So You Want to Support Your Library? School and Public Libraries Need Your Support in a Wave of Book Banning
You are probably aware that there is an unprecedented attack on libraries happening in the United States. Though the primary focus is school libraries, public libraries are not without their challenges. The range of legislation being proposed targets books and, in some cases, library staff themselves. There have even been bills proposed that would fine or imprison librarians for the books that they buy. And in Mississippi, the mayor of one town is withholding funding from the library unless they remove all LGBTQ content because they do not align with his personal religious beliefs.
As we see more and more articles about specific books being banned in various locations, a lot of people respond by saying they are going to buy the banned book. Buying the book will help keep it in publication, but it doesn’t necessarily help libraries, school or public. In the same token, buying the book and sending it to a library that has just been instructed by their board or legislator to ban it doesn’t help either, because now the library just has another copy of a book that those in positions of power are saying they can’t have.
So what can you do to help libraries? Great question, and I have some suggestions for you.
Book banning happens because people who have negative opinions and a specific agenda are loud and vocal about it. And they are organized. Recent news suggests that these are coordinated attacks by organized and well funded individuals with a very specific agenda. So if you want to counter book banning, you need to be equally as loud. And you can do that in several ways, but you can’t sit quietly by the sidelines. Libraries have always needed your vocal support, but we need it now more than ever.
MAKE BOOK PURCHASING SUGGESTIONS
Most public libraries have links on their library home pages where you can suggest book purchases. Find those links for you library and make book suggestions. Seriously, having a purchasing suggestion from a patron in the community helps. I have worked in several libraries and they work really hard to purchase those patron suggestions. They are like a vote for a book. For libraries, being able to say a patron requested a book can help a lot when those purchases are challenged.
WRITE YOUR LIBRARY ADMINISTRATORS, BOARD MEMBERS AND LEGISLATORS
People are quick to share complaints and are vocal about banning, but we are all slow to share our positive feedback. Write letters to the administrators of your local school and public libraries, write to their governing boards, and write to your local and state legislators letting them know that you support your library, that you support inclusive literature and programming, and that you stand firmly against book banning.
Let me give you an example. At one library that I previously worked at, I put together a book display on teen social activism. It wasn’t even about any particular topic, just a display of books about teens being engaged in speaking up and changing their world. Within an hour we had multiple complaints from patrons regarding the display and I was forced to change the display. Later, some patrons told me quietly that they really liked the display, but because they did not take that praise to the director like those making complaints did, their voice was not heard.
If your library puts up a Pride display, send a quick note letting the admin know that you appreciated it. That type of feedback can help support inclusion in the library. Go to the Black History Month programs at your local library and then write a note of thanks for them having hosted it. Every positive comment supporting inclusions is helpful and necessary.
And don’t forget to write your legislators! They need to know that you support your library, that you want inclusive libraries, and that you stand against censorship in libraries. Again, having those positive messages of support can help when those displays and books are challenged.
SHOW UP TO BOARD MEETINGS
A lot of this is happening at the board level. And even in public libraries, a lot of the final decisions in matters of collection development and challenges are made at the board level. Showing up at board meetings is important because we need supportive voices at those meetings. Find out when your local school and public library board meetings are and regularly attend. And if you can, run or volunteer for board positions.
FOLLOW GROUPS THAT ARE TALKING ABOUT THE ISSUES
There are organizations and campaigns out there doing the work to help us all in these situations. They are great resources of information with suggested action plans that can help you.
Every Library is dedicated to supporting libraries, and they have some specific work in this area that you may find helpful: https://www.everylibrary.org/
There is a group and a movement under the hashtag #FREADom that has a lot of great action points: https://twitter.com/freadomfighters
Book Riot has been tracking and discussing the book banning incidents and it is also a good resource: https://bookriot.com/tag/banned-books/
UNDERSTAND SOME KEY TALKING POINTS
When a mayor withholds funding from a library or a legislator creates a list of books that should be banned, this is censorship because they are using their government position to control access to information. It is a direct violation of the first amendment.
When a private artist removes their music from a private music platform because they don’t like everything the platform is engaged in, this is a free market economy issue, not censorship. The private artist is using their first amendment rights to not do business with another private business because their business strategy does not align with their personal beliefs. Because everyone involved is a private entity, it is not censorship.
Also, it is important to keep in mind what we mean when we say parental rights. If you as a parent want to deny your child access to Black or LGBTQ literature, that does not mean that you also get to deny my child access to Black or LGBTQ literature. Your parental rights extend to your child and your child alone. Parental rights doesn’t mean that the libraries can’t buy the books or teach them, it means that you should have some control over your child which means you can do things like request an alternate title.
There are a lot of conversations happening right now about things like “cancel culture” and censorship and book banning and it’s important that we have honest conversations. Not everyone is coming from an informed or honest point of view, and it’s important that we call that out. Words matter, and when it is words and stories and access to information that we are talking about, they matter a lot.
And finally, know that weeding is not the same as book banning. Libraries regularly weed their collections which means we remove books from the shelves. We do this because we have limited space and when new books come out – which they do every Tuesday – we need space to put them. We work really hard behind the scenes to make informed decisions when we weed our collections, using a ton of data that includes things like books that no longer circulate, have outdated information (you really wouldn’t want a computer book from the 1990s, for example) and the condition of the book (sorry, but some books are too gross to check out to another patron). Books go in and out of print all the time for a wide variety of reasons. Not every book has long term value, and I say this as someone who has read almost every Star Trek the Next Generation paperback that was published in the 1990s. And no library can be a warehouse of all human knowledge because limited physical space is a real thing. Weeding a collection is an informed decision that has to be made on an ongoing basis; It isn’t the same thing as book banning for political or personal reasons and any attempt to equate the two is a false equivalence. Which reminds me: check out diverse books! Circulation statistics matter.
Book banning is never really about banning books. Nazis started with book banning, but they didn’t end there. And when you look at the books that are being banned, you can see how banning the people is often never far behind. Book banning is scary for a lot of reasons, and as a purported democracy with a constitution that guarantees us first amendment rights, we should fear book banning on principal. But beyond that, we should fear book banning because history tells us what can come next, and that often involves a lot of lost lives and lost freedoms. I hope that you will choose to get involved now, because we don’t want what history has taught us comes next.
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About Karen Jensen, MLS
Karen Jensen has been a Teen Services Librarian for almost 30 years. She created TLT in 2011 and is the co-editor of The Whole Library Handbook: Teen Services with Heather Booth (ALA Editions, 2014).
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