Libraries = Freedom: Resist Book Censorship

“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?

The American Library Association notes that 82 to 97 percent of book challenges go unreported. Their site offers a form to report book bans.

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.

Create and/or support a banned book club for adults and/or kids. Here’s more on such groups.

Encourage young people in your life to read.

Talk about books you love!

More resources available via

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   

27 thoughts on “Libraries = Freedom: Resist Book Censorship

  1. I am aghast. I cannot conceive of this happening in any country I have ever lived in. Censorship in my native country has always moved towards liberalisation, not suppression. Censorship here is just not a big thing. Certain books are banned: those that advocate or exploit extreme sexual violence, that are jihadist handbooks, that are how-tos for euthanasia, for example. But stories, histories… no. America is going to drive its writers and publishers underground, let alone its libraries. I foresee mobs with torches approaching your temples of learning…

    Liked by 1 person

    • I share your concerns. There’s a note of hope in our most recent election. A LOT of book-questioning candidates for school boards across the county lost their elections. I suspect much of the credit goes to the youngest voters. They were deemed old enough to endure active shooter drills from the time they were five years old, but these book banners insist young people can’t be trusted to choose what they read.


  2. I think libraries are what the forefathers had in mind when they chose the words “pursuit of happiness.” They understood the power, energy, and joy inside an educated mind. In the library we are all equal–equal rights, equal access. Knowledge is power. Perhaps that is what makes some frightened enough to ban books.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Yes! Yes! Yes! I love the library. A place of peace and quiet, generous and helpful librarians, and wonderful reading, all free! I can spend a whole afternoon there exploring its rich and abundant resources with other respectful and friendly visitors. Thank you for this great piece.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for sharing the link, KC. It helps to know what book passages you find upsetting. The word “passages” is important to me, because the highlighted areas are not in context unless one has read the whole book.

      I only have time to talk about the first book listed. The Perks of Being a Wallflower deals with a smart kid who is suffering after his friend commits suicide and who feels like a misfit in his first year of high school. It honestly looks at substance abuse and sex. The passage you highlighted is about a girl forced to perform a sex act against her will. Studies show teen and young adult women are four times more likely to be victims of sexual assault than women of any other age, so it seems like a frank discussion of what this looks like (and the aftermath) is extremely valuable.

      Sophomores are 15 to 16 years old. Not little children, but older teens. Research shows about half of adolescents have had some sort of sexual experience at this age. It’s my opinion that it’s downright dangerous to “protect” teens from books that are frank about mental health struggles, sex, domestic/partner abuse, substance abuse, and other real world topics. These issues are in context in a book, especially a well-regarded book such as this one, compared to the more explicit and out-of-context exposure found online.
      Maybe The Perks of Being a Wallflower puts it better:

      “It’s much easier to not know things sometimes. Things change and friends leave. And life doesn’t stop for anybody. I wanted to laugh. Or maybe get mad. Or maybe shrug at how strange everybody was, especially me. I think the idea is that every person has to live for his or her own life and than make the choice to share it with other people. You can’t just sit their and put everybody’s lives ahead of yours and think that counts as love. You just can’t. You have to do things. I’m going to do what I want to do. I’m going to be who I really am. And I’m going to figure out what that is.”

      We live in a time when parent fears are being stoked. It’s strange to me that we’re not more concerned with the anguish of enduring active shooter drills and regular news stories of school shootings. We’re not more concerned that child marriage is legal in 43 states, with 20 of those states not requiring any minimum age for marriage with parental waiver. We’re not more concerned about leaving a climate-destroyed world to the next generations.

      I completely respect your right to ask that your own child not read an assigned book if it violates your standards. But that doesn’t mean other children should be deprived of the opportunity.


      • Other kids wouldn’t be deprived, they could still access this book at a bookstore or public library.

        Would you feel the same about “Push”, “Sold”, or “Milk and Honey”? to access your schools library to research the content of book titles

        Teenage victims of sexual assault do not need to read explicit graphic portrayals of sexual abuse to feel represented. Nor do they need their peers discussing such books while walking the halls. They need trained therapists to help them process their trauma. Which a school social worker would be able to refer them to.

        This is not a valid justification for these books to be accessible in high school libraries.


        • HH, it often takes only one adult challenging a book to have it removed from the classroom or library, thereby imposing their standards on all the other children. A child’s ability to read such books via library or bookstore implies they have a way to get to the library or can afford to buy them. Plus, many of these book challenges are happening at public libraries, so there goes all hopes of access.

          In a better world, young people would be able to talk to school social workers, school counselors, and trained therapists. But in the U.S., few students have access to either. An ACLU report finds that 47 states don’t comply with the recommended minimum standard of one social worker and one school counselor for every 250 students. And nearly 80% of youth in need of mental health services do not have access to adequate services in their communities, at all. 14 million students are in schools with police but no counselor, nurse, psychologist, or social worker.

          You don’t say how you know what teenage victims of sexual assault need. I happen to know from personal experience. So do many, many women. (Teenagers are the most likely, of any age group, to be sexually assaulted and, like every age group, rarely report these acts.)

          It’s interesting that you object to books being accessible in high school libraries. Are young people supposed to be magically ready to read whatever they want, assuming they have preserved any interest in reading after being permitted only the narrowest range of books, once they become adults?


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