Om sensur – intervju med James LaRue

James LaRue (Director, Office for Intellectual Freedom, American Library Association) var i Oslo i september for å snakke om  sensur og ytringsfrihet i barnelitteraturen. Dette intervjuet stod på trykk i medlemssidene i Bok og Bibliotek 5/2017.

Tekst: Amund Pedersen

As director for the office for intellectual freedom in the American Library Association you work with issues con­cerning censorship and restrictions every day. How would you describe the main challenges in your work?

There are four worrisome streams in the river of American culture. The first is a surge of parental over-protectiveness. This is a cycle in our history. Right now, all children are heavily supervised in ways that sometimes prevent children from exploring, and developing resilience.

Second is a deep suspicion of the public sector. Education and libraries are an example of public infrastructure under attack from commercial inter­ests. Funding is falling. It is much easier to control consumers than critical-thinking citizens.

The need for complex answers

Third is a persistent strain of anti-intellectualism and sexual puritanism in America. We tend to prefer simple answers to complex questions, with little patience for the objectivity and patience of science.

The fourth stream is rising nativism, a strong anti-immigrant sentiment that reflects the fear of a long-privileged class about the rising diversity of our population.

But there is also much that is positive. We still believe in freedom of speech. We still believe that everyone, in the end, should be treated equally. We still believe that our children should have the chance to live better lives than their parents. We are, generally, optimistic, and more inclined to build than to destroy.

Intellectual freedom in libraries

What issues do librarians have to deal with when it comes to intellectual freedom?

The most obvious is challenges to books, exhibits, speakers, and programs. Here I use “challenge” to mean a formal request to restrict or deny access to a library service. These challenges, while underreport­ed, and while still a fraction of all library uses, is on the rise.

I also believe that these challenges are now more successful than they used to be. Of our top ten most challenged books in 2016, half of them were removed from the institutions.

Banning of books

We live in what we believe to be a liberal society. Who ban books, and on what grounds?

A banned book is one that has been removed from the institution that received the challenge. Usually, this means that it was removed without any discussion; a principal removed a books and told no one.

But it might also mean that the decision was made by a citizen governing authority – a school or library board.

Norway, it appears, has little problem with parents demanding the removal of books from the public library. There can be more subtle censorship: what is not accepted for publication? What is published, but bookstores refuse to carry? What subjects are avoided by mainstream media?

Books may be banned by people who have authority to do so. As Norway, like America, grapples with the integration of immigrants, do the existing gatekeep­ers of the publishing world publishing these stories?

Reflect the world

How can libraries work against censorship and restrictions in materials for children and youth?

Librarians gather, organize, and present to the public the intellectual content of our culture.

When we are gathering stories, we have to make an honest and unbiased effort to fairly reflect what is happening in the world.

When we organize that information, we have to appropriately catalogue and present it so the intended audience can find it. Presenting it to the public can be inside the library, but might also mean reaching beyond our library buildings.

Children’s literature is not innocent

What are – from your point of view – the biggest threat to children’s unrestricted reading and access to uncensored material?

Many parents want to preserve the innocence of their children. They don’t want the children to know about violence, or cruelty, or sex “before they’re ready.”

But the truth is that literature prepares children for the world, in a way that is far less dangerous than encountering a problem for the first time, without any preparation, in real life.

The world can be a dangerous place. Reading about it is not.