Scott Henkel

Scott Henkel

I think that it’s a wise policy not to react to all the things that try to get my attention. If I felt the need to comment on every passing hullabaloo, I’d have little time for anything else, like reading, which is how I prefer to spend as much time as possible.

But it’s hard for me to keep quiet when people attack my right to read and attack those who help me to exercise that right: the people who work in our public libraries. It really starts to get into dangerous territory when attacking the right to read, and to think for ourselves, becomes a coordinated maneuver, here in Wyoming and around the country.

So here’s another wise policy: think for yourself, and let others do the same. That feels like common sense to me. (That was also the theme for the American Library Association’s Banned Books Week in 2010 – one of my favorites.) On the other hand, wanting books removed from public libraries or from the curriculum is like the unfortunate kind of neighbor who wants to tell you how to live your life.

If common sense doesn’t persuade everyone, here’s something that might. Right there in the Declaration of Independence, in the first sentence, is that all of us are equal. Not some of us, but all of us – all of us with our different colors and stripes, our different ways of looking at the world, every single one of us. Also in the first sentence of the Constitution, it talks about securing the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity. And, like, it’s a pattern, because it is – putting the important things first – the first amendment to that Constitution makes sure that speech will be free.

But, of course, even common sense and the law won’t stop a few folks from ignoring all of this. In those cases, President Lincoln, in a speech in 1857, said that the principle of equality, enshrined in those laws, would be “a stumbling block to all those who, in after times, might seek to turn a free people back into the hateful paths of despotism.” President Lincoln said that the people who wrote those laws “knew the proneness of prosperity to breed tyrants, and they meant when such should reappear in this fair land and commence their vocation, they should find left for them at least one hard nut to crack.”

What really worries me, though, is that we don’t live in times of prosperity. We live in stressful times. Some people can’t resist manipulating our very understandable fears about the pandemic, about our jobs and kids, in order to deprive us of our rights. Those manipulators love scapegoats, usually people who are different in some way. Those manipulators would love to make us forget the founding idea that we are all equal, every single one of us. How easy would it then be for them to say: “Remove that book from the library!”

But then, poof – our rights are gone, and yet those fears remain, because removing a book from a public library or from the curriculum doesn’t solve the things that cause our very real concerns in the first place. In fact, banning books makes it harder for us to solve those very real problems because we won’t be able to get good information about them.

So, the next time you hear someone wanting to tell you what you can and can’t read, what can and can’t be in a public library, remember that public librarians are among the people to protect some of our best rights, even if doing so makes some people uncomfortable. They serve the public – the whole public, not just a part of it, and that’s because of the self-evident truth that we are all equal.

The whole public! People who read literary classics, like me. People who read nerdy sci-fi (that’s me, too!); tawdry romance (yes, please!); books that I don’t want to read, but you do want to read. Books that have been banned and burned by tyrants and authoritarian regimes because they make people think, because they challenge authority (yes, absolutely!).

Just remember: think for yourself, and let others do the same.

Scott Henkel is the Wyoming Excellence Professor in the Humanities and the director of the Wyoming Institute for Humanities Research at the University of Wyoming.

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