At almost 85 years old, the Library Bill of Rights is seeing another round of attacks.
The American Library Association (ALA)—founded in 1876 to professionalize and improve library services across the country—first published the statement in 1939 in response to the news of Nazi book burning and the suppression of information overseas. It asserted that library resources should be provided for the “interest, information, and enlightenment of all people,” and that libraries themselves should challenge censorship and “partisan disapproval” at every turn.
American librarians championed this code during the buildup and entry into World War II. But after the war, librarians went from fighting to defend these principles abroad to fighting to defend these same principles on the home front as they worked to stop book bans and book burnings in their very own libraries during the Cold War.
Now, as librarians and other educators find themselves once more tasked to fight for the public’s right to intellectual freedom, this period of history reminds us that they’ve long been on the front lines of the conflict between censorship and free speech in the U.S., a legacy that dates back to when the first public libraries were established.
The nation’s earliest libraries had high hopes for enlightenment that often fell woefully short. They were subscription-based, meaning that only those who could afford them were allowed to join. Similarly, college libraries, like the one at Harvard, were just for students and faculty. Only as immigration and the population soared in the 19th century did government-funded libraries that served working-class Americans begin to open. Though these libraries frequently held foreign newspapers and books so that patrons could check the news in their home countries, their librarians also pushed assimilation efforts to Americanize new immigrants.
The U.S. government participated in its own acts of censorship during this time. The Comstock Act of 1873, meant to curb the nascent movement of women’s reproductive healthcare, affected both the publishing industry and libraries. The New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, founded by Anthony Comstock and his supporters, was particularly hard on libraries, forcing New York public libraries to withdraw classics like James Joyce’s Ulysses and D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover from their collections. All the while, Black patrons often found themselves without library access, especially in the Jim Crow South.
In the 20th century, censorship continued with German, Italian, and even Irish works and newspapers banned and locked down at the urging of both the government and concerned citizens. At the same time, amid the growing threat of fascism abroad, U.S. libraries at this time emerged as a great symbol of democracy. In addition to the passage of the Library Bill of Rights, during the lead-up to World War II, librarians publicly championed free speech in other ways—soliciting book donations, buying war bonds, and even participating in an on-the-ground effort to save materials from war-torn Europe.
Then came the postwar whiplash as public libraries got pulled into Senator Joseph R. McCarthy’s coercive campaign to fight anything he deemed “communist” and “anti-American.” As part of his Cold War witch hunt, McCarthy opened up an investigation into Voice of America, the U.S. foreign-language broadcasting company, alleging it had capitulated to communism. He attacked the VOA’s overseas libraries, which were meant to represent American ideals and information abroad, and called for a list of authors that he had condemned as communists to be stripped from the shelves. Any librarians who refused faced inquiries into their own personal lives and histories.
In response, librarians convened a meeting with publishers in May of 1953 to discuss how they could defend libraries and authors against censorship and censure. Among those present: the Librarian of Congress, Luther Evans, who had just been named the head of UNESCO; Ralph McGill, editor of the Atlanta Constitution; Cass Canfield, chairman of Harper Brothers Publishing; and Bernard Berelson, a representative of the Ford Foundation.
During the meeting, this influential group ideated the Freedom to Read statement. Building from the Library Bill of Rights, the Freedom to Read statement was meant to send a clear message: that librarians remained defenders of democracy, and that they would not back down in the face of controversy and censorship. The meeting bolstered librarians’ coalition of support and affirmed their united front against McCarthy and his acolytes, who’d already begun attacking local schools and public libraries in the continental U.S. for housing “dangerous” and/or “inappropriate” material.
Among the Americans who took up McCarthy’s cause was a San Antonio housewife named Myrtle G. Hance. A member of the Minute Women of the U.S.A., whose stated mission was to remove “supporters and sympathizers” of communism from schools, Hance took it upon herself that same year—1953—to comb through the San Antonio Public Library’s shelves, where she “uncovered” 500 books containing communist materials. In response, San Antonio mayor Jack White (whose wife was also a Minute Woman), demanded that those books be branded with a large red sticker, so that readers would know they were “dangerous.” Another city official went further—calling for the books Hance singled out to be burned.
It was the chief librarian of San Antonio who prevented this from happening. Julia Grothaus, who’d served in her position for two decades, argued that Americans could not understand, let alone fight, a thing if they did not know anything about it first. Local writers, journalists, and civic organizations rallied behind Grothaus’ position, as did the Public Library Board of Trustees, who would not rubberstamp the mayor’s call for her resignation. Despite Mayor White’s attempts at retaliation, Grothaus and her allies did not yield; the books in San Antonio would not be labeled and would not be burned.
What happened in San Antonio happened in other communities across the country, as organizations like the Minute Women stoked the public’s fears of communism. Librarians resisted in various ways to varying degrees of success. Then, on June 14, 1953, they received major support from President Eisenhower, who offered a highly publicized message bolstering free speech during his Dartmouth College commencement speech. Addressing the new graduates, the president told them, “Don’t join the book-burners… Don’t be afraid to go to your library and read every book.”
The press interpreted the president’s words to be a direct rebuff of McCarthy. The following day, McCarthy’s actions against the VOA’s overseas libraries made the front page of the New York Times when Secretary of State John Foster Dulles confirmed that 11 books abroad had been taken and destroyed. The ALA moved quickly to capitalize on the president’s support and the public’s attention. Shortly thereafter, the Freedom to Read Statement they’d come up with that May was signed off on by the ALA and the American Book Publishers Council and officially published. Still in effect today, it states that “the freedom to read is essential to our democracy.”
Seventy years later, the conflict over censorship and free speech continues to play out in libraries. 2023 is on trend to set the record for the highest number of attempted book bans since ALA began compiling data about censorship in libraries. That means it would break last year’s peak, in which there were 1,269 demands to censor over 2,500 library books. In the summer of 2022, lawmakers in Florida also passed HB 1467, which requires books to be approved by a media specialist trained by Florida’s Department of Education. Educators and librarians found in violation of the law could be charged with a third-degree felony. Other states, like Missouri and Utah, have since published similar laws that punish librarians for “explicit” content.
Librarians and other educators are fighting back against the assault on free speech. Earlier this year, the Florida Education Association (which includes librarians), along with the Florida Freedom to Read Project, filed suit against the Florida legislature to challenge its censorship agenda. And after conservative lawmakers in Arkansas proposed Act 372, which sought to “protect children from indoctrination” by allowing librarians to be brought up on criminal charges if they were found with items “harmful to minors,” the Central Arkansas Library System took the lead in filing a federal lawsuit to question its constitutionality. A judge agreed, and the act has been blocked—for now.
Libraries have always offered more than just books. At their center, they offer a community space with safety to explore identities, histories and cultures. As librarians past and present know, the loss of this intellectual freedom would be catastrophic to American culture and democracy. Which is why, over eight decades since the Freedom to Read Act was first passed, in 2021 the ALA put forward a new statement that condemned acts of censorship and intimidation, and promised to continue to defend patrons’ constitutional rights, and the freedom to speak, publish, and read. It ended with a direct reflection on the Freedom to Read Act, proving that the fight goes on.