The Fight Against Restricted Access to Information: An Interview with Emily J.M. Knox

If you remember, back in early 2016 I wrote one of my very first posts about my personal challenge with balancing radical anti-neutral librarianship and intellectual freedom, and how this played out when I was weeding a specialized collection. I still think a lot about this issue, but I feel like my views have slightly changed since writing that. You can thank Professor Emily J.M. Knox for that.


Professor Emily J.M. Knox

Emily J.M. Knox is one of my professors at the UIUC iSchool, and she’s also one of the leading scholars and advocates of intellectual freedom. She is incredibly active in the Freedom to Read Foundation and the National Coalition Against Censorship, as well as the ALA Office for Intellectual Freedom. You can read more of her scholarship in her book Book Banning in 21st Century America.

This post is an interview I conducted with Professor Knox in response to a keynote she gave at Mt. Prospect library recently about book challenges, and in response to some recent book challenges in our country.

JC: Thank you! One of the reasons I’m doing this is inspired by Mt. Prospect, and there have been some book challenges recently, so I wanted to hear what somebody who does this for a living had to say about it, and what sort of advice you would give to library school students. Can you tell me a little bit about why you research banned books and challenged books? What drew you to it?

EK: I’ve always loved studying banned books. My mom was a high school librarian, and when I was in elementary school, she would bring me home the banned books. I was always just really upset about my favorite books getting banned, and it’s always been something I’ve been interested in.

I’ve always been curious to understand why people engage in symbolic acts. By banning a book, you’re not actually removing the information that’s available. You’re saying something about the information. So unless it’s banned by your government or something, and the government also shuts down any other methods of getting that information, then those ideas still flow around.

I knew that was something I wanted to study at some point in my life, and then when I got my PhD I realized that, I knew I wanted to study people who banned books, I just needed to know more about like, what sort of theories and what would give explanatory power to something like that.

JC: What are some of the most common reasons you see that people challenge books?

EK: The reasons that people give are different from the most common reasons, I would say. So, usually in this country people challenge books for reasons like sex, that’s really one of the main ones. Language is a big one, drugs. So those are the reasons that are given, those are what I call “stated reasons.”

The actual reasons why people challenge books are issues of control. It’s actually about, “I feel like I’m losing control of my children (usually), so what can I do to make sure that I can continually impose my own values on my children. And the way I can do that is by making sure that not only do they not read this, but also the kids that they interact with don’t give them ideas that I disagree with.” So, it’s really about reading.

This is my main thrust of my research is that people ban books because reading is so powerful, and can in fact change who you are as a person. We’ve all read books that have really profoundly changed us, had an impact on us. And that’s really what banning books is about. It’s not actually about the sex and the drugs and the rock ‘n’ roll. It’s really about wanting to make sure that your children, your community, agrees with you on what is the right thing to do in society, and that’s not only impossible, but this is one way to hope that happens.

JC: You are probably familiar with this, but a school district in Virginia removed, but then reinstated because enough people complained and signed petitions, two books, Huck Finn and To Kill a Mockingbird, because they contained racial slurs, and this made me think about one of my very first HLS posts where I talked about weeding something from a very specialized collection that I didn’t think belonged in that collection because it was inherently harmful to trans women, and sort of the dilemma I had with that. Librarians and educators, we get so passionate and we’re so into encouraging people to read whatever they want, and we celebrate books that have been banned. We have Banned Books Week, we have all the swag that says “I read banned books” or “I’m with the banned,” yet I remember seeing reports of school libraries banning Fifty Shades of Grey and a lot of librarians being like “oh don’t read that, that’s terrible” because both that it is just terribly written but also because people thought that it encouraged violence towards women and unhealthy relationships. So it seems like, I don’t know if I’d call it a double standard or if it is, but we suddenly find it okay when we agree with the reason. Can you speak on that?

EK: Yes. So, this goes into a lot of different issues. Whenever you add something into your collection, the first thing to remember is the mission of your institution. Different institutions have different missions. It might make sense for you to remove something in your collection because it doesn’t fit with the mission of your institution.

There’s a current textbook controversy that’s essentially about “happy slaves” in Connecticut, and it makes sense to have that textbook withdrawn because the mission of a school is to educate, especially when you have a textbook for students to understand what the facts of slavery have been in our country. And if the textbook doesn’t actually tell that in a truthful manner, then it doesn’t make sense for the school to have that textbook.

The mission of a public library is different. The mission of a public library is to provide materials for both education and play, to a wide variety of people. It’s important for a public library to have things that yes you might not agree with, because in fact what you are doing is providing these materials across the spectrum for different reasons. And those reasons are reasons you might not know what they are.

The interesting thing about when this happens is that it once again shows us how all of us believe that reading is powerful. So, why would you say that someone shouldn’t read Fifty Shades of Grey. It’s for the same reason that someone would say that you shouldn’t read The Perks of Being a Wallflower. It’s because you believe that in some ways this book will be harmful to the people who read it. My own feeling is that you can never know that. I have an article on how in fact our ideas about intellectual freedom are based in reader response theory, which is that everybody brings their own baggage to reading. You can never know what that baggage is, and it’s not your job as a librarian to infer what someone’s baggage is, to say that “I know what’s best for you.” And also this only happens to certain people. I think this is another way to think about it. There is a lot of material out there for men that is very damaging, but very rarely do we see people get upset about that. It’s generally women and children who seem to have what Cathy Davidson calls an “undisciplined imagination.” They “aren’t able to process what they read as well as men do.” I have never seen a thriller on the banned books list. Ever. No one talks about how violent some of those thrillers can be, and what sort of toxic images they have. It’s only books for certain people that have this designation. So what I ask people to do is to think about, before you make this decision, think about who you’re not making that decision for. Why do these people need your help to make decisions about their reading, and other people don’t. Is it that you don’t trust them to make good decisions about their lives? Is it that you might think they will be completely harmed by what they’re reading? But who are you not making that decision for, and why? That’s what I always think about in these situations.

And it is difficult when there is harmful material out there. One thing I never say is that reading cannot harm people. It absolutely can. But in some ways you have to trust your fellow human beings to make decisions about what does and what does not harm them. But what people who work with children talk about is that kids often know when a book is not good for them to read, they’ll put it down, they’ll say “I don’t wanna read this.” And actually adults do the same thing! If I feel like something is not for me to read, I will put it down. Now of course this is where things work a little bit differently, this is where I talk about the missions in schools, because of course schools have a coercion effect, to say that you must read this. In effect, what those schools are saying is that in order to be an educated person, to have social capital, you need to read some of these books. It works a little bit differently, and this is why I always say you need to know the mission of your institution.

JC: Okay. So, I feel like this is related, but you might not, I don’t know. I’ve seen a lot of support actually, and the support is sort of surprising but I guess not in a way, of Facebook and Google banning “fake news.” I feel like this is related somehow, and it actually really worries me to see people supporting that, because it’s companies getting to decide what’s “real” and what isn’t. Do you think that comes from the same impulse to remove harmful books, and do you think librarians should care about this?

EK: Absolutely we should. This has been worrying me too. But I actually say take a step backward, which is that we should never have allowed Facebook and Google to take on these roles in our society in the first place. What I talk about in my Information Policy class is that in fact, these new companies act as utilities in our life. They are essentially like the electricity in our lives. I don’t have days where I don’t look at Facebook, or do something on Google. Or turn on a light. It’s sort of at that point in my life. We especially see it with Amazon, which operates a little bit differently. It worries me also that, when Facebook said, well we’re gonna have people start curating our news, people got upset about it, because in fact, I am a believer that facts have a liberal bias, and when you are looking at real news, that in fact what you’ll see are things that won’t hold up with conspiracy theories. It just doesn’t work that way.

But as librarians, the job is to work for information literacy, and to hold news agencies accountable. One thing I work on in my own work is something called mapping information access. We’re looking at how many schools filter information for students. If you’re filtering everything they see on their Chromebooks, how are they ever going to learn anything about how to use social media? I understand why schools do it. I completely understand. It’s a great classroom management tool. It’s a way of keeping yourself out of controversy. But in fact it does a disservice to the students to say “no you can’t use Facebook.” Well then, how are they gonna know what’s real and not real on their feed? How are we supposed to teach people these things?

I completely agree with you that saying, well Facebook should do this, is problematic. It is giving a lot of control to these companies, and we should always be wary of doing that. Especially because the companies are very opaque. I don’t know what’s happening at Facebook. More than likely I’d agree with whatever they did, because that’s who I am. But we should always be aware of that. And if you are a librarian, library school student, really this is what we should be thinking about in the future, making sure that people understand how these things work. Thinking about algorithms and how they actually are socially constructed and show who is writing them. The idea that somehow things are more real if they come from a computer.

JC: And that’s been a problem since the Victorian era, at least. “Oh no, we have typewriters now! This is awful!”

EK: That’s a good point! Taking the long view on this, that in fact this is something you’ve had to worry about for a long time. What I actually think, with news media, is that we should go back to how it was when every news organization had a very clear political point of view. I mean, there’s no reason to pretend that you are neutral when you are not. It’s not possible to be neutral on the news. So take your position and be up front about it. That’s not something that Facebook and Google can do though.

JC: I know one reason why I find this topic so tricky and I care a lot about it too even though it’s not anywhere near my main focus as a librarian, is because I am so passionately anti librarians and libraries as neutral spaces. Do you think that allowing harmful materials or stuff like that, is that just being neutral, or is it more complicated than that?

EK: I think it’s more complicated. I mean, allowing harmful materials is inherently not neutral. To me, what it says is that…I mean, I take a very classically liberal stance on access to information, which is that I want to know what other people are saying about me. I want to know what the other side thinks. And if librarians decide that I don’t have the mental capacity to handle what other people think, then how am I every going to be able to respond to them?

The thing is, everybody might not be able to do that. There are some people who are like “I cannot handle text that is harmful to me.” But what’s harmful to them might not be harmful to me. And how can I be a good ally if I can’t read about it. I just don’t know how that would work. We’ve been talking a lot this election season about people being in bubbles. And to me, this is about being in a bubble. In order to not be in a bubble, sometimes you have to read things that are painful. I’m not saying that you should subject yourself to things that are traumatic to you all the time. There are people who are constantly doing this, and it’s putting them in a state of anxiety. That’s not really what I mean.

What I mean is that the public library’s job is to supply not both sides but many different sides of whatever issue is out there. You don’t have to be balanced, but you should allow people in your community the freedom to essentially make up their own minds. And you might not like where they come out in the end, but that’s not going to change if you don’t allow them to read.

I’m always wary of paternalism. We’re only paternal towards certain types of people. I would prefer that I get to make those decisions for myself, and not have other people make those decisions for me. But I understand that it’s difficult. There are people who are like “my family only listens to Fox News.” But I don’t know if they would change their minds if you took away Fox News. I don’t know if that’s actually the answer. I think this is difficult, but…well, I said in that talk [at Mt. Prospect] that the KKK was coming [to Skokie, IL], and how can you respond to the KKK if you don’t know what they believe. And some people would say that’s a platform. I don’t see it as a platform. I see it as a way of becoming educated, of knowing more about my fellow citizens. And that might be work that everybody can’t do, but there will be someone in your community who needs to do that work.

JC: My final question, and you sort of answered this, is what advice would you have for LIS students or new professionals regarding this sort of censorship, of banning and challenging information and information access?

EK: So I’ll give my easy ones, which is to join the Freedom to Read Foundation, of which I am a board member, and the National Coalition Against Censorship, and the ACLU. These are the organizations that really do the work, and they need your support. But as an LIS student, I’ll say a couple of things.

First of all, take a practicum and learn what the policies are for that institution that you’re working for. Is the mission embedded in those policies? You can’t make any changes as a student, but think about what that means as you’re working through your internship or practicum. I encourage everyone to take a class or a webinar on intellectual freedom and censorship. Listen to the stories of people who’ve been through this. There’s a great book that I have my students read called True Stories of Censorship Battles in America’s Libraries, and you’ll see how complicated these issues are.

Know that if something comes up wherever you work, that making the best choice might be a choice that protects you and the institution, not necessarily the information. You have to decide how much of a risk you’re going to take. That might change over time, you might have a mortgage, you know. The things you’re willing to do are going to be different. You have to decide what you can do for your own mental health, and it might be different in different situations.

Know that there are people out there to support you. Always call the Office for Intellectual Freedom. You can always call the National Council for Teachers of English. There are people who are willing to talk to you anytime about things you might be going through.

Keep informed of these issues. Know what books are being challenged, because it tends to go in cycles. You’ll see certain books come up, and then they’ll go down, and then they’ll come back. That’s really what I would say for library school students.

I mean, I’m just a policy person. I think it’s really important to think about…what’s happening with some of my students is they’ll go and get a job, and it’s like “we don’t have any policies!” Guess it’s your job to write them! It’s just a starting place, but it helps you to communicate to the public what the mission of your institution is. And it will be different in different places.

It’s really just learn as much as you can about what you think information access is, for whatever you plan to do in your future career. If that means providing really good cataloging,  that’s what that means. If that means learning more about budgets, whatever, it can be all sorts of things. But you have to think through what you think you’ll be doing in your career in the future, and learning how to take our values seriously. How that plays in your professional life, which might be different than your personal life.

JC: Basically the summary I’m getting here is that policies are great and you should have them.

EK: Yes! I’m a big policy believer. It’s one of those things when you realize you don’t have a policy, it can all fall apart. So this isn’t even about information access, but like having a gift policy. I’m always seeing people on Facebook saying, “I’ll give all my books to the library!” And I was like no!

JC: We have so many people at the main [reference] desk going, “I have this book, can I give it to you?” And I’m like, “nope.”

EK: Right! You need to be able to say no, and that’s what a policy allows you to do. If someone says, “I have this book I wanna take off the shelf,” you can say no. And you don’t want to say that as a person, you want to say that as the institution.

And that’s one of the best things you can do, is to think about our values and how they play out in the community that you’re working in.

5 replies

  1. Thanks for sharing Prof. Knox’s work. The part about would-be censors focusing on certain people (women, children) who they think should have decisions made for them — I have not come across this argument before and it’s very powerful.


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