Taking a stand against book bans

Torsten Reimer at podium with Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker and UChicago President Paul Alivisatos
Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker, University Librarian and Dean of the University Library Torsten Reimer, and UChicago President Paul Alivisatos at the banned books press conference at the Joseph Regenstein Library. (Photo by Tarji Stewart)

The University of Chicago was founded over 130 years ago based on the belief that knowledge creates a better world and enhances our lives. This is what our Latin motto states. We also believe that learning and creating knowledge require the freedom to explore, to discuss and to share views and ideas, even if it makes us uncomfortable at times. A discourse that allows for disagreement and where divergent perspectives are heard makes us all stronger, whether it is in academia or in society more broadly.

The enduring success of the University of Chicago gives us confidence that these values hold true today as much as they did when this University was founded.

Today we see these values under attack. Across the United States, books are being banned and libraries and librarians are being threatened. The American Library Association recently released statistics that show that, for the third year in a row, attempts to censor books have hit a record number. In the first eight months of this year alone, ALA tracked attempts to get almost 2,000 banned. The vast majority of challenges were to books written by or about a person of color or a member of the LGBTQIA+ community.

Attempts to ban books have often focused on school libraries, but in the last few years public libraries have come more into focus, and we are now seeing more attempts to censor academic libraries too. This is not a surprise. After all, book bans are usually not just aimed at an individual book. They are aimed at what a book stands for and what libraries stand for.

Books are more than containers of knowledge or sources of inspiration or enjoyment. They are a symbol for knowledge and its impact on society. In a similar way, libraries are more than containers of books. They are a symbol for progress and a promise. A promise of a space where we can get lost in thought, get inspired, engage with the world’s knowledge. A promise that a free society accepts and cherishes a multitude of views, even if we personally may not agree with all of them. And a promise that we stand by those who cannot afford access to knowledge,and that marginalized communities can still use their voices.

The University of Chicago stands firmly behind the promise of the book and the promise of the library. We also stand with librarians across the country and all those who seek to inquire or express themselves.

In that spirit, at a press conference with Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker, Lt. Gov. Juliana Stratton, and UChicago President Paul Alivisatos during Banned Books Week on October 3, I announced that we are taking five steps relating to banned books.

First, the University of Chicago Library has started work to build the Banned Books Collection, an attempt to bring together all books banned in the United States, whether digital or print. We have already a quarter of the more than 1,500 banned books here in our libraries, and we will grow this collection and keep it up to date. We are building this as a research collection, to increase our understanding of book bans, but also to create a historic record. Importantly, this will also be a collection for access, available to everyone who visits our libraries, whether they come from an Ivy League institution or live a few dozen blocks south of us. We will also make this collection available to users of other libraries, through interlibrary loan.

Book covers on display
Part of a display of banned books in the University of Chicago Library's collection. (Photo courtesy of the Office of Governor JB Pritzker)

Second, to support those who live in areas where books are banned, we are partnering with the Digital Public Library of America. For more than a decade, the DPLA has worked to widen access to books for everyone in the U.S., through the internet. Through its Palace app, the DPLA already makes two thirds of books banned available in those locations where they are banned. We will work with DPLA to increase that percentage, with the hope to eventually make all banned books available online—in partnership with authors and publishers.

Third, as another part of our partnership, DPLA and UChicago Library will provide all Illinois residents with access to the banned books in the DPLA app, initially for a year. This will support those who cannot come to visit us in Hyde Park or another library that does have a banned book they want to read.

Fourth, in the UChicago spirit, we want to encourage research and debate on books bans, through a program of events with partners such as the DPLA and the UChicago Forum for Free Inquiry and Expression.

Finally, we launched the Freedom to Read fund to allow those who want to support these and future activities of the University of Chicago Library. To make a contribution, please go to the University’s Giving Page and select “Library” and then “Freedom to Read Fund.”

I would be remiss not to acknowledge that some of our patrons may not agree with everything we add to the collection. In fact, it is possible our librarians and even I may be uncomfortable with what is in some of these books or in books that may be banned in the future. But that is what libraries are here for, to create an environment for freedom of discussion and exploration. In this context, libraries are the promise of freedom, of a free and democratic society built on knowledge, of the freedom to dream of a better world for everyone. We stand with everyone who feels this shouldn’t be a dream but reality.

Lt. Gov. Stratton speaks to Dean Reimer while pointing to banned books on display
Dean Torsten Reimer (left) and Lt. Gov. Juliana Stratton discuss banned books in the University of Chicago Library’s collection. (Photo by Tarji Stewart)