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Think Banned Books Are About Books? Think Again!

Updated: Jul 26, 2023

Libraries in schools and communities are becoming battlegrounds in a push to censor books. Efforts to censor books are intensifying. Attacks on books, libraries, and librarians are escalating. Books are being banned, budgets slashed, librarians harassed, and public libraries are threatened for closure. Record book ban attempts were reported last year. 2022 South Carolina School Librarian of the Year, Jamie Gregory, has been called a “pedophile” and “groomer,” bombarded with private messages threatening harm, accused of distributing pornography in schools, and had her personal address posted on social media. Libraries are receiving violent threats. Communities have voted to de-fund their public libraries. We need to mobilize to protect diversity of thought and intellectual freedom.

98% of Americans love their public libraries and 71% of voters oppose efforts to ban books from public libraries. Our local communities need to build a vocal and energized anti-censorship movement! The American Library Association affirms the role of libraries as an open forum for information and ideas to guide the freedom to read and privacy of all community members. Libraries have always been a battleground for control over what books provide “appropriate” knowledge. The earliest American libraries were established to mold the character of affluent White men. Then books and libraries were seen as vehicles to promote civility and middle-class values. In the early 20th century, public libraries were ‘key partners’ in the Americanization movement to educate immigrants on how to be patriotic and most importantly, how to blend in. Single individuals and small, energized groups who believe that they alone should dictate what everyone in their community and country should read and think have always been around. Mildred Lewis Rutherford’s 1919 “A Measuring Rod,” a White Supremacist United Daughter of the Confederacy guide on how to remove books from libraries and schools to protect the South’s image, successfully erased historical memory and race through book banning and got teachers fired.

100 years later, current book banning efforts and attacks on public and school libraries are being driven by similar groups with similar tactics. Books for young people are at the forefront of the debate. Race and historical memory are again key drivers of the bans, as are books written by and which discuss queer and trans people. According to PEN America, 40% of books banned by schools last year featured characters of color and 20% dealt directly with race. Nearly half of all banned books feature LGBTQ+ themes and characters. This is not about books – this ban builds on a legislative movement which aims to restrict what young people can be taught regarding race, history, politics, sexual orientation and gender identity.

Currently, more than 90 bills are pending and almost all center around how race and LGBTQ+ issues are taught. For example, the “Don’t Say Gay” current law in Florida that prohibits instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity was recently expanded to apply to all grades, from pre-K to 12. Groups like “Moms for Liberty” use social media and online forums to rally parents and residents to censor books based on their own rating system with detailed action guides and tutorials on how to find targeted books in school libraries. They have also gotten involved in local school and library board elections to officially endorse candidates.

As school and library boards are taken over by politicized, pro-censorship individuals working in concert with state and local legislatures (e.g. Texas, Idaho, Missouri, Florida, South Carolina and Utah), they are pushing not just to ban books, but to de-fund libraries completely! In Florida, a single activist already got over 100 books removed and is on a mission to remove 3,500 more titles. In Oklahoma, one father sued the local district and successfully got all 3,000 graphic novels in the school’s collection recalled because

one had a character that questioned his fundamentalist Christian upbringing. 90% of challenges use vague phrases like “protect children” to object to titles. Even when known censorship efforts fail (the book stays on the shelf despite challenges), the constant vitriol and threats to librarians have corrosive effects. Librarians are left to defend themselves against potential defamation and litigation. Sometimes this leads to self-censorship – librarians pulling certain titles in order to avoid conflict. Almost a third of libraries have lost staff either to librarians leaving the profession or libraries having to cut their staff.

Community members can engage in creative activism to increase accessibility of banned books. Pop-up libraries, for example! EveryLibrary and Freedom to Read both have up-to-date information. To truly protect our libraries, every community needs advocates fighting for diversity of thought on school and library boards, and being as vocal pro-library as those against. For The People has created a library defender resource center. Unite Against Book Bans has a terrific toolkit. Red Wine & Blue holds “troublemaker trainings” to help people speak up effectively at board meetings.

Don’t think censorship is a concern in our liberal Bay Area bubble? Recently, protesters showed up at numerous Bay Area library locations to protest Drag Queen story times that have been going on for years! Freedom of expression is a pillar of civilized, democratic societies. The First Amendment of the United States Constitution says that ‘Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.’ By their very existence, libraries are champions, protectors, and promoters of First Amendment rights.

Without debate, our very democracy is at stake. According to the Supreme Court, debate in a democracy “should be uninhibited, robust, and wide-open.” The Court also argued that it is schools’ job to foster robust, open citizenship. Patrick O’Neil from Methodist University reminds us that “School is where we train students to think past themselves, to adjust to a society in which not everyone will look or act or think like them. It’s where we give people access to what they can’t get at home, be it calculus or controversy. It needn’t be a place where reading something means you’ll agree with it. Training teachers to help students approach material critically is harder than banning books, but more worthwhile and more effective. America is complicated, and the only way to deal responsibly with that complexity is to prepare students to meet it head on.”

When the whole community shows up and speaks out, libraries can be protected.

Lisa Hicks-Dumanske, Executive Director

Redwood City Library Foundation

With great admiration for Ariel Aberg-Riger’s article “The Fight for the American Public Library: Library boards, school boards and legislatures are becoming battlegrounds in a push to censor books. Communities are fighting back.”

More resources can be found here.

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