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The University of Delaware welcomed American Library Association President Lessa Kanani'opua Pelayo-Lozada on Oct. 17 as part of Free Speech Week.
NEWARK, Del. — In 2021, American Library Association's Office for Intellectual Freedom tracked the highest number of challenged and banned books in its 20-year history. The ALA reported 729 challenges to library, school, and university materials and services, which targeted 1,597 books. “They are organized attacks against the freedom to read and the freedom of speech," said Lessa Kanani'opua Pelayo-Lozada during a conversation with Michael Stewart, senior assistant librarian with the University of Delaware. The Department of Communication hosted the virtual event on Oct. 17 for UD's Free Speech Week. Watch a video of the full program, "Resurgence of Book Banning."
Pelayo-Lozada began her talk with a quote from “The Giver," another banned book. “We have to protect people from the wrong choices." Sometimes, the choice to ban a particular book may not be the “right" choice. Pelayo-Lozada, the current ALA president and a 14-year member, has dedicated her career to advocating for libraries and strengthening the ALA.
When a book is challenged, an attempt has been made to remove or restrict the material, based on a person's or group's objections. Banned material is removed entirely from a particular school or community. Books may be banned with good intentions — to protect people, often young people, from harmful or inappropriate material.
Pelayo-Lozada recalled the first time she read “The Giver" in seventh grade, assigned to her by her teacher. “Mrs. Garcia had no idea what this book about a boy named Jonas — who was selected to carry the memories and colors and the sights and sounds of a utopian world that has been suppressed — what “The Giver" would do to a mixed race young woman who knew there was injustice in the world, but did not know the length of that injustice and the impact that just one person can make on a society."
"The Giver" was banned for the first time in 1994 “about four years before I read it for the first time," said Pelayo-Lozada. It was banned because parents wanted to protect their children from themes of violence, including passages describing infanticide, suicide, and euthanasia. Such themes are “unfortunately a part of life," said Pelayo-Lozada. “Children may have already heard about them, but they may not be able to understand or process them."
The United States has a storied history of banning and challenging books, and the issue still permeates American society. Since 2021, the number of challenged books in school has escalated sharply, and researchers worry that numbers in 2022 will reach historic levels.
There is hope yet, though. The ALA found that 71 percent of voters across party lines oppose efforts to remove books from public libraries. Most voters and parents view librarians in high regard, and “have confidence in their local libraries to make good decisions about what books to include in their collections," said Pelayo-Lozada. Those voters also agree that the libraries in their communities do a good job of offering books that represent a variety of viewpoints.
While the future of book banning is still hazy, library leaders such as Pelayo-Lozada continue to fight. The ALA has partnered with the Unite Against Book Bans campaign, a national initiative to fight censorship. However, the issues of intellectual freedom and freedom of speech are a worldwide concern. Pelayo-Lozada met with library workers and advocates from more than 90 countries last summer when she attended the International Federation of Library Association's World Congress in Dublin, Ireland. Representatives of other countries expressed concern about threats to intellectual freedom in the United States. “Those countries that do have a lot more of freedom of speech that mirror ours are afraid that this is going to translate. American culture goes worldwide very rapidly. So they're really looking to us for guidance and leadership in these areas," said Pelayo-Lozada.
The fight has become a worldwide effort, with support from organizations in Brazil and Germany, and the Netherlands, for example. “Those folks that I have talked to know that they have partners in us," said Pelayo-Lozada. “But for a lot of what I've been exposed to, it's them supporting us right now."
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Article by Gina Cosenza, University of Delaware senior and intern for the University of Delaware's Center for Political Communication
Image and video by University Media Services