Jerry Falwell, Judith Krug, and the Origins of ‘Banned Books Week’

America, 1981: Ronald Reagan was sworn in as president, MTV aired its first video, and the culture wars were on. That January, the Rev. Jerry Falwell—a televangelist-turned-political-kingmaker who essentially invented the religious right as we know it today—had sent a massive direct mailing to his Moral Majority constituency, urging readers to examine their school libraries and textbooks for “immoral, anti-family and anti-American content,” and to bring indiscretions to the attention of the Moral Majority. The American Library Association, which had long tracked complaints about attempts at book censorship, was reporting soaring numbers. Enter our heroine, Judith Krug, and the origins of Banned Books Week.

As censorship complaints continued to metastasize, Krug, who was then the Director of the ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom (a position she held from 1967 until her death in 2009), fought back in 1982, working to create a national Banned Books Week to draw attention to the issue. From The New York Times’ original coverage in September 1982:

To alert people about the need to preserve “freedom to read,” a national coalition has designated this week as Banned Books Week. The aim is to encourage resistance by communities against efforts to suppress books. The coalition includes the American Booksellers Association, the American Library Association and the National Association of College Stores.

Judith P. Krug, director of the office of intellectual freedom of the American Library Association, said: “An atmosphere conducive to censorship hovers over the country. The trouble is not simply the present Administration’s tolerance of such censorial groups as the Moral Majority—it’s more than just a cause-and-effect thing. Rather, I really believe these censors are searching for something unreal—the good old days. It’s ‘Alice in Wonderland’ thinking.”

”Last year the Moral Majority sent out letters signed by its leader, Jerry Falwell, ‘suggesting’ that certain books might be inappropriate for some students to check out of libraries. They claim this isn’t censorship -but the climate they create surely encourages vigilantism.”

Known as a fiery defender of the first amendment and a fierce warrior for libraries, Krug’s fingerprints “are literally on every case having to do with library freedom.” She was a leader in the fight against internet censorship in the 1990’s, and later was among the first to publicly criticize the USA Patriot Act.  “Some users find materials in their local library collection to be untrue, offensive, harmful or even dangerous,” Krug explained in a 2002 talk. “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.”