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Our Opinion: Celebrate freedom to read; check out some banned books

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James Joyce’s “Ulysses.” Ernest Hemingway’s “A Farewell to Arms” and “The Sun Also Rises.” Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Alice Walker’s “The Color Purple.”

All these titles are masterful, critically acclaimed works of literature, but they share something else in common. Each book listed above has been either challenged or removed from the shelves of a U.S. public library due to community complaints.

Banned Books Week began Sunday and continues through Saturday to shine a light on library censorship and promote the freedom to read. Even in 2018, misguided campaigns against controversial books continue to roil communities from coast to coast.

Since public libraries are funded by American taxpayers, citizens feel uniquely invested in these important institutions. That’s a positive that can be twisted into a negative when library users feel entitled to impose their personal tastes on fellow patrons by demanding that specific titles are dropped from a branch’s catalog.

Libraries often rely on community support to supplement the public money they receive for operating expenses. That requires them to be responsive to the concerns of patrons and local leaders, and sometimes those stakeholders overstep, asking librarians to be gatekeepers rather than guides.

In light of current social and political controversies, books addressing lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender topics are among the most frequently challenged, according to the American Library Association.

“Censorship is a growing threat that infringes on our foundational rights,” thr ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom states on its website. “The year 2017 saw an increase in censorship attempts and a revitalized effort to remove books from communal shelves to avoid controversy.”

The library association tracked 354 challenges to library, school and university materials and services in 2017, up from 323 in 2016. That figure is likely the tip of the iceberg, as the ALA Office for Intellectual Freedom estimates that 82 percent to 97 percent of challenges were not reported.

Censorship isn’t limited to works linked to sexuality or those that advance liberal worldviews. Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged,” a treatise on free enterprise popular with libertarians and conservatives — House Speaker Paul Ryan has frequently praised it — has been both challenged and banned.

Not even the Bible has escaped the scrutiny of would-be censors. The ALA lists the Holy Bible as America’s sixth most-challenged book in 2015.

When books are yanked from the shelves due to public pressure, both conservatives and liberals lose. Independents lose. Americans lose. It’s a zero-sum game.

We endorse the ALA’s Library Bill of Rights, which states that “all libraries are forums for information and ideas” and that “Libraries should challenge censorship in the fulfillment of their responsibility to provide information and enlightenment.”

Libraries stock millions of titles for millions of readers. Every patron won’t be interested in every book, and that’s OK. Don’t like it? Don’t read it. Leave it on the shelf for others to peruse.

Parents have the authority to determine what their young children may read, but they shouldn’t get to decide what’s appropriate for others’ children. If you’re concerned about your kids’ selections, skip the complaint form and make library visits a family outing so you can supervise.

Libraries are here for all of us. They promote no agenda beyond literacy, freedom of expression and freedom to read, and that’s a message folks of all backgrounds, all faiths and all political stripes can get behind.

“Censorship succeeds when no one talks about it,” the ALA says on its website. “Encourage readers to raise their megaphones and speak out for banned books!”

Editor’s Note: This editorial was originally published in The Wilson Times on Sept. 29, 2017 and has been revised and updated for 2018.

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