I have been hearing and reading this adage from Jo Godwin since before I went to library school: “A truly great library contains something in it to offend everyone.” For information professionals, our mission is to provide impartial, nonjudgmental access to materials. At the same time, we are pretty used to content challenges and attempts to ban books. Interestingly, according to Deborah Caldwell-Stone, executive director of ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, in Publishers Weekly, 2021 saw an unprecedented volume of challenges, including a 60% increase in the month of September alone. Furthermore, the types of challenges being brought forward are unprecedented as well. Caldwell-Stone notes that this volume “appears to be the result of an organized movement by certain groups to impose their political views and make them the norm for education and for our society as a whole.”
This “dramatic uptick in book challenges and outright removal of books from libraries” prompted ALA to take the unusual step of issuing an official statement on book censorship. On Nov. 29, 2021, the organization reiterated its official stance that it remains “committed to defending the constitutional rights of all individuals, of all ages, to use the resources and services of libraries” and that it will continue to “champion and defend the freedom to speak, the freedom to publish, and the freedom to read, as promised by the First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States.”
The Library Bill of Rights is ALA’s official policy document governing library service. Adopted in 1939, this document states the following:
I. Books and other library resources should be provided for the interest, information, and enlightenment of all people of the community the library serves. Materials should not be excluded because of the origin, background, or views of those contributing to their creation.
II. Libraries should provide materials and information presenting all points of view on current and historical issues. Materials should not be proscribed or removed because of partisan or doctrinal disapproval.
III. Libraries should challenge censorship in the fulfillment of their responsibility to provide information and enlightenment.
IV. Libraries should cooperate with all persons and groups concerned with resisting abridgment of free expression and free access to ideas.
V. A person’s right to use a library should not be denied or abridged because of origin, age, background, or views.
VI. Libraries which make exhibit spaces and meeting rooms available to the public they serve should make such facilities available on an equitable basis, regardless of the beliefs or affiliations of individuals or groups requesting their use.
VII. All people, regardless of origin, age, background, or views, possess a right to privacy and confidentiality in their library use. Libraries should advocate for, educate about, and protect people’s privacy, safeguarding all library use data, including personally identifiable information.
At first glance, these tenets seem very straightforward, but in reality, they have been subject to intense scrutiny and debates over their meaning and interpretation since their inception. For information professionals, they are the foundation of the playbook that codifies our mission and helps us to focus on the most important facets of our day-to-day work. But how do we do that in a continually evolving information universe, in which minute by minute, our community members are inundated with both misinformation and disinformation?
WHAT MOTIVATES BOOK CHALLENGERS
Stephen Abram, CEO of Lighthouse Consulting, Inc., believes that these challenges are part of a three-pronged lens through which he views the current intellectual landscape. Abram explained in an interview with me that in order to understand the goal of the challengers, it is important to understand their motivation. It is imperative that we do not make assumptions regarding the reasons that the material is being questioned. Once we comprehend the motivation, we are taking one step in the right direction of trying to reach a mutual understanding about the material. We can serve as bridge builders and position ourselves as integral to the conversations that need to take place. Abram thinks that book challengers are most likely motivated by one or all of the following: fear, politics, and/or rights.
Fear—Is the challenge coming from the threat of the unknown or the unfamiliar or from something that is foreign to their value system? Bestselling author Jason Reynolds, Banned Books Week 2021’s inaugural honorary chairperson, explains it this way, per NPR: “There are many, many adults who are terrified of being challenged … because what happens is we will then be forced to grapple with our own biases, to grapple with our own ignorance.”
Politics—Is the challenge being used as a disruptive wedge to further a larger goal of undermining democracy? This motivation is complicated by the fact that these challenges are sometimes just the beginning of a movement to control what is taught in public schools. Morgan Polikoff, an associate professor of education at the University of Southern California–Rossier, is concerned that book challenges will morph in to challenges regarding which textbooks are adopted by school districts for use in their schools. In an article for NBC News, he says that “you could see parents getting more involved in the adoption process, or raising more questions about the materials or publishers that their students are being assigned.” This isn’t to say that parental input in textbook selection is necessarily a bad thing, but if there are concerns about being monitored, it may cause teachers to become more careful when using primary source material or when teaching off script. This, in turn, could lead to teachers adhering to what textbooks say instead of facilitating discussion and encouraging critical thinking, according to Stefanie Wager, past-president of the National Council for the Social Studies, via NBC News.
Rights—Whereas librarians typically rely on the First Amendment and ALA’s Library Bill of Rights in defending the freedom to read, book challengers often state that they have the right to determine what their child can read. Censorship in the official sense does violate the First Amendment right to free speech, and courts at all levels have ruled that community standards must be taken into account in determinations of obscenity or pornography, according to The First Amendment Encyclopedia. That reliance on community standards represents a huge opportunity for librarians to lead our community.
Abram concludes that “the primary difference we are encountering now is that libraries are being challenged as a political act—not a true difference in philosophy that can be handled by strong procedures for the challenges to follow. In the past, we were merely dealing with fear-based issues (cries of ‘But what about the children!’) or sincere differences of opinion on intellectual freedom and the legal rights of readers, researchers, and parents.” Looking back, “these seemed easier to deal with rather than being thrown into a political context where the issue is less about the ‘book’ and more about disrupting the political frameworks of Western societies, often from special interest groups focused on enforcing their points of view on everyone or foreign parties focused on cyber-disruption of the fundamentals of Western democracies. Catering to populism in the public and media electoral sphere puts this fully into a different context. It is through this lens that we need new strategies.”
Shirley Robinson, executive director of the Texas Library Association, shares this in Publishers Weekly: “There is clearly an organized effort going on to bring large groups of people to school board meetings or to City Council meetings. And we as a community of educators and librarians need to stand together. We need to find a way to explain to people, in a way that makes sense to them, that we’re standing up for one of their fundamental rights as Americans. That may be a silver lining to all this—we’re getting a chance to explain to people what librarians do, how librarians are educated in collection development, and that there are policies and procedures in place to ensure that the library is safe for every member of the community.”
MOBILIZING COMMUNITY STAKEHOLDERS
John Chrastka is the founder and executive director of EveryLibrary, “the first and only national political action committee for libraries,” according to its About page. In an interview, he tells me that EveryLibrary enters the book challenge arena when the challenge threatens either the funding of the library or “the ability of librarians to be librarians.” He voices his concern that our reputation as expert purveyors of credible, transparent, and unbiased information and content is becoming increasingly tenuous in the current environment and that we need to continuously cultivate our image as highly trusted professionals, both inside and outside of the library.
According to Chrastka, building coalitions with community stakeholders is key, and he suggests partnering with groups whose values, as expressed in the challenged books, are under attack. For example, it is as important to find and galvanize the support of “groups who support the dignity of LGBTQ people, the rights of BIPOC communities, and people who hope for a more neighborly community overall” as it is to ally with First Amendment activists. Additionally, any movement to counter book challenges should center around the question, “Who else cares about people?” Chrastka believes that “it is much easier to challenge a book than it is to attack a person.” It is critical for librarians to mobilize these stakeholders when content is called into question.
I asked Chrastka what he sees as the biggest mistake that librarians make when faced with a book challenge. His answer highlights the importance of marketing our skills and qualifications and also serves as a reminder to hone our elevator pitch. In a nutshell, we need to be able to quickly and succinctly explain what we do all day. He says that our biggest mistake is “assuming that the public is aware of why you make the collection choices you do” and that we should use book challenges as forums to “educate, inform, and encourage your community about your principles as well as the content of the book itself.” In short, when faced with a book challenge, we need to explain—in a way that is easily understood—why we make the collection development choices that we do. We should use the challenged book as Exhibit A and discuss the beneficial attributes of the book in question, underscore its importance to learning and knowledge, and highlight its alignment with the community’s composition and values.
Industry consultant and veteran school librarian Carolyn Foote advocates for broadening the conversation beyond centering it on one book in particular. Foote tells me in an interview that book challenges present librarians with the opportunity to explain the importance and meaning of a “whole and diverse collection.” She also cautions against relying too heavily on reviews when defending choices and instead suggests that we present the full picture of how materials are selected. Foote is also a dedicated champion of unity in our profession. As such, she is spearheading #FReadom Fighters, which brings together school librarians, along with authors, teachers, parents, and anyone interested, to face book challenges with one voice. The #FReadom Fighters website offers resources, tips, and advice for working toward the common goal of “trying to inform people about what school librarians do, why it matters to students, and helping people understand the proper process,” Foote says. The organization uses the hashtag #FReadom on social media, with a lot of its information tweeted from @FReadomFighters.
Librarians should also be mindful that stories often eat statistics for breakfast. That is, people’s eyes tend to glaze over when we start reciting facts and figures, but colorful narratives capture attention. In the case of book challenges, personal reading experiences with the material in question can be key. In order to encourage people to look beyond a title, abstract, or review, it is incredibly helpful to offer testimonials from other readers. As most librarians know, it is fairly easy to find willing library members who are happy to explain why a particular book changed their life. If members of the community hear these endorsements from others who use their library—whether they are their children’s classmates or their neighbor two blocks over—this will go a long way toward moving the book out of the context of hearsay and toward the revelation that the simple act of reading a beloved book affected someone’s life for the better.
Interestingly, book challenges often spur an increased interest in reading in general and, in particular, in reading the materials in question. Sherman Alexie, whose book The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian was ALA’s most-challenged book from 2010 to 2019, says in a video posted at Poets & Writers, “When they ban or challenge a book, it instantly makes it prime reading material for that community.”
Sadly, no matter how much interest in reading a book there might be, if barriers to access are too great, both the reader and the library lose in that the reader misses out on great content that they may find deep and meaningful, and the library is unable to fulfill its mission as the conduit that makes that possible. Therefore, we need to do all that we can to support reader choices and enhance the quality of life through expert content curation. After all, most of us can still remember that first day of library school and our introduction to S.R. Ranganathan’s second and third laws of library science: for every reader, a book—and for every book, a reader.