Photo of VCU's Cabell Library with the lights on at night.

VCU Libraries wins an inaugural Intellectual Freedom Award from the Virginia Library Association

Projects related to Banned Book Week and the comic arts highlight how creative expression and censorship intersect in the past and present.

VCU Libraries received an inaugural Intellectual Freedom Award from the Virginia Library Association for "creative and visually impactful” work. (File photo)
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With book bans surging nationwide, VCU Libraries has been honored with an inaugural Intellectual Freedom Award from the Virginia Library Association for projects that engage students and other patrons on issues of expression and censorship.

The award in the academic category, presented at the association’s annual conference in late October, cites VCU Libraries for programming related to Banned Book Week early that month as well as the Jurgen Comics Contest and the ongoing exhibit “Ink & Rebellion: The Evolution of Censorship in Comics.”

The awards committee cited the “creative and visually impactful” approach of the projects, which together highlight the intersection of art, social norms, industry standards, censorship and self-censorship – channeled through a lens freedom of expression and freedom to read.

* Freedom to Read popups were installed in the library lobbies on the academic and medical campuses of Virginia Commonwealth University in the first week of October, with collections of banned or challenged books and a five-day schedule of whiteboard prompts inviting student responses. Select titles were blinded by wrapping them in brown paper covers, which included information about the challenges. The popups also featured nonfiction selections on intellectual freedom and censorship.

In these heavily trafficked lobbies, student engagement was high. Walk-in patrons for the week numbered 52,738, and of the 113 items pulled for the event, 43 were checked out. At 38%, this is a significant checkout rate for an academic library, where leisure reading is not a priority for most patrons. In addition, whiteboard engagement was steady, with 405 total responses. The most engagement (140 responses) was with the question: “What book changed your life?”

* The Jurgen Comics Contest, now in its third year, invites VCU students to choose an incident of art suppression or censorship and create a single-page comic that tells a story, or explores important issues, of the event. By challenging students to investigate and relate historic controversies through art of their own creation, VCU Libraries is emphasizing comics as an important medium of expression and social commentary, and as a subject for study and preservation. The university’s extensive Comics Arts Collection, which is housed in Special Collections and Archives, is renowned worldwide.

Contest winners receive cash prizes from $250 to $1,000, and artwork is exhibited in VCU’s James Branch Cabell Library and online, as well as published as a tangible memento in print newspapers reminiscent of the golden age of the “Sunday funnies.” Entries for the 2023 contest were due Oct. 31, and winning artwork will be displayed in the library and on its 25-by-25-foot external screen in early 2025. Previous entries and winners published online have been downloaded more than 900 times across the world.

* The “Ink & Rebellion” exhibit traces the history of censorship in comics, from establishment of the Comics Code Authority to the rise of underground comix, criminal censorship cases, challenged depictions of real-world events and bans of contemporary graphic novels. Located in Cabell Library and open to the public through the 2023-24 year, the exhibit showcases rare and inspiring materials from VCU’s Comic Arts Collection. “Ink & Rebellion” aligns with goals of the Jurgen Comics Contest as it moves viewers from specific examples of censorship to larger discussions of comics as artistic expression and as provocative platforms for what some consider dangerous ideas.