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24 April 2024

Why we need the freedom to read

Image: American Library Assocation

A new study from the American Library Association (ALA) shows that a record number of books were banned in the US in 2023.

It's been 20 years since ALA first began tracking the number of unique book titles targeted for censorship, and 2023 saw challenges up 65% from 2022's previous record, as well as pressure groups focused mainly on public and school libraries.

There have been spiralling protests and book challenges in the USA, alongside attempts to defund libraries that resist censorship and fire librarians who refuse to remove challenged content.

Libraries worldwide advocate for the freedom to read and freedom of access to information. In Aotearoa, there have been increasing challenges to library content and activities on topics including sex education and Rainbow storytimes. The Aotearoa context of book challenges differs from that of the US, but we must still be prepared.

The Library and Information Association of New Zealand Aotearoa, LIANZA, recently prepared an online toolkit to help school and public libraries understand the local legislation and environment surrounding challenges to books and events.

Louise LaHatte, chair of LIANZA's Freedom for Information standing committee, says restricting reading harms communities.

“When students can't access critical information to help them understand themselves and the world around them, teachable moments are lost, and communities lose the opportunity to learn and build mutual understanding.”

"Libraries defend a person's right to read. Our role is not to hide or withhold access to challenging ideas but to present them in their proper context and in such a way that enables the reader the tools to examine and critique them."

A challenge occurs when a person attempts to impose their views on what they think is right, wrong, or harmful onto others. They are trying to determine what others can access based on their beliefs. The opposite of this is accepting and tolerating ideas that we find different from our own. These are the core principles of freedom of information that libraries stand for.

Louise LaHatte says libraries need a clear process to ensure staff know how to handle challenges while supporting the democratic principles that libraries represent.

One recent example of book challenges in Aotearoa and Australia was the complaints about the book Welcome to Sex. Individuals complained directly to their local libraries about the presence of this book in the collections. Librarians had reviewed the book and decided to keep it on the shelves. The principle and process for this decision were explained to complainants, and several libraries suggested that if the complainant was not satisfied, they could submit the book to Te Mana Whakaatu Classification Office, which can impose restrictions on access...

...which is what happened. LIANZA was invited as an interested party to make a submission on the classification review and argued that the book should remain unrestricted. The Office released its decision to retain its unrestricted status in November 2023 and published the full decision document on its website.

As with other issues, campaigners seek to advance their views to shape public discourse. Awareness of the environment and the debates occurring helps librarians meet the demands of their diverse communities fairly and inclusively while upholding the principles of freedom to read. The new LIANZA Freedom to Read toolkit illustrates the processes and legal framework of the Welcome to Sex situation.

The toolkit helps libraries prepare for challenges by providing information on the Aotearoa context and the legislation involved while identifying the policies and processes libraries should have. It includes printable quick guides for public library managers, collections librarians, school librarians, front-of-line staff, and call centre staff. Check it out here.

With thanks to LIANZA for providing this blog content.