Professional Values, Jefferson’s Bible, and Censorship

Those of us in the academic and research library community look at censorship efforts in school libraries and public libraries with a range of emotions, from distaste to horror. Indeed, ACRL’s Standards for Libraries in Higher Education cites intellectual freedom as a professional value, noting that “The library resists all efforts to censor library resources.” Censorship in the academic library community, however, pales next to those efforts directed at many of our colleagues. Although we see relatively few direct attacks on our libraries, we can and should resist such calls for censorship in every part of the library ecosystem as part of our shared professional values articulated in the Standards.

According to ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, the Top 10 Most Challenged Books of 2020 include a number of titles banned and challenged for their inclusion of LGBTQIA+ content and anti-racism sentiments. These challenges stand diametrically opposed to ACRL’s Core Commitment to Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion, which states that “The Association will acknowledge and address historical racial inequities; challenge oppressive systems within academic libraries; value different ways of knowing; and identify and work to eliminate barriers to equitable services, spaces, resources, and scholarship.” Standing in solidarity with our school and public library colleagues in the fight against censorship is a way we can collectively live that Core Commitment by ensuring that a variety of voices, especially those that have been historically underrepresented, are available in our libraries.

Jim Neal, former ALA president and long-time supporter of ACRL, phrased it nicely when he stated that academic librarians have a unique voice and should speak loudly about why reading a wide range of books from multiple perspectives matters greatly. To quote him, “Colleges and universities, and their academic libraries, expect their students to be exposed to a diversity of ideas and to have available in their school and public libraries books and resources that deal with equity, inclusion, and social justice.”

Since academic and research libraries exist for their users, it is essential that we help these users understand the consequences of censorship in our society so that they can stand up in school board meetings, speak to their legislators, write op eds, and carry the banner of free expression with confidence. To help in those efforts, we can look to our past to inform our present.

Thomas Jefferson’s The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth (commonly called Jefferson’s Bible) is Jefferson’s attempt to make the New Testament more acceptable to his way of thinking. In a literal cut and paste job, he went through the New Testament and excised mention of miracles and other supernatural events, stories that did not square with his rational view of the world. He made no secret of his efforts and there were some who feared that this suspected atheist might push his heretical views onto the population. They needn’t have worried. The book was for Jefferson’s personal use, and he would have resisted any effort to make his version of the New Testament the official voice.

Jefferson wrestled mightily with many events in his life, thinking deeply about almost everything that passed over his desk, and a superb portrayal of his complexity can be seen in Annette Gordon-Reed’s and Peter S. Onuf’s biography, Most Blessed of the Patriarchs. He directed his rare talent to forming the United States but he also bought and sold enslaved individuals. Though he deeply admired the morals espoused by Jesus he, as all of us have, failed in living them. As one commentator put it, Jefferson himself would have admitted that he was equal parts sun and shadow. We cannot know the man without seeing his shadow.

I urge all of you, as part of the ACRL community, to resist efforts at censorship as espoused in the Standards for Libraries in Higher Education, ACRL’s Core Commitment to EDI, and our shared professional values as a whole. This focus provides a way for us to stand with the library community, while also doing our part as informed and disciplined citizens as we work to instill those values in our students.