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She's With the Banned

Judith Krug

By Anna Ditkoff | Posted 12/30/2009

If you've read The Catcher in the Rye or The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, you might have librarian Judith Krug to thank. Hell, if you've used the dictionary--which has actually been removed from school library shelves for bad language--you should light a candle for Krug, the patron saint of not caving to censorship.

Krug, née Fingeret, grew up in the Pittsburgh area with parents who didn't believe in stifling children's interests. When her mother found a young Krug reading a book about sex with a flashlight in the dark, she simply requested Krug turn on the light so she didn't hurt her eyes. She married in the early 1960s and had two children of her own, to whom her anti-censorship stance also applied. "I didn't care what my kids read as long as they were reading," she told the Chicago Tribune in 2002.

Krug became the director of the American Library Association's Office for Intellectual Freedom at its founding in 1967, and two years later helped create the Freedom to Read Foundation, an independent group that provides funding for legal aid in First Amendment cases. For the next 40 years, Krug fought tirelessly to block censorship at every turn.

It may not seem like such a big deal--who bans books these days, right? It turns out a lot of people try. In 1982, as the evangelical Christian group the Moral Majority came into prominence, there were more than 1,000 attempts to remove books from libraries; the number is currently in the 500 range each year. But it isn't just the Christian Right that wants to take books off the shelves. The Left has complained about the use of the n-word in Huckleberry Finn and the misogyny of American Psycho.

Some of the books that people have tried to ban include the Harry Potter series, Of Mice and Men, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, and Brave New World. Krug even got a complaint about a sewing pattern book called Making It With Mademoiselle, because the title sounded dirty. In 1982, she founded Banned Books Week to promote awareness and celebrate the fact that these and thousands of other books are still available.

Keeping books on shelves wasn't Krug's only fight. She stood up against a 1996 attempt to censor the internet in libraries, seeing the medium's importance at a time when only about 20 percent of households in the United States had internet access. The fight went all the way to the Supreme Court, where a statute prohibiting "indecent" materials from being transmitted online was struck down, though a later battle against filters blocking objectionable materials on library computers was less successful. And when the Patriot Act was passed in October 2001, Krug and her fellow librarians stood up and said no--and not in a quiet library voice, either--insisting that the government should not have access to library records.

Krug died on April 11 from stomach cancer at age 69. Hopefully, others will fight as hard and as successfully as she did, because the right to free speech is under-appreciated and frighteningly fragile. As Krug told The Washington Post in 1981, "I hate to say it, but I'm not sure we could pass the First Amendment today in this country."

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