The last week of September is Banned Books Week, when the American Library Association calls our attention to works that have been censored and voices that have been silenced.
It’s a timely issue, but not a new one. This ALA Bulletin article from 1940 reminds us that books have always been banned: “Homer’s Odyssey was once banned in Rome, because ‘it expressed Greek ideals of freedom dangerous to autocratic Rome.'” Other notable books that have been banned throughout history include Dante’s The Divine Comedy, Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (“for its satire”), and the Bible’s Book of Ruth.
In 1944, The Cincinnati Public Library’s Karline Brown wrote an impassioned defense of freedom of the press, noting, “Great libraries and magnificent works have met destruction…Today, though we have passed from those dark times because of the growth of science and understanding, we must avoid entering a new dark age of literary intolerance, of which we see ominous evidence about us.”
But Banned Books Week didn’t become official until 1982, when librarian and First Amendment activist Judith Krug spearheaded the movement as a means of calling attention to the slew of books being targeted at the time. Krug “understood ALA’s obligation to defend the rights of Americans to publish and read what she personally thought of as ‘sleaze,’ a word she used to describe Madonna’s 1992 book Sex, which many libraries refused to purchase. Call it sleaze she did, but with the caveat that it should be available in every public library.”
From Odyssey to Sex, books have always needed the protection of libraries and librarians. And thanks to Judith Krug and countless others, you can commemorate Banned Books week wherever you are by visiting your local library and checking out any darn book you please.
[Editor’s note: A version of this post appeared originally on September 23, 2016]