Commentary: Banned Book Week is a reminder that freedom to read is democracy’s fundamental right

(Photo courtesy of Harper Publishing) Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird."

You might think that “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “Fifty Shades of Grey” and the Bible couldn’t be more different from each other, but they share one significant thing in common: They are among the most frequently challenged books in American libraries over the past five years, according to the American Library Association. Unfortunately, attempting to restrict access to books isn’t a concept relegated to history. It’s alive and well in America today, despite our foundational values protecting our freedom to read.

Every year, at the end of September, libraries across the country mark Banned Books Week to acknowledge and uphold our freedom to read. In 1787, this radical concept became one of the pillars of the new and revolutionary government: the idea that everyone in our country, regardless of beliefs, politics or opinions, shall have the right to pursue knowledge and exchange ideas, no matter how controversial or unpopular. This is a right that we cannot take for granted.

Now, more than 230 years later, the freedom to read still comes under attack every time people petition libraries to remove items from their shelves so that others in the community can no longer have access to them. In 2017, the American Library Association received reports that 491 books, movies, magazines and other materials or services were challenged as inappropriate for reading or viewing. This number only reflects the reported formal requests for removal. Casual and unreported attempts to ban materials from library shelves are certainly higher.

In the 18th century, many governments had little respect for the sanctity of the individual. The framers of our Constitution put forth the truly radical belief that the inalienable rights of people were paramount. They believed that a government was only legitimate if it had the consent of an informed and free-thinking citizenry; that a democracy could only thrive with a free marketplace of ideas.

Today, Americans still share a deep belief that our thoughts, our faith and our reading habits should not be determined or proscribed by anyone — not our neighbors, not our internet providers, not our secular or religious leaders. The domain of our thoughts and beliefs is private, personal and sacrosanct. What we read and believe is for us alone to decide.

The Salt Lake City Public Library, like public libraries across the nation, has long played an important role in promoting a strong democracy and fostering civic-minded citizens. The library provides access to a free marketplace of diverse views and perspectives, including those that have been viewed by some as unpopular, unorthodox or even dangerous. The preservation of knowledge and culture, intellectual freedom, and open, equitable access to ideas are core to our mission as a public library. The library itself can be seen as a vital, living expression of our city’s shared belief that free and healthy communities are always strengthened by access and exposure to diverse perspectives and ideas.

Totalitarian governments thrive in part by suppressing ideas and concepts that challenge official lines of belief. The strength of our country lies in the enshrinement of individual rights within our Constitution and the preservation of our fundamental freedoms — the freedom of our citizens to speak, read, believe and associate freely. These freedoms can be eroded and even lost if we take them for granted; even a small dissolution of these inextricably intertwined rights can damage the health of our nation. This week is a good time to reflect on our First Amendment freedoms and how important it is for all of us to speak and act in support of our shared American values.

Peter Bromberg | Salt Lake City Public Library

Peter Bromberg is the executive director of the Salt Lake City Public Library.