This Banned Books Week, Bryant University’s Douglas & Judith Krupp Library is celebrating the outlaws — and encouraging a new generation of free thinkers to follow in their footsteps.
Prominently displayed alongside the library’s books, periodicals, and reference works is a wall of portraits depicting members of the Bryant community — faculty, staff, students, and, yes, librarians — proudly posing with written works that have been banned or challenged across the country. The photographs represent a statement of unity with the nationwide Banned Books Week campaign and the freedom to read.
“One of the main pillars of the American Library Association — and what our entire profession stands for — is that people should be able to read what they want and that we need to make sure that we can make all kinds of materials available to our community, whoever that may be,” says Laura Kohl, Krupp’s director of library services. “Libraries provide the things that people are looking for and need.”
To Kohl, it all comes down to a simple idea. “It’s about access,” she says.
Launched in 1982 in response to a surge in challenges to books in libraries, bookstores, and schools, Banned Books Week brings together librarians, educators, authors, publishers, booksellers, and readers in support of the freedom to seek and express ideas.
This year’s Banned Books Week, which runs through October 7, comes amidst its own challenging times. In 2022, the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom documented 1,269 demands to censor library books and resources in 2022 — more than double the 729 challenges reported in 2021 and the highest number of attempted book bans since the ALA began compiling data about censorship in libraries.
Rhode Island, where Bryant’s Smithfield campus is located, is one of only two states in the nation where the civic right to library access is codified in law, Kohl notes (the other is Hawaii). “However, that doesn't mean that we aren't seeing the difficulties our library siblings are facing across the nation,” she says. “We are seeing librarians and educators lose their jobs for trying to provide information.”
Of the record 2,571 individual titles targeted for censorship in 2022, most were by or about LGBTQIA+ persons and Black, indigenous, and people of color; nonbinary author Maia Kobabe's memoir Gender Queer, for instance, is the most challenged book nationwide. “It's basically saying to people in the community that you don't matter, and your stories are not important,” notes Kohl. “By removing the books and the materials that people identify with, you are telling people them they don't belong and that they are not worthy.”
Krupp Library, by contrast, aims to be a place where everyone is welcome. “We strive to be a community center of sorts,” explains Meagan Joseph, who, as Krupp’s manager of borrower services, works to ensure the library supports all of Bryant’s communities and constituents. “I’ve talked to students who didn't have a library in their high school on a regular basis — and even transfer students who didn’t have a library at their previous college. It just breaks my soul to hear that.
“I can't imagine our campus without this library,” she reflects.
Exploring the other side
The freedom to read without censorship is at the heart of Krupp’s mission, argues Kohl. Knowledge is central to any honest exchange of ideas; therefore, students need access to as much information as possible so they can prepare for the world beyond college. Hiding any of that information doesn’t make it go away, Kohl suggests; it just promotes ignorance.
Libraries can, and should, be a place where conversations about diverse viewpoints start, says Joseph. “We might not all share the same opinions, but we should be open to talking about them,” she argues.
Freedom of thought also plays a key role in students’ personal development. “Many of our students are getting their first taste of freedom or getting their first exposure to new kinds of ideas that they've never been exposed to before,” Kohl states. “Perhaps they’ve only ever heard one side of things from their parents, or their school, or their peers. Now they can explore the other side.”
Keeping the spirit of the season all year round
Banned and challenged books make appearances in the library’s campaigns and promotions throughout the year — which Kohl notes is an indicator of their value as important books, not just “controversial” ones — but Banned Books Week allows for a special kind of spotlight. In addition to the portraits, a variety of banned and challenged books are available for selection at Krupp’s front desk and are on display in a showcase in the main room.
The portraits, though, are the most striking aspect of this year’s commemoration, and that’s by design, says Kohl. “Part of the point is just to show how many people from all different walks of life on campus are reading, or have read, these books,” she says. “One of the things that is really interesting is when people come over to view them for the first time and they're shocked at the books that have been challenged” — everything from Catcher in the Rye to, ironically, The Handmaid’s Tale to the Harry Potter series.
“I hope the end result is that we get a bunch of students saying, ‘Oh, look at these banned books. I want to read more of them,’” says Kohl. “But we also hope they ask questions: ‘Why is this banned? What did people see in these that made them afraid?’
“The students here are the people who are coming up and will be running the show for all of us eventually. So, it's good for them to begin reading, learning, thinking, and understanding now,” Kohl says.