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Libraries and the freedom to read

To the editor:

The week of Sept. 27-Oct. 4 is the 27th anniversary of Banned Books Week -- a nationwide initiative to celebrate the fundamental right to read. This right stems from the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which guarantees freedom of speech and freedom of the press.

Libraries have been at the forefront of those who have vigorously defended this freedom, one that has been attacked by the left and the right and all points in between. It may seem quaint to hear that books such as "Winnie-the-Pooh" and "Charlotte's Web" have been banned in the past, but the American Library Association reports that more than 1,000 books have been challenged since 1982, and more than 400 books were challenged in 2007 alone. This year's presidential election highlights the continuing controversy as the story on Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin's consideration of book banning at the Wasilla Public Library in Alaska attests. Indeed, no state in the union is exempt from book challenges, which range from concerns over sexual content, religious discrimination, racism, profanity and the promotion of homosexuality.

Cornell University Library's response to requests to censor or ban materials it acquires is almost always "no." Notable exceptions include when an item has been donated by mistake or by someone unauthorized to give it away. I'm happy to report that you can find "Winnie" and "Charlotte" here as well as all the books by such Cornellians as Pearl Buck, Toni Morrison, Vladimir Nabokov, Kurt Vonnegut and E.B. White that have been banned -- multiple times.

Consider the role that libraries and other parties play in vigorously protecting your and future readers' rights. The right to read is of critical importance to libraries, to the users they serve and to the ongoing health of a democracy. The written word is powerful indeed.

-- Anne R. Kenney, Carl A. Kroch University Librarian

Read more about Cornell University Library's observance of Banned Books Week in The Essentials at http://web.cornell.edu/blogs/theessentials/.

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