Who would have thought that in 2023, librarians in the United States would be threatened with incarceration simply for doing their jobs? For providing families with books, and giving students a safe space to read.
But unfortunately, it’s true. At least 19 states have passed legislation that would lock up librarians for providing “harmful” books to minors, But now former President Barack Obama is standing up for librarians — and democracy.
The former president explained that book bans challenge the foundational principles of American democracy, like freedom of speech and expression.
“Nobody understands that more than you, our nation’s librarians,” Obama wrote. “In a very real sense, you’re on the front lines—fighting every day to make the widest possible range of viewpoints, opinions, and ideas available to everyone…That’s why I want to take a moment to thank all of you for the work you do every day—work that is helping us understand each other and embrace our shared humanity.”
Obama also shared the direct impact banned or challenged books and authors had on him.
“Books have always shaped how I experience the world. Writers like Mark Twain and Toni Morrison, Walt Whitman, and James Baldwin taught me something essential about our country’s character,” Obama wrote. “Reading about people whose lives were very different from mine showed me how to step into someone else’s shoes. And the simple act of writing helped me develop my identity—all of which would prove vital as a citizen, as a community organizer, and as a president.”
The nation’s students might not have that same opportunity. Both politicians and prejudiced parents continue to crack down on books written by queer writers, as well as books by Black writers, that address the Black experience or that tell the truth about the history of racism in this country.
“It’s no coincidence that these ‘banned books’ are often written by or feature people of color, indigenous people, and members of the LGBTQ+ community,” Obama wrote. “Though there have also been unfortunate instances in which books by conservative authors or books containing ‘triggering’ words or scenes have been targets for removal. Either way, the impulse seems to be to silence, rather than engage, rebut, learn from, or seek to understand views that don’t fit our own.”
A suggestion offered in May during Teacher Appreciation Week was to help a teacher by supporting local librarians. With this open letter, Obama certainly seems to doing just that.
He ended his letter by pointing out that we owe librarians “a debt of gratitude for making sure readers across the country have access to a wide range of books, and all the ideas they contain.”
Obama also asked the rest of us to tell “anyone who will listen — and even some people you think might not — that the free, robust exchange of ideas has always been at the heart of American democracy.”
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