Give us Liberty
Perhaps you saw one of the displays for "Fish in the River of Knowledge," the theme for Banned Books Week 2000. One place you didn't see them was at the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County.
Our public library refuses to participate in Banned Books Week, although a few branch directors set up their own displays anyway. The last explanation I heard from a library official was, "We're concerned that the name will lead our members to think we're in favor of banning books." That would be their illiterate members, I imagine.
Shannon Edwards, program associate for the ACLU of Ohio, organized two Banned Books Week events in Cincinnati, an open discussion of Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye at Crazy Ladies Bookstore in Northside and a scavenger hunt for banned books at Half-Price Books, Tri-County. Sadly you learned little about these events in the local media, mainstream or alternative.
The American Library Association launched Banned Books Week in 1981 as a celebration of the freedom to read. The Library of Congress Center for the Book endorses the observance, whose co-sponsors include the American Booksellers Association, the Association of American Publishers and the American Society of Journalists and Authors.
I've tried for years to get the Public Library to address censorship issues, but with no results. In 1993, a few years after the Mapplethorpe trial, I proposed an exhibition on the local history of literary censorship. Amy Banister, public-relations director of the Contemporary Arts Center at the time of the Mapplethorpe trial, had moved into the same position at the Public Library. I suggested displays of books, with contemporary newspaper clippings about the evils of permitting people to read them, would be a perfect Banned Books Week exhibition for the library.
Banister's initial response was such an exhibition was "too political," even though supporting the freedom to read is the essential role of a public library. She later said, "There is not enough time to prepare such an exhibit for this year." There has been plenty of time in subsequent years, but it has never been done.
Part of the problem is the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County censors material, maternally restricting what minors can read and borrow or view on the Internet. Unlike surrounding counties' public-library boards (even that of Clermont County, whose board includes self-anointed censor Phil Burress ), Hamilton County's library board has refused to endorse the American Library Association's Library Bill of Rights, with its strong prohibitions of censorship, regardless of "age ... or views" and requirements that libraries "challenge censorship in the fulfillment of their responsibility to provide information and enlightenment" and to "cooperate with all persons and groups concerned with resisting abridgment of free expression and free access to ideas."
Fine words, but inconsistent with Hamilton County political views.
Two years ago, when an ACLU student intern phoned the Public Library to ask about the Library Bill of Rights, a staff member told her, "It's just a big club, honey, and we don't choose to be a member." That patronizing response belies the fact that the library is an ALA member and is so listed in its annual reports.
To address the library's concerns about the name Banned Books Week, I renamed Cincinnati's observance "Intellectual Freedom Week" one year and "Freedom to Read Week" another year. These were the names used by the ACLU and the Campaign Against Censorship in the Arts, as well in proclamations by Mayor Roxanne Qualls. No change from the library.
Last year, in letters to the director and each of the trustees, the ACLU of Ohio Foundation tried to enlist the Public Library's participation in opposing censorship. A year before, the ACLU had cooperated with the Cincinnati Historical Society on its "Cincinnati Goes to War" exhibition, supporting a portion documenting local anti-war protests and conscientious objection, issues that were formative in the creation of the ACLU. The results were very satisfying for both organizations. The letters said, "We offer the same investigative, cooperative spirit (and curatorial expertise) in working with the library to shape a richly educative experience."
For Banned Books Week, ACLU asked the library to host a "Free People Read Freely" public-reading event, as well as a "living newspaper" program by students at the School for the Creative and Performing Arts. The ACLU also urged adoption of the American Library Association's Library Bill of Rights.
To date, more than a year later, not a single reply has been received.
Had there been even the courtesy of an acknowledgment, I would have proposed for this year a symposium on what many consider the most important book in American literature -- and also one of the most frequently censored -- Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. We could have brought together members of the civil liberties, civil rights, academic, African-American and religious communities in meaningful discussion.
I saw an article in CityBeat a couple of weeks ago, noting the irony of Huck Finn being banned at Mark Twain High School in Fairfax County, Va. Fairfax County is the headquarters of the censorial Family Friendly Libraries, whose board is chaired by our own Phil Burress, president of Citizens for Community Values.
The Public Library's position is a great loss to the community. The library should take the lead in supporting free access to information and ideas, opposing the censorial impulse that's gripped this city for so long.
The library can begin by endorsing the Library Bill of Rights and living up to its precepts. Urge them to do so. I've been told the only thing the board is likely to notice is quantity.
Next year will mark the 20th anniversary of Banned Books Week. Twain's time limit for Cincinnati to catch on will have expired.
contact WILLIAM MESSER: firstname.lastname@example.org