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Finding freedom in the written word

fr bannedbooksDawn Gilchrist-Young doesn’t just read and teach books, she defends them.

As chair of the English department for Swain County High School, Gilchrist-Young is joining “Banned Books Weeks”, which is a nationwide celebration this week in honor of one of our greatest freedoms. 


The freedom to read.

“[The idea of banned books] means the constraining of ideas and thought, good or bad, based on rigid standards, whether liberal or conservative, therefore censorship ultimately means the constraining of human potential and the progression of thought,” Gilchrist-Young said.

Protected by the First Amendment in the Bill of Rights, the freedom of the press remains one of the strongest and most controversial of the rules and regulations granted by the founding fathers. Over the long and bumpy road of challenged books, the list may surprise some with the titles held accountable, which include The Great Gatsby, The Catcher in the Rye, The Grapes of Wrath, To Kill a Mockingbird and Gone with the Wind, among others.

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“Freedom of the press and written word are so important. I think that most Americans understand the basic reasons for a free press,” said Jeff Delfield, head librarian for the Marianna Black Library in Swain County. “However, even those who would defend a free press will challenge library books. There’s a sort of disconnect, like ‘Sure it’s OK for you to say or write this opinion you have, but it’s not OK for that opinion to end up inside a library.’”

According to the Library Bill of Rights (1939), the American Library Association states, “Libraries should provide materials and information presenting all points of view on current and historical issues. Materials should not be proscribed or removed because of partisan or doctrinal disapproval. Libraries should challenge censorship in the fulfillment of their responsibility to provide information and enlightenment.”

“As a librarian, I’m a strong believer in the freedom to read,” Delfield said. “My job is not to provide the ‘correct’ side of an issue but all sides. It’s a reader’s job to decide what’s correct for himself or herself.”

Applying that philosophy to her bookstore, Allison Lee, the co-owner of Blue Ridge Books in Waynesville, believes the biggest concern with banning books is that it hinders education.

“I think good teachers can use books, including those that some might find controversial or objectionable, to teach students to think critically,” she said. “Thinking critically, considering new ideas, arguments and forming one’s own opinions are skills that will continue to be important throughout one’s life.”

With many factors influencing the books stocked at Blue Ridge Books, Lee said the business has always aimed to be the bookstore the community needs, one that offers selections consumers may find appealing. She added they also put plenty of books on the shelves some might not like because variety is the name of the game.

“That’s not censorship; it’s business sense,” she said. 

Meanwhile, Gilchrist-Young is taking her celebration of the week to the classroom.

“I’m teaching students the way I always have, which is taking them and finding books that will pique their interest and stretch their minds, whatever those books may be,” she said. 

Upping the ante, the Marianna Black Library has created a special display of challenged books, which are wrapped in paper with only an explanation of the why the book was deemed controversial. Though you can guess at the title, those who take out the books won’t know the name until they get it home.

Delfield said there hasn’t been a book challenged locally in the last seven years, though 50 Shades of Grey did stir up some concern around the world this year. He also pointed to theft as a way some can censor what the library provides.

“We wonder sometimes if those books on those wizardry movies are gone because someone wanted the items all for themselves — or didn’t want anyone to have access to them,” he said. 

The school library system in Western North Carolina has continually acknowledged the importance of the freedom to read, with minimal clashing over what the teachers select to hand to their students. Gilchrist-Young reminds the public that even if things can be smooth sailing in our neck of the woods, we must realize it’s a privilege and hard-earned right to be able to grab for any book we choose. 

“Without it, and without a free and public education, and without a literate citizenry, there is no possibility of individual liberty or collective freedom,” she said.

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