Visitors attempting to enter the Harvard Law School library on Wednesday afternoon had to deal with a dozen librarians and staff crowded on the front steps as they took turns reading a selection of their favorite banned books and authors.
The reading, which has been held in the law school’s library since 2016, commemorates the 40th annual Banned Books Week – a nationwide campaign to combat censorship, highlight persecuted individuals and celebrate freedom of reading as part of First’s Freedom of Speech Protection amendment.
Works featured included Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl, Isaac Babel’s Odessa Stories and Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home.
“It should really help people understand that their ability to read anything they want may be limited at some point in the future and how important it is for us in a place that celebrates intellectual freedom to have access to books.” to encourage,” said HLS Library Executive Director Jocelyn B. Kennedy, who moderated the event.
Kennedy, who read excerpts from Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, George Orwell’s 1984 and James Joyce’s Ulysses, said today’s most contested books deal with LGBTQ+ issues and racial justice, among other socially sensitive issues. Stressing that free access to books is crucial to having difficult but necessary conversations, she drew attention to the increasing censorship of books across the country.
“That’s human damage,” she said, “which is why I think there’s a problem with one person or a group of people deciding on behalf of everyone what you have access to and what you can’t – what you can hear or know and what Not.”
According to Kennedy, over 1,500 different books were challenged and banned in the United States in 2021, a number that was already exceeded in 2022. A book is considered contested if an attempt is made to remove or restrict it.
“It’s getting worse,” Kennedy said. “There is something about the world we live in today that is making people challenge books more than ever before.”
The week-long commemoration, which runs from September 18-24, was created by the American Library Association following the 1982 Supreme Court case, Island Trees School District v. Pico. High school senior Steven Pico and four colleagues are appealing a New York school board’s decision to remove nine books, including Kurt Vonnegut’s “Slaughterhouse-Five” and Langston Hughes’ “Best Short Stories by Negro Writers,” from junior high and high libraries Remove the district school.
“The reality is it’s always happened,” Kennedy said. “We have always banned books. It is human nature to want to suppress everything that is different.”
Lesliediana Jones, associate director of the HLS Library of Public Services and chair of the American Library Association’s Freedom of Thought Committee, spoke about the challenges librarians and educators face in supporting the free exchange of ideas that books offer.
Jones, reading a passage from Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give, said that librarians “are regularly challenged and threatened” and that some “are losing their jobs because of books that are in their library — the ones on the banned books there is a list – and books for their students to read.”
“It was a very traumatic experience for many of them, and many of them have given up the profession,” she added.
In a video posted to Harvard’s social media accounts, Jones said, “Everyone has the right to read. It’s in the constitution. We all have the right to read what we want.”