Judith Krug, Tireless Defender of the Freedom to Read, Has Died

April 13, 2009 04:00 PM
by Anita Gutierrez-Folch
Head of the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom and founder of its controversial Banned Books Week, Krug died April 11 after a long struggle with stomach cancer.

Advocating the Right to Read

Judith Krug, head of the ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom (OIF) since 1967 and director of the office’s Freedom to Read Foundation since 1969, died at Evanston Hospital in suburban Chicago. She was 69.

Throughout her career, Krug worked tirelessly to fight against literary censorship and to protect First Amendment freedoms. In 1982 she founded the ALA’s notorious Banned Books Week, an annual event celebrated during the last week of September. According to the ALA’s Web site, the purpose of this event is to remind “Americans not to take this precious democratic freedom for granted.”

Krug is survived by her husband, two children and five grandchildren.

Notable Accomplishments: A career devoted to free expression

In January, Krug was honored with the prestigious William J. Brennan, Jr. Award presented by the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression. The award, which recognizes those who are committed to advancing the principles of free expression, acknowledged Krug’s “remarkable commitment to the marriage of open books and open minds.” Krug is one of only five people to receive this award since its inception in 1993.

During her time at the ALA, and even in the face of personal criticism, Krug worked to protect and promote libraries as spaces for freedom of religion and expression without interference from the government. She was involved in several First Amendment cases that went to the United States Supreme Court. According to ALA Executive Director Keith Fiels, “[Krug’s] legacy is a lifetime of passionate commitment, advocacy and affirmative actions to protect the Constitutional rights of citizens granted under the First Amendment.”

Background: Krug’s life

Krug’s professional life was always tightly connected to the library world. After finishing her undergraduate studies at the University of Pittsburgh, Krug went on to earn an M.A. from the Graduate Library School of the University of Chicago. In 2005, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign granted her an honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters. Early in her career, she held posts at several libraries in Chicago, such as the John Crerar Library and the Northwestern University Dental School Library. She also worked as a research analyst for the American Library Association before taking her role at the OIF.

Related Topic: Banned books/book challenges

During the course of each year, the OIF receives a large number of book challenges, defined as “formal, written complaint[s] … requesting that materials be removed because of content or inappropriateness.” In the 2007-2008 period, the number of challenges reached 420. Krug explained that this number reflects only reported incidents, and for each reported incident, there are four or five others that go unreported.

Some of the challenged books in 2007-2008 included classics such as Maya Angelou’s “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” Toni Morrison’s “Beloved” and “The Bluest Eye,” John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men” and Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” The topics that condemn these publications are usually sex, violence, language, religion and racial issues.

Similarly, the banned and/or challenged books from the Radcliffe Publishing Course Top 100 Novels of the 20th Century include classics of American literary heritage such as F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby,” condemned because of its language and sexual references; J. D. Salinger’s “The Catcher in the Rye,” deemed unacceptably obscene; and Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird,” challenged for profanity and racism.

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