Virginia Libraries Association honors VCU Libraries with Intellectual Freedom Award

October 24, 2023

VCU Libraries was chosen as the academic category recipient of the Virginia Library Association’ inaugural Intellectual Freedom award. Our nomination included   Banned Book Week activities as well as the Jurgen Comics Contest and Special Collections and Archives’ new exhibit. “Ink & Rebellion: The Evolution of Censorship in Comics.”

The nomination and award lauded various VCU Libraries activities in support of intellectual freedom. 

With censorship and book bans surging nationwide, VCU Libraries promoted combined interactive student-focused outreach programs and debuted a new exhibit as part of a Banned Book Week observance. (Round-up) In addition to a five-day daily schedule of whiteboard prompts inviting students' responses and a display of banned books, VCU Libraries used the history of comics and censorship as a lens to focus a months-long exploration of freedom of expression and the freedom to read. VCU Libraries Banned Books Week programming has been further amplified in media outlets including VCU News and Radio IQ and the Capitol News Service. Student journalists also covered the week in class assignments and for student media. Photos of the display  and YouTube VCU Banned Books Week for VCU InSigh

Together, the Jurgen Comics Contest and the exhibit “Ink & Rebellion: The  Evolution of Censorship in Comicsfoster students' engagement and consideration of  comics and graphic novels at the intersection of artistic freedom, social norms, industry standards, censorship and self-censorship. 

“Ink & Rebellion” traces a history of censorship in comics, from the establishment of the Comics Code Authority to the rise of underground comix, criminal censorship cases, challenged depictions of real-world events and contemporary graphic novel bans. Located in James Branch Cabell Library and open to the public, the exhibit showcases rare, interesting, and inspiring materials drawn from VCU’s extensive Comic Arts Collection housed in Special Collections and Archives. The exhibit runs throughout 2023-24.  

“Ink & Rebellion” aligns strongly with the goals of the Jurgen Comics Contest as it moves viewers from specific examples of censorship to larger discussions of comics as both artistic expression and provocative platforms for what some have viewed as dangerous ideas. 

The third annual Jurgen Comics Contest invites VCU students to choose an incident of art suppression or censorship and create a single-page comic telling a story or exploring the important issues of the event. Contest winners will receive cash prizes from $250 to $1,000, along with digital and print publication. By challenging students to investigate and relate historic controversies through comics of their own creation, VCU Libraries asserts the value of comics as a medium of expression and social commentary, and as a subject for study and preservation. Winning student artwork from previous years is exhibited in James Branch Cabell Library and online, and published as a tangible memento in print newspapers reminiscent of the golden age of "Sunday funnies." Entries for the 2023 contest are due Oct. 31. Winning entries will be displayed in the library building and on its 25x25-feet external screen in early 2025. Previous entries and winners published online have been downloaded more than 900 times from across the world.

Freedom To Read Pop-Up Libraries were displayed in both Library lobbies on both the academic and medical campuses. The popups featured titles that have been banned or challenged as well as nonfiction selections on intellectual freedom and censorship. Select banned titles were blinded by wrapping them in brown paper covers which included information about the challenges. Because the displays were located in heavily trafficked areas, student engagement was high. Walk-in patrons for the week numbered 52,738.  Of the 113 items pulled for the event, 43 were checked out (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 responses total. The most engagement was in response to the question “What book changed your life?” with 140 responses. 

The committee commended VCU Libraries with these words: “Your displays and student contest highlighting how comics have been censored through the ages was creative and visually impactful."

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