Panel celebrates freedom to read

For anyone who’s read them, it’s hard to deny the power of books.

Books kept history professor Sarah Swedberg, who teaches at Colorado Mesa University, sane and engaged through a culturally spartan childhood in rural New England.

This was before the internet, Swedberg said, and there were two channels on TV. If it weren’t for books and the “companionship” they offered, Swedberg said she would have had little access to the bigger world beyond her small one.

“Books were my life raft,” Swedberg said.

Swedberg is one of three university professors and two librarians who will present during a special event called the Freedom to Read Panel at CMU’s Tomlinson Library this evening, scheduled to begin at
7 p.m. in the Library Event Space.

The panel is part of the national Banned Books Week campaign, first organized by the American Library Association in 1982 and intended to raise awareness about censorship and celebrate the “freedom to read,” according to the campaign’s website.

Sylvia Rael, the director of Tomlinson Library, said the library organized the Freedom to Read Panel as a means of encouraging students to “understand the importance of political freedom.”

“We wanted to focus on ‘freedom to read’ as a pillar of a democratic society,” Rael said. She solicited panel involvement from CMU professors with backgrounds in theater, history and English as well as two Mesa County Libraries officials.

Panel members will read from one of their favorite banned books and will hold a discussion with participants about censorship and the importance — and difficulties — of free expression.

“If you’re an artist you kind of just fundamentally believe in the freedom of expression,” said Mo LaMee, who heads CMU’s Theater Arts department and will also serve as a member of tonight’s panel.

“Artists are always in the process of probing convention at the edges of what is considered acceptable,” LaMee said, adding that such exploration is part of an artist’s job.

LaMee is particularly concerned with censorship that can happen on the part of the creator of a new work if he or she is afraid of getting into political or social trouble.

He hasn’t chosen what he’ll read tonight, but he’s choosing something at the nexus of sexuality and religion, which he considers to be “a real flashpoint for censorship,” he said.

As for Swedberg, she’ll be reading from “Annie On My Mind” by Nancy Garden, a 1982 book Swedberg believes to be the first young adult novel that takes a positive approach to lesbianism.

“In Olathe, Kansas, they literally burned the book,” Swedberg said. “But then a few students decided that they really, really needed the book,” so they worked with the author to make it available, Swedberg said.

“A lot of challenged books have LGBT content,” added Swedberg, referring to books with lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender themes that members of the public have “challenged” at schools, libraries and other reading outlets, trying to have the books eliminated.

And she’s right — of the 10 books most often challenged across the United States in 2016, as collated by the American Library Association, the top five were challenged because of LGBT issues.

But there are many other reasons why people challenge books. Some dislike the foul language, political messages or sexual explicitness of certain texts.

Panel member Shana Wade, associate director of Mesa County Libraries, will be reading an excerpt from Maurice Sendak’s “Where the Wild Things Are,” one of her favorite books, initially banned because parents thought it was too scary for kids.

Wade said that Mesa County Libraries receive about two to four official challenges per year. When patrons come in to challenge a library book, she said, she tries to have library staff calmly talk the patrons down by explaining the purpose of public libraries.

“Our job is to provide information on all points of view,” Wade said. She said a library’s responsibility is to carry material for the whole community, not only for factions who may be offended by certain topics.

“Part of democracy is that everyone has the right to access information and decide for themselves,” Wade said.

Aside from the panel, which is free and open to the public, Rael said that displays celebrating the freedom to read will be on display at Tomlinson Library throughout the week, including previously banned books for checkout — such as Joseph Heller’s “Catch-22” and J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy — and the list of the most often challenged books from 2016.

And Mesa County Libraries is having a battle of the banned books, where the public is able to vote daily on their favorite of two banned books. Through bracket-style eliminations, library patrons will determine their all-time favorite banned book.


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