Banned books, intellectual freedom and truth

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Photo by Helen Maier

As the Dean of the Cowan-Blakley Memorial Library, I have the privilege of helping the library faculty and staff provide resources and services to support you, our students, in your research during your time here at the University of Dallas. We strive to provide information to help educate and inform you as you move through the Core, into your major and after you leave our beloved institution.  

I read with interest the piece in last week’s The University News about the Banned Books exhibit which is currently on display in the library. While I am grateful for the publicity, I would like to add some points of clarification.  

First, a detail about the arrangement. When we first created the display, the books were arranged chronologically by the latest date the item was challenged; the latest challenges to “Fifty Shades of Gray” was in 2013 and the Bible in 2015, hence their proximity in the display. 

This was an unfortunate placement, and the display has now been rearranged by decade, separating the items. However, we trust that viewers will appreciate why banning the Bible remains deeply problematic.

Next, the purpose of the library’s banned book display is not, as the author put it, to be “intentionally provocative, academically uninformative or odious to the liberal arts.”  

Banned Books Weeks is an annual event sponsored by the American Library Association which “spotlights current and historical attempts to censor books in libraries and schools.” Its purpose is to bring readers together “in shared support of the freedom to seek and to express ideas, even those some consider unorthodox or unpopular.”  

The basic tenants of the library and librarianship are that access to information and the freedom to read are crucial to a free society.

Banned Books Week started in the 1980s as a response to schools removing books from library shelves that the school deemed offensive. A group of students filed a lawsuit, claiming a violation of their First Amendment rights. The books that were removed?  Works that we, at UD, would likely consider classics – works by Evelyn Waugh, Richard Wright, Langston Hughes and John Steinbeck.  

The exhibit asks us to consider where we draw the line on which materials should be added to the library collection or put on display. 

 Should we remove works by Freud because he called religion a “mass delusion?” Should we exclude Nietzsche because he was an atheist? What about photos of Bernini sculptures because of their violence and nudity? Perhaps the first canticle of the Divine Comedy should be removed – as it was dangerous enough territory for Dante’s pilgrim and its language is quite obscene for those who read Italian. 

If  we were to remove every resource in the library (or in our curriculum) that someone deemed offensive, we might be surprised at how little is left.

One of the many brilliant things about the UD curriculum is our grounding in the truth. As stated in our mission statement: “[The university] is guided by principles of learning that acknowledge transcendent standards of truth and excellence that are themselves the object of search in an education.” Precisely because the university is confident in this truth, students and faculty are able to consider and debate issues that challenge our thinking.  

Without opportunities for this dialogue, the curriculum becomes a stagnant list of checkboxes to complete before graduation, with little opportunity for intellectual growth.

The breadth of UD’s educational vision was well characterized by its third president, Dr. Donald Cowan, whose name and vision are inseparable from our library. In his 1964 address at the start of the academic year, he described the Core curriculum, and indeed the entire UD education:  

“Committed to a religious creed, concerned about its civic society, dedicated to the formation of its students, engaged in the enterprise of recovering, preserving, and extending the culture, here we are – a community of scholars, locked – whether we wish it or not – in the bonds of charity, undivided by labels of conservative and liberal, unseparated by predilections for new liturgies and old forms, abjuring suspicion and resentment, avoiding slander and detraction, finding interest and insight in open arguments with our colleagues.”  

We in the Cowan–Blakley Memorial Library are proud to be a part of this education and look forward to our continued dialogue in pursuit of this truth we all hold dear.

Finally, I extend to all of you a welcome invitation to sit in my office, or in the Cap Bar over a cappuccino (my treat!) to discuss the library’s position on intellectual freedom or how we can support your research needs.  I look forward to our discussions.

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