People often envision librarians with a severe stare, pursed lips and an overbearing insistence on silence. But most librarians see themselves as fighters and even though they may not look like warriors, they are on the front lines of a cultural war over censorship.
These cultural combatants held council Saturday at the Missouri Association of School Librarians’ fall conference at the Holiday Inn Select Executive Center where they introduced an unlikely ally — a senior editor at MAD magazine.
Gayla Strack, the second vice president of the association, said that having a MAD editor speak makes sense because the theme of the conference is censorship.
“We live in dangerous times for the First Amendment,” MAD editor Joe Raiola said. “Since when do we amend the Constitution to avoid hurting people’s feelings?”
In 1984, Raiola started writing comedy for National Lampoon and moved to MAD magazine in 1985, working his way up to the editorial staff, known as the “Usual Gang of Idiots.” He also gives his presentation called “The Joy of Censorship” at colleges, universities, public libraries and to other groups that work on First Amendment issues.
He told the 200 librarians at the conference about one of his first experiences with censorship.
In third grade, Raiola’s class was given an assignment to write a word beginning with the letter “h” 10 times. He picked “hell.” As the news of his choice spread around the classroom and reached the teacher’s ears, he hastily tagged each “hell” with an “o.”
“Free speech is not free,” Raiola said. “You pay the price even in the third grade. I was not ready to pay that price, so I censored myself. Culturally in America we are still in the third grade.”
People lined up to meet Raiola after his presentation to get their MAD issues signed, be photographed with him and exchange a few words. Overall the crowd’s reaction was positive.
One librarian, Curtis Clark, said some of his comments were “right on target.”
“I think that in a lot of cases we forget how important the First Amendment is and how integral it is to our society,” he said. “It is the first and foremost of our freedoms.”
Raiola encouraged the librarians to head once more into the breach.
“You are in a very unique position,” Raiola said, “to get the right book in a young person’s hands at the right time. You are on the front lines of a culture war. You should err on the side of giving people choice.”