By: Lisa Rand
Did you participate in Banned Books Week in September? This annual celebration of the freedom to read shines a light on attempts to censor books in libraries and schools. A critical public awareness initiative, Banned Books Week happens thanks to year-round effort from Ellie Diaz, Program Officer at the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom (OIF). In our recent interview, Ms. Diaz shared about her work with OIF and her passion for supporting libraries and First Amendment rights.
Note: The text below is from audio interview. It has been edited lightly for clarity.
LR: Could you describe your role with OIF?
ED: Our office’s goal is to educate librarians and the general public about the nature and importance of intellectual freedom in libraries. As Program Officer, my role comes in with spreading the message about the harms of censorship and the importance of protecting our freedom to read. I help plan initiatives such as Banned Books Week. Right now we are working on Share Your Censorship Story. This is an end-of-the-year reporting initiative to encourage people to report challenges they have experienced. These challenges will become part of the 2019 field report and help identify the most frequently challenged titles.
LR: What did you learn from Banned Books Week this year in terms of trends in the US, or the needs of library workers and users?
ED: Every year we notice that Banned Books Week is crucial and still needed. Banned Books Week is an opportunity to highlight challenges to access. This year there is a continual focus on diverse viewpoints and marginalized voices in the programs, titles, and displays that have been challenged.
The theme this year, Censorship Leaves Us in the Dark: Keep the Light On was very popular. We saw so many interesting displays. Librarians and booksellers are so creative This theme really engaged people, with the contrast of light versus dark, and some displays incorporated actual lights or other creative elements. On social media the Celebrating Banned Books Week group was a place to share displays. This Facebook group also is a good place to turn to for support and encouragement. I loved seeing what people were doing.
I received a few questions from students who were asking, “Why should we care about censorship and what should we do? What’s a banned book? Is censorship still happening?”
I’m seeing a rising sense of activism. These were high school and college students doing research for classes. This kind of curiosity has always been there, but I’m learning that we need more resources to encourage that and to support student inquiry.
LR: Do you have a favorite success story from Banned Books Week this year? Are there certain approaches to programming that seem to generate a strongly positive/enthusiastic response?
ED: Some of the programs that stuck out were programs that facilitated discussion. For example I saw mock community meetings, courtrooms with banned characters on trial, interviews with students playing the role of author and asking questions as a journalist.
Another activism program was one we hosted, the Dear Banned Author letter writing campaign. This was a chance for readers to put into words their support for an author facing a challenge.
LR: Do you have suggestions for libraries that might like to be involved in First Amendment issues throughout the year, beyond BBW?
ED: There are so many opportunities to make intellectual freedom issues part of the daily work in a library. Jamie Gregory had a fantastic post on the Intellectual Freedom blog about teaching the First Amendment to a teen audience. One activity she suggested is to ask teens to design their own pamphlets. You had a post about launching a debate club.
Banned Books Week is an exciting opportunity, but it’s only one week. Censorship happens every day. The more we draw attention to how these texts are challenged, the more we can position libraries as community cornerstones where differing points of view can exist in one place.
LR: Is there any preview you can give of next year’s celebration? At this stage of the year, what does your process look like?
ED: It’s a year round project and something I’m really proud to be part of. Right now we’re reviewing successes. We had a survey about possible themes and the kind of materials people want from us. We are reviewing the feedback, because we rely on librarians and users for input. For example, there is a clear request for additional materials in languages other than English.
If readers have any thoughts about what they’d like to see next year, send me an email.
Lisa M. Rand is a youth services librarian in southeastern Pennsylvania. She exercises her commitment to equity and access for everyone by serving on the Intellectual Freedom Committee of the Pennsylvania Library Association. Lisa has studied at Simmons University and Kent State University. Whenever possible she travels, visiting libraries and walking in the footsteps of favorite fictional characters. Find her on Twitter @lisa_m_rand.