As we commemorate Banned Books Week September 27-October 4, we are reminded of the many attempts to restrict our right to read. Over 400 challenges filed at schools and libraries were reported last year alone, most probably constituting a fraction of incidents nationwide. The culprits, whether public officials, private interests or “decency” groups, employ a variety of techniques to control free expression. Our best defense against these censors is the vigilance and activism of people concerned with protecting free expression. Those on the front lines of these battles have learned to arm themselves with sound policies and procedures that ensure a fair and transparent review process.
This year’s banned book focal point actually goes back to 1996 in Wasilla, Alaska, when the director of the local public library, Mary Ellen Emmons, received at least three requests from a newly elected mayor asking whether Emmons would object to censoring books. When the mayor raised the issue at a City Council meeting, town resident Anne Kilkenny told the Anchorage Daily News that Emmons responded, “The books in the Wasilla Library collection were selected on the basis of national selection criteria for libraries of this size, and I would absolutely resist all efforts to ban books.” Emmons, who was president of the Alaska Library Association at the time, was well supported in her response by a particularly strong library reconsideration policy that states: “This library holds censorship to be a purely individual matter and declares that–while anyone is free to reject for himself books and other materials of which he does not approve–he cannot exercise this right of censorship to restrict the freedom of others.”
Fortunately, no titles were removed from the public library, but shortly after the incident, the mayor sent a termination letter to Ms. Emmons and other city officials, charging them with failure to support the new mayor. In the public uproar that followed, citizens rallied around their popular librarian, resulting in her reinstatement. All this would now be forgotten, except that the mayor, Sarah Palin, is now candidate for vice president of the United States.
Back in 1996, the local newspaper, the Mat-Su Valley Frontiersman, reported that Mayor Palin explained her three inquiries as “rhetorical” and “simply part of a policy discussion with a department head ‘about understanding and following administration agendas.’ ” Yet, at about the same time, Palin’s church, the Wasilla Assembly of God, pushed to remove the book Pastor, I Am Gay from local bookstores. The book’s author and fellow Alaskan, Reverend Howard Bess, told the Associated Press how he had learned from Emmons that several copies of his book had disappeared from library shelves that year. According to Bess, “Sarah [Palin] brought pressure on the library about things she didn’t like. To believe that my book was not targeted in this is a joke.”
During the period of Palin’s inquiries, school libraries in the region also received challenges against books like Go Ask Alice and Daddy’s Roommate. A September 14, 2008, New York Times story reported that while serving on the city council, Palin complained that Daddy’s Roommate–a book that helps children understand homosexuality–did not belong in the Wasilla Public Library. When Laura Chase, Palin’s first mayoral campaign manager, asked if she had read the book, the mayor responded, “she didn’t need to read that stuff.” Chase told the New York Times that she found it “disturbing that someone would be willing to remove a book from the library and she didn’t even read it.”
A veteran Wasilla Public Library staffer recalled that period to an Associated Press reporter, stating, “Mayor Palin gave us some terrible moments and some rather gut-wrenching moments, particularly when Mary Ellen [Emmons] said she was going to have to leave.” In the end, Palin did not succeed in removing either the director or any books from the public library.
Faced with such dilemmas, librarians know that even the threat of censorship imposes a chilling effect on those who risk their jobs and reputations when they dare to confront efforts to deny the public’s right to hold and receive diverse opinions. When we observe Banned Books Week this year, we celebrate heroes like the former librarian of Wasilla, Alaska, whose courage represents a measure of freedom. Fortunately, in public libraries across the United States, books, hated by some but loved by others, remain on the shelves because of the dedication and commitment of librarians like Mary Ellen Emmons, who proudly uphold their principles, even when called upon to stand up to those who bully and abuse power.