I grew up in libraries. By the second grade, I was reading books from the public library, books about dogs and horses, ancient Spartans and Native American tribes. Books on Greek and Roman mythology. Books about Christianity. Biographies of Sequoia, Helen Keller, Abraham Lincoln. I stayed up all night reading Anne Frank. I realized that librarians didn’t have time to read books themselves because they were so busy helping patrons find the books they wanted to read.
In high school, the public library became the place where my band friends and I went on Tuesday nights to work on our term papers. My senior thesis was on intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) because we lived next to an air force base and my father said that if Khrushchev attacked the US we would go out in the first wave. I wanted to understand how (and if) we could defend ourselves. I realized that librarians know how to find source material that I didn’t know existed. If I didn’t have a book they felt was essential to my research, they lent it to me to use.
I cannot imagine my life without free public libraries. Librarians are my heroes. I am baffled by the arrogance of non-librarians who think they know more about what should be on library shelves than professional librarians do.
The notion of government censorship taking control of libraries away from professional librarians gives me nightmares.
I read “Fahrenheit 451” in high school and thought that government censorship only existed in that fictional society, Nazi Germany and the USSR. Certainly not in the America I love.
My father was an avid anti-communist and anti-fascist, and he told me that communist and fascist governments not only suppress books, but that these governments rewrite history (a lie) to suit their own purposes. I assumed that the citizens of the United States would always be protected by the First Amendment to read whatever they chose to read. I assumed that our federal and local governments would always protect libraries as places where citizens could access any book they chose.
Then, in 1997, I discovered that a charismatic preacher in Wichita Falls, Texas, was able to convince good citizens in his congregation that their First Amendment freedom of religion supersedes the free speech of other citizens. Freedom of speech includes the right to read whatever one chooses. Even if other people don’t approve. Especially if other people don’t approve.
Public libraries are a place where books on all subjects are freely available to everyone. But the charismatic preacher convinced many in his congregation that God had called them to force the city commission to pass a censorship law. This bill, the Altman Amendment, allowed the pastor’s followers to remove books from the children’s section of the public library if they conflicted with the followers’ religious beliefs, beliefs that he had carefully crafted.
The bill forced librarians to immediately remove the disputed books from the children’s library and place them in the adult sexuality section. Children could not access the books unless they already knew the books existed and were brave enough to go to the adult sexuality section to look for them. Children’s books.
I know that my neighbors who worked to pass and implement the Altman Amendment had good hearts. I know that they passionately believed that books that contradicted their religious beliefs harmed young children.
While people are protected by the Bill of Rights from birth, our culture has adopted the tradition that parents have the right to raise their children according to the religious values they hold dear. As part of that tradition, our culture allows parents to control what their children read.
So I told my neighbors, “Believe in your faith and raise your children as you think is best. But your freedom of religion cannot interfere with other people’s freedom of speech. Freedom of speech protects the public library as a place where all citizens, including children, can access books selected as appropriate by professional library staff. You have no right to control what other people’s children can access in a public library.”
Because we don’t live in George Orwell’s fictional nation of Oceania 1984 where Big Brother burned books in the Memory Hole. We don’t live in Germany in 1933 where Hitler and his Nazis burned books at the stake across the country. Today we do not live in Russia where the media is under state control and dissidents mysteriously fall out of windows to their deaths. We live in America in 2023, protected by the Bill of Rights since 1791.
And for that I am grateful to God.
Mildred “Millie” Gore Lancaster, ed. D., is Professor Emeritus, Hardin Distinguished Professor, and Gordon T. and Ellen West Distinguished Professor, Midwestern State University.