A Challenged Modern Library

By Ann K. Symons, President, American Library Association (1998–1999)

In 1998, when the Modern Library published its list of the 100 best novels of the 20th century, it sparked considerable debate over what is and isn’t a great novel. The list also provides a vivid illustration of what Banned Books Week, to be observed September 22 through September 29, is all about.

Exactly a third of the titles on the list of “best” novels, including 6 of the top 10, have been removed or threatened with removal from bookstores, libraries and schools at some point. The Grapes of Wrath, number 10 on the list, has been one of the most vilified works since its publication in 1939. Burned at the St. Louis (Mo.) Public Library immediately after publication, it also was banned from the Buffalo (N.Y.) Public Library because of “vulgar words.” It was challenged in the Greenville (S.C.) schools because it used the names of God and Jesus “in a vain and profane manner” and was banned in Kern County (Calif.) where the story was set. It continues to be one of the most challenged books in schools and libraries.

Other banned books in the Modern Library’s “Top Ten” include The Great Gatsby and Brave New World. Today, it’s hard to imagine a library or a school curriculum without these works. Fortunately, few books are permanently banned from library and bookstore shelves in the United States. Why? Because librarians, booksellers, educators, parents and others actively defend our right to read.

The fact that 33 books on the Modern Library's “best” list have been either banned or challenged is not surprising. School and public libraries regularly receive requests to remove materials from their shelves and reading lists. In fact, the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom receives hundreds of reports of such challenges each year, with many more going unreported. Last year ALA tracked nearly 500 challenges on such acclaimed works as Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Katherine Paterson’s Bridge to Terabithia.

These challenges are not just complaints. They are requests to have materials removed from library shelves and curricula, most frequently in our nation’s schools.

Banned Books Week is sponsored by the American Booksellers Association, the America Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression, the American Library Association, the American Society of Journalists and Authors, the Association of American Publishers and the National Association of College Stores. It is also endorsed by the Center for the Book of the Library of Congress.

The event is intended as a reminder not to take one of our most important freedoms for granted—the freedom to read and explore many points of view. Our nation’s schools and libraries have always been forums for a spectrum of ideas and information, including those that may be unorthodox, unpopular or offensive to some.

The controversy over the Modern Library’s list reminds us that great literature is very much in the mind of the beholder. What is intellectually stimulating to one may be irrelevant or even offensive to another. That doesn't mean that differing viewpoints should not be heard or that parental guidance should not be exercised. Rather, it means we must respect the rights of others to choose for themselves and their families what they find appealing and appropriate.

Freedom of thought requires the freedom to explore issues and questions necessary to education, enlightenment and self-governance. That applies to children as well as adults. Those who seek to limit other people's access to ideas they feel are dangerous or repugnant often forget that freedom is what undergirds our democracy.

Ideas can only flourish—and democracy survive—if the right of everyone to choose for themselves what they wish to read, hear and view is guaranteed. Without it, we jeopardize both our basic democratic rights and one of our most democratic institutions—the library.

Ann K. Symons is a past president of the American Library Association, the oldest and largest library association in the world with some 57,000 members. She is a school librarian at Juneau-Douglas High School in Juneau, Alaska, and co-author of Protecting the Right to Read with Charles Harmon (Neal-Schuman, 1995) and Speaking Out!: Voices in Celebration of Intellectual Freedom with Sally Gardner Reed (ALA, 1999).

Links to non-ALA sites have been provided because these sites may have information of interest. Neither the American Library Association nor the Office for Intellectual Freedom necessarily endorses the views expressed or the facts presented on these sites; and furthermore, ALA and OIF do not endorse any commercial products that may be advertised or available on these sites.