Oceana Wilson, Dean of the Library, on Banned Books Week
Banned Books Week is October 1-7, 2023. We checked in with Dean of the Library Oceana Wilson to learn more about what Banned Books Week means to her.
Banned Books Week seems increasingly important. Is that your sense? How so?
That’s absolutely correct. It is increasingly important and urgent. The American Library Association recorded over 1,900 attempts to ban books this year in the United States. That’s the highest number in the twenty years that they’ve been collecting data and represents a 20% increase from 2022. Many librarians are anticipating that 2024, being an election year, will see even more banning attempts. What is most critical to understand about these banning attempts is that the vast majority of these books were written by or about members of the LGBTQIA+ and BIPOC communities. These banning attempts are aimed at erasing people, communities, and histories.
The theme this year is "Let Freedom Read." What does that mean to you?
The freedom to decide, as an individual, what to read, think, and write is fundamental to democracy, and public libraries are one of the greatest manifestations of democracy that exist.
I think of the theme as a reclamation of the idea of patriotism being about civil liberties for all, contrasting that idea with banning books, which historically is an activity of totalitarian regimes.
My undergraduate faculty advisor, an amazing teacher and person, was imprisoned and tortured for eight years by a military regime before being freed with the help of Amnesty International and coming to the United States. He said his novels being removed from bookstores was the first warning sign he observed before his arrest. It’s a haunting image. I carry his story in my heart, and it has shaped my understanding that banning books exists on a continuum of oppression.
What is your favorite banned book, and why is it important to you?
I think this has varied throughout my life. At this moment, Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis feels like a critical book to revisit as we mark the one-year anniversary of the death of Mahsa Amini. There have been attempted bans on so many authors I admire, Sandra Cisneros, Ray Bradbury, Alison Bechdel, Toni Morrison, Khaled Hosseini, Kurt Vonnegut, James Baldwin, Luis Alberto Urrea, Margaret Atwood, and others, that it feels impossible to select a single book.
How are you observing Banned Books Week this year?
Crossett Library will have the thirteen most challenged books of 2022 on display and available for checkout. We’ll also have “I Read Banned Books” buttons for everyone. The Intellectual Freedom Committee of the Vermont Library Association will issue a press release to increase awareness in the media this week. Currently, Vermont Lt. Governor David Zuckerman is on a banned book reading tour to raise awareness of this issue, which is fantastic. Personally, I try to read or reread a banned book in October, sometimes even a children’s book like Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are, to reflect on the value of these books and the meaning they have in my life.
What can students and members of the public do to support "freedom of reading," so to speak?
There are many ways to support this: reading and talking about banned books, writing letters to the editor of local papers, serving on public school boards, donating to public libraries, participating in Amnesty International's Write for Rights, protesting against book banning attempts, supporting Rep. Jamie Raskin and Sen. Brian Schatz’s resolution recognizing Banned Books Week and condemning the escalating attacks on books, and learning about activities of the organizations at the forefront of this work, including the American Library Association and Pen America / Pen International.
Oceana Wilson is the dean of the Library at Bennington College, where she has worked since 2001, and the president of the Vermont Library Association. She has worked at the Massachusetts Historical Society, the Rhode Island Historical Society Library, the Providence Athenaeum, Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, and the Rhode Island School of Design and earned her master's degree in Library and Information Science from the Graduate School of Information and Library Science at Simmons College. She is the winner of the Carnegie Corporation of New York / New York Times "I Love My Librarian" Award for Outstanding Community Service and a Rebecca B. Stickney Award for service to Bennington College.