“A library in the middle of a community is a cross between an emergency exit, a life raft ,and a festival. They are cathedrals of the mind; hospitals of the soul; theme parks of the imagination. On a cold, rainy island, they are the only sheltered public spaces where you are not a consumer, but a citizen, instead. A human with a brain and a heart and a desire to be uplifted, rather than a customer with a credit card and an inchoate “need” for “stuff.” A mall—the shops—are places where your money makes the wealthy wealthier. But a library is where the wealthy’s taxes pay for you to become a little more extraordinary, instead. A satisfying reversal. A balancing of the power.” ~Caitlin Moran
It’s downright magical to start reading a new library book and realize it’s a really good one. Like the magic of running errands and every traffic light is green, only a million times better. Lately, nearly every book I’ve brought home from the library has been one of those immersive delights. Good books are downright soul-saving for me in a time when the world’s news is so dire. The last few weeks I savored (among others) Richard Power’s Bewilderment, Javier Zamora’s Solito, Robert McCammon’s Boy’s Life, Dani Shapiro’s Signal Fires, Anthony Almojera’s Riding The Lightning, and Sharon Blackie’s Hagitude. Compelling, immersive, and entirely free to enjoy thanks to my local library.
Libraries have been a constant in my life from the time I learned to read. I’ve written about why I’m a library addict and the concept of library angels and how libraries changed lives. Libraries are unique public spaces, existing entirely for the common good.
As many have noted, if public libraries weren’t already part of our society, the concept would be considered an outrageous and dangerously liberal idea.
History tells us the first modern public library in the U.S. opened in 1833, in Peterborough New Hampshire, based on the radical notion that books should be made available to all classes. Before that time there were plenty of libraries run by social clubs or academic organizations, but available only to fee-paying members. Historian James Truslow Adams, who popularized the term “the American Dream” in his 1931 book The Epic of America, wrote that the public library is the “perfect concrete example” of the American Dream in action.
But of course, that’s not the whole story. During the Reconstruction Era and beyond, Black Americans established more than 50 literary and library societies in Northern cities. One example is the Philadelphia Library Company of Colored Persons, founded in 1833. Another is the Louisville Western Branch Library in Louisville, Kentucky — the first public library in the U.S. run by and serving Black patrons. At that time, and well after, nearly all public libraries excluded Black people from borrowing books, oftentimes even from entering the building. Full access to public libraries came about through brave desegregation efforts (often by students) although whites-only libraries weren’t abolished by federal law until the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
The U.S. also has an ugly history of book banning. The first book banned here was by Thomas Morton, who arrived in Massachusetts with the Puritans, but didn’t appreciate their strict rules. In 1637 he published a volume so critical of the Puritans that he compared them to crustaceans. They banned his book.
In the centuries since, all sorts of books have been banned, from Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe to comic books. Pen America reports that in the eleven months between July 2021 to June 2022, there were 2,532 instances of individual books being banned in school libraries and classrooms across 32 states. This is the result of concerted effort by 50 groups pushing for book bans, the majority of these groups formed in the last year. These “parents’ rights” groups seem like grassroots efforts, but are actually instigated and funded by wealthy conservative donors.
Books are the most challenged library material at a frightening 73%, with 43% of challenges taking place at public libraries.
These deeply undemocratic efforts are part of a larger effort to control what students learn as well as what teachers can discuss. There are, in many places, new “soft censorship” rules requiring young people to get parental permission to read certain books or get parental signatures for new opt-in policies. Some schools are forming committees or hiring consultants to “review” every book for “appropriateness.” In other places, books are quietly removed from shelves to avoid vehement anti-book activists.
This is a crisis. As the Prindle Post (a publication examining ethical issues) reports,
Throughout the summer, armed Idaho citizens showed up at library board meetings at a small library in Bonners Ferry to demand that a list of 400 books be taken off of the shelves. The books in question were not, in fact, books that this particular library carried. In response to the ongoing threats against the library, its insurance company declined to continue to cover them, citing increased risk of violence or harm that might take place in the building. The director of the library, Kimber Glidden, resigned her position in response to the situation, citing personal threats and angry armed protestors showing up at her private home demanding that she remove the “pornography” from the shelves of her library.
This behavior is far from limited to the state of Idaho. In Oklahoma, Summer Boismier, an English teacher at Norman High School was put on leave because she told her students about UnBanned — a program out of the Brooklyn Country Library which allows people from anywhere in the country to access e-book versions of books that have been banned. The program was designed to fight back against censorship and to advocate for the “rights of teens nationwide to read what they like, discover themselves, and form their own opinions.” Boismier was put on leave after a parent protested that she had violated state law HB1775 which, among other things, prohibits the teaching of books or other material that might make one race feel that they are worse than another race…
Many states have passed laws banning books with certain content, and that content often involves race, feminism, sexual orientation, and gender identity. And prosecutors in states like Wyoming have considered bringing criminal charges against librarians who continue to carry books that their legislatures have outlawed.
BUT this isn’t what most of us want. An EveryLibrary Institute survey completed in September of this year, before the recent election, tells us:
- Voters love librarians and rank librarians as twice as favorable as their governors, the Democratic Party, the Republican Party, Donald Trump, and Joe Biden.
- 95% of Democrats, 80% of independents, and 53% of Republicans are against book bans.
- Just 8% of voters believe “there are many books that are inappropriate and should be banned.”
- More than 90% of voters are against banning the hundreds of classic novels and children’s books that extremist groups have targeted for banning.
- More than 50% of voters are concerned about legislation being created to regulate Americans’ access to books.
Interestingly, the vast majority of parents do NOT want to restrict their children’s access to books.
What can we do?
Book Riot suggests all sorts of ways to stand up to book banners. One is to form anti-censorship alliances. This can be as casual as agreeing to take regular action with friend who also cares about access to book.
Support your local libraries — patronize your library and vote to approve library levies. Consider joining a friends of the library group or putting your name in to serve on the library board.
Let your local press know this is a topic you want investigated and reported.
Post about your book access concerns on social media.
Support students’ right to read in school by making your views known to the school board and reviewing any new district policies relating to book “appropriateness.” Join the PTA or other school parent organizations and keep the book access topic open.
Encourage young people in your life to read.
Talk about books you love!
More resources available via
- Unite Against Book Bans
- Banned and Challenged Books
- National Coalition Against Censorship
- Banned Books Week
- Book Defenders
- Comic Book Legal Defense Fund
Access to books is already increasingly limited for today’s young people. The high school “library” serving my rural community is used as a study hall as well as to charge tablets. The shelves offer a paltry selection of books, with new volumes rarely purchased. There are 20 percent fewer school librarians compared to ten years ago with three in ten school districts lacking even a single librarian. School libraries and public libraries were a lifeline for me in my growing-up years. It’s hard to imagine that simple freedom restricted for today’s youth.
“Libraries matter for the same reason parks matter. Because to blossom, human beings need public spaces that enable play, freedom and social contact without any ties to consumption. Think about it for a moment: there aren’t that many left. All we see in the street is for sale, pushing us to measure ourselves by how much we can own instead of how much we can feel and think and imagine. A library is a contemporary haven in that sense. A place that holds a million doors into a million worlds, and they’re all at your reach. For free.” ~Laia Jufresa