According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, a librarian is a person who specializes “in the care or management of a library.” That definition is far too mechanical. It leaves out the larger role librarians play in our democracy, facilitating access to information and ideas and promoting and protecting a precious First Amendment right: the freedom to read.
No one took that role more seriously than Judith Krug, the trained librarian and director of the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom for more than four decades, who died Saturday at age 69. Defending the freedom to read from damaging assaults by censors in and out of government was her life’s work.
In a 2002 talk, Ms. Krug explained that the role of librarians is to bring people and information together. “We do this by making sure libraries have information and ideas across the spectrum of social and political thought, so people can choose what they want to read or view or listen to. Some users find materials in their local library collection to be untrue, offensive, harmful or even dangerous. But libraries serve the information needs of all of the people in the community not just the loudest, not just the most powerful, not even just the majority. Libraries serve everyone.”
Ms. Krug assisted countless local librarians and library trustees dealing with objections to library materials. She waged principled legal battles challenging both book and Internet censorship in libraries all the way to the Supreme Court. She stood up against an insidious portion of the 2001 Patriot Act that allowed government officials broad access to confidential library records and to secretly monitor what people read.
In 1982, during one of the nation’s periodic censorship epidemics, Ms. Krug established Banned Books Week, an annual celebration of authors, their literature and the Constitution’s system of free expression. She found reassurance in the perennial appearance of works like J. D. Salinger’s “Catcher in the Rye” and John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men” on the American Library Association’s list of the 10 most frequently challenged library books. “That means that censors, real and would-be, are not making the headway they think they are,” she said. “Books that matter are still in libraries.”