THE unfettered circulation of ideas is fundamental to a democratic society: The more thoughtful and better informed the citizenry, the wiser decisions they will make as voters. Since the 15th-century days of Gutenberg, books have been a prime means for spreading ideas; they remain so in this electronic era, despite the extraordinary influence of television.
Yet the free circulation of books is under increasing attack in the United States; critics want some of them banned from library shelves, on grounds that in various ways they are offensive or undesirable. More than half the librarians who responded to a survey by the American Library Association say they experienced some form of censorship pressure in a recent year; three-fourths of the challenges today are to books in school libraries. A large percentage of the challenges come from organized local grou ps.
The books under attack include not only contemporary works but also classics, including ``Gone With the Wind'' and ``Of Mice and Men.''
Adults and students at appropriate grade levels should be allowed to benefit from a book's ideas at the small risk of their reading language or views that are less than ideal. Teachers can discuss questionable passages, and librarians can see that material which requires a certain maturity is not made available to the very young.
Materials that are grossly lewd and without redeeming value, such as some of today's slick magazines, are a different issue, but this is not an area at which the censorship attack is aimed.
Censorship assaults are nothing new; over the years efforts have risen and fallen to ban books, plays, and even movies that someone deemed offensive. The censorship trend should be resisted today, as it was in prior times.
Once censorship efforts take hold they can snowball, putting exceptionally meritorious works at risk. At various times the writings of arguably two of the finest English writers in history have come under attack from book-banners: William Shakespeare and Geoffrey Chaucer. Yet who now would seriously argue that students should be prevented from gaining familiarity with their works?
Today a continuing need exists for worthwhile and responsible literature for young children. And libraries ought to be given sufficient funds, despite the financial strictures of the times, to permit them to acquire meritorious works for their readers. Some city libraries, for example, have unfortunate gaps in their collections, as the financial squeeze that began more than a decade ago has prohibited the acquisition of many new works.