It’s no secret that there has been a dramatic uptick in the number of books coming under a cloud of controversy and sometimes being pulled from local public and school library shelves. Journalist Janice Ellis states, “Book banning is considered to be the most widespread form of censorship.” As conservativism, including a push from groups such as Moms for Liberty and No Left Turn in Education, leads to an increase in books being challenged and libraries being threatened, librarians and library workers across the U.S. are coming to terms with what this means for themselves and their libraries.
Book Banning in School and Public Libraries
In April, Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.), chairman of the Subcommittee on Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, held a hearing to discuss the potential erosion of free speech that book banning and classroom censorship could cause. He said in his opening remarks, “If we cancel or censor everything that people find ‘offensive,’ nothing will be left. Everybody is offended by something, and that is why other people’s level of offense cannot be the metric for defining whether my rights are vaporized.”
PEN America’s latest Index of School Book Bans, summarized by Jonathan Friedman and Nadine Farid Johnson, shows 2,532 individual book-banning instances from July 2021 to June 2022. The index reports bans in 32 states; the school districts with bans “include 5,049 schools with a combined enrollment of nearly 4 million students.” Friedman and Johnson write, “Many Americans may conceive of challenges to books in schools in terms of reactive parents, or those simply concerned after thumbing through a paperback in their child’s knapsack or hearing a surprising question about a novel raised by their child at the dinner table. However, the large majority of book bans underway today are not spontaneous, organic expressions of citizen concern. Rather, they reflect the work of a growing number of advocacy organizations that have made demanding censorship of certain books and ideas in schools part of their mission.” In fact, school board meetings have often become battlegrounds where conservative parents and others share the reasoning behind their push for books being pulled from shelves.
At library board meetings across the country, echoes of these school board meetings can be heard. Parents, concerned citizens, and community stakeholders bring their cases for banning books—sometimes naming titles the library doesn’t even have in its collection! A few books that have been mentioned in banning movements are Gender Queer: A Memoir by Maia Kobabe, All Boys Aren’t Blue by George M. Johnson, and Out of Darkness by Ashley Hope Pérez. Noticeably, challenged books tend to feature LGBTQ+ characters and/or characters who are Black, Indigenous, and people of color. Essentially, characters who are not cisgender, heterosexual, and white are being erased from the reading landscape.
There is a danger in removing books from curious, thoughtful, and questioning students in schools and at home. Many have recommended that instead of removing books, parents, caretakers, and other trusted adults should read along with young people and have meaningful conversations with them about what is going on in the book.
As someone who no longer works in libraries but teaches future librarians, I want to know how to do my best to educate these students on book banning. Here is what I have found: Educate yourself on the books being questioned or banned; encourage others to support and advocate for your local libraries, both school and public; attend board meetings for both schools and libraries; and learn the system for responding to book challenges within your library through the collection development policy.
- Educate Yourself
It is critical to educate yourself about the books that are under attack from various groups. The ALA Office for Intellectual Freedom’s Banned & Challenged Books and Banned Books Week are two excellent resources to consult when you are just beginning to investigate banned books. PEN America keeps an eye on banned books across the U.S. and does a wonderful job. It would be a good idea to check your local state library association for more resources that pertain to your state and regional communities.
- Spread Support
If you are a librarian or library worker, share your story about banned books with those in elected positions and with fellow citizens. Many people outside the library field may not be aware of how serious the situation actually is. We sometimes exist in a silo and forget that not everyone in our communities knows about what is going on in school and public libraries. We need to take those blinders off and become more vocal about the issues that are occurring in our libraries. We need to make our neighbors, friends, and other citizens into fellow library advocates.
- Attend Board Meetings
As a young youth services librarian, my director assigned me to attend our monthly school board meetings (they were funders for our library system). It is eye-opening what you learn about your community and the way in which others view the library. Go to your local school and/or public library board meetings. They are open to anyone and give you an opportunity to observe—and contribute to—the discussions that impact library operations and well-being. Book Riot has a template to get you started if speaking in public is a daunting prospect.
- Learn the Library Policies
Do you know your library or library system’s collection development policy? Does your library or library system have a policy? If it doesn’t, it honestly very much should. I teach a collection management course, and this is one of the first elements of collection development we cover. Investigate your policy and how it addresses dealing with cases of pushback on a book. (Many libraries have their policies posted on their websites; you can create or update yours using their example.) In my experience, the cases usually don’t go as far as banning or a written request for reconsideration of a book, but times are changing. You need to know how to respond to a patron when they bring a challenge, which person or people on the library staff should be made aware of the situation, and how next to proceed.