeping the precious legacy of their local “treasury of truth,” the outcomes are inspiring affirmations of freedom.”

David K. Shipler Salutes Libraries

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