The Freedom to Read

Jerry Wu, Editor

San Diego libraries are standing up against censorship and book bans in support of the freedom to read.

While there has been a renewed effort around book bans in the United States, the concept is not new. The Mira Mesa Library’s Banned Book Club has organized meetings monthly and led discussions about banned or challenged books for nearly 20 years.

Pat Stevens facilitates the club, and her passion for reading has inspired her to fight against book censorship.

“I’ve always loved reading. Reading is a window into the world. And I am personally interested in almost any kind of literature. I recognize that some people may not like everything, but I feel like everybody should have the ability to read whatever,” Stevens said.

In September 2004, Lori McCray, the branch manager of the Mira Mesa Library at the time, organized a one-time event in celebration of the annual Banned Books Week, inviting community members to come together to read their favorite banned or challenged books. 

Met with a positive response, McCray and the attendees decided to start the Banned Book Club to spread the value of reading all books. Stevens, a community volunteer with the Mira Mesa Town Council and various other groups, became the group’s facilitator.

With eight to ten active members, the group has tackled various books targeted for censorship, such as “The Handmaid’s Tale” by Margaret Atwood, “To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee, and ”A Clockwork Orange” by Anthony Burgess.

“We try to choose a variety of titles, fiction, nonfiction, no longer just from banned or challenged books list, but [also] just interesting, thought-provoking books,” Stevens said.

During their discussions, group members share their impressions and opinions about the story’s plot and characters but also consider the question of why the book was banned. The group discusses and carves out the importance of the book and its messages, often covering topics like sex, racial prejudice, and the use of language.

The UC San Diego Library is also fighting against book bans. Every fall, the university library hosts its annual celebration of Banned Book Week to raise reading awareness across campus. In the past, the library has partnered with local bookstores to organize blind date activities with books, in which the students are gifted with frequently banned books to read.

University Librarian Erik Mitchell has always worked to make reading material more accessible and appropriate for differing needs by sectioning the library into spaces with their respective genres and age-appropriate material.

“In a way, this is why public libraries all across the nation have children’s reading rooms. It is to have an age-appropriate space, with content, that fosters reading and awareness for children. And then others have the rest of the library,” Mitchell said.

As with many other libraries, the UC San Diego Library has grown as a beacon in the community to uphold the virtues of the freedom to read and strive to become more socially inclusive with its book collections.

The library has curated several book exhibits that capture the voices of underrepresented San Diego community members and their cultural heritage. Having completed archives dedicated to the Melanesian and Turner societies, the library has recently worked on an exhibit to celebrate Black history and culture.

“I think that as our society has grown, we [have] become more aware of the social inequities in our past, and then our presence is that conversation has bubbled up to the forefront. And so I think it’s just raised the importance of that kind of issue of information freedom even more,” Mitchell said.

Students across San Diego County share this viewpoint. Alana Tantisira, a recent graduate from Torrey Pines High School, denotes the intrinsic value of books that would be difficult to replace if they become censored.

“I feel like overall, these [books] should all be sensitive because they contain real-life topics. And a lot of these are historical topics as well. And so if you don’t acknowledge what has happened, you can never really learn from it, you can never understand how the world functions,” Tantisira said.

Nor does Tantisira fail to appreciate books’ ability to transcend readers into the minds of the characters to shape their own opinions. One of the most memorable books she has read is “To Kill a Mockingbird.” While reading it, Tantisira strongly resonated with the novel’s protagonist Scout Finch, making her recognize the issue of racism grounded in the legal system that exists still today.

Organizations across the country have banded together to support the freedom for students to have access to books. The National Council of Teachers of English, an organization pledged to uphold the education and advocacy rights guaranteed by the First Amendment, calls on the need for everyone to participate in full-fledged participation and voice their opinions in support of the freedom to read.

“Reading a diverse collection of books [throughout one’s lifetime] is how we develop awareness, understanding, and criticality needed to engage participants in society and embrace others in that quest,” said Emily Kirkpatrick, NCTE’s executive director.