Public Libraries Face Escalating Book Challenges

Book challenges are not new. But what has changed, according to several people interviewed for this article, is the scope and tactics of the challenges.

books with
Photo courtesy of Robert E. Kennedy Library at California Polytechnic State University

News in January about a school library in Tennessee banning the Holocaust-themed graphic novel Maus raised attention and renewed questions about what school libraries should or should not have on their shelves. And it’s not just school libraries facing these challenges: Campbell County Public Library in Gillette, WY voted against a resident’s desire to pull teen books off its shelves due to content he described as making the occult attractive to youth; Anchorage Public Library in Alaska is a growing battleground between management and the library board and staff over challenges to what’s been described as biased content; in Indiana, lawmakers are discussing a bill that would allow librarians to be jailed for inappropriate content; while in Lafayette, LA, the public library board recently changed how review committees are formed to handle challenges, from a committee comprising two librarians and one board member to two board members and one librarian. At the time of this writing, Wake County Public Libraries in North Carolina had scheduled a meeting to revisit its reconsideration process.

If at first this doesn’t sound like anything different from the challenges public libraries have faced for years, that’s not surprising. “Book challenges are not new,” said Nora Pelizzari, director of communications for the National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC). “[The NCAC] has existed since 1973. And the American Library Association (ALA) Office for Intellectual Freedom (OIF)…has existed for quite a long time as well. This is a primary part of our work, fighting book challenges, so we wouldn't have made it so long if there weren’t a need for us in an ongoing way.”

But what has changed, according to several people interviewed for this article, is the scope and tactics of the challenges. Amanda Vazquez, director of the Dubuque County Library District, IA, and chair of the Iowa Library Association’s OIF, said, “I started chairing the committee in May of 2020. I was checked in with the person who had been chair before me to say, ‘Hey, were there any challenges that you heard of that aren't on our Google spreadsheet?’ They couldn‘t think of any for the first five months of the year. In the last seven months of the year, we had over a dozen challenges that we were working with in Iowa.”

Emily Knox, associate professor in the School of Information Sciences at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, noted that very specific subjects are currently being targeted. “The types of books that are being challenged are often those that have people of color or LGBTQ as authors, or as main characters, or that deal with difficult themes like racism, injustice, those sorts of things.”

Shannon Oltmann, associate professor in the School of Information Science at the University of Kentucky, added, “It’s also maybe a result of children’s and teen books becoming a bit more diverse. Instead of two well-known LGBTQ teen books, now there are 20 or 50. We are decentering white, heterosexual male people…. Their kids are being taught a different type of a different historical understanding of what happened in the country. There are different social norms than there were 20 years ago. I understand that that’s upsetting to some people. But one of the things I say is, if trying to ban books teaches kids that when something is uncomfortable, or something is difficult, we should close the door and run away, that's not a very successful life strategy.”

Knox added that something making the issue even more difficult is the likelihood that the numbers of challenges are underreported, perhaps by as much as 90 percent. “It’s underreported in a couple different ways,” she said. “First, I think that librarians don’t buy these books in the first place. I think there are definitely cases where librarians or libraries just quietly remove these books, or put them behind the desk. Sometimes temporarily, sometimes indefinitely.” She’s also concerned that library workers may not understand the role the OIF plays in monitoring the situation. “I think sometimes people don’t know they should tell the OIF, even if they don’t need help. It’s for tracking purposes, so we know what's going on.”

EveryLibrary founder John Chrastka pointed to changes in tactics and tone that are ramping up challenges. “I think that there’s an important difference between…challenges which are part of a dialogue in the community about what’s appropriate to be on the shelves, what shelves are they appropriate to be on, and that cadence of challenges that are coming from a place of good conscience, a place of good intent, that are focused on using the policies and the procedures of the library to have that kind of small-d democratic dialogue,” he said. “But the ones we’re very focused on here at EveryLibrary are the ones that have changed from being a conversation about content to performative and politicized events, essentially power-building events. We see problems that are not rooted in a discussion about content, but are rooted in either trying to dismantle the library, trying to put wedges between people, or to go after—this is the most concerning part of it—populations through the books that they’re targeting, rather than going after them directly.”

Vazquez noted that the difference in approach points to not just an individual but organized efforts to rally people. That, in turn, can make previous methods of review and discussion more difficult, if not impossible. “One of the other public libraries [in the Iowa library system] received either very similar or basically identical complaints from a large number of community members. It demonstrated what we [heard anecdotally] was happening, which is that there’s a coordinated effort in some communities,” she said “With social media, it’s gotten a lot easier for people to post and say, ‘Here’s a copy of my letter that I used to challenge this one book.’ It makes it a lot easier for folks to challenge materials when someone else has explained all of their arguments and have gone through the procedure. Then people might walk into the library and say, ‘I would like to request your reconsideration form,’ as opposed to ‘I’d like to talk to someone about this.’ It can be hard to walk that back. We try to defuse situations through conversation first. But if someone comes in and asks for the last step in the process, it can be difficult to walk that back and have them be okay with not getting to that point in the process.” Jumping ahead in the library’s process to reconsider books means a loss of discussion and education.

One of the ways these challenges are different is that they tend to short circuit processes led by library professionals in favor of appeals to boards, city, county, or state governments, or even police.” Library workers should stand firm on their education and knowledge, said Vazquez: “There are people who know better than you, because it’s their job to know better than you. We’re those people when it comes to librarianship and library services. Some people are unhappy about that. At some point we’re going to have to have the mug like the doctors do: ‘Don’t confuse your Google with my medical degree.’ Don't confuse your personal opinion with the First Amendment. Your research doesn't equal my education.”

She noted that these coordinated efforts are often geared toward the same titles, such as All Boys Aren’t Blue and Gender Queer, which were challenged in multiple locations in recent months.

As to what public libraries can do as they increasingly face these kinds of challenges, there are a number of options. “We encourage librarians to talk to ALA, talk to us at NCAC, their local ALA [division], their state ALA affiliate, and to involve local media,” said Pelizzari.

Chrastka had both policy and safety suggestions. “If I have unsolicited advice for library boards, it’s to take a look at your board policies, not just your intellectual freedom policies,” he said. “We’ve seen some very performative events happening at board meetings around the country where activist protesters are coming in disrupting things. The board has a responsibility to host open meetings in an orderly fashion. And there are certain parliamentary procedures that every single public library board should be aware of, conversant in, and willing to utilize. There’s a need to have conversations with public safety in your community about any potential threats that you’re experiencing.”

He added, “It’s not hysterical or unreasonable, when you see an email being circulated, or Facebook or Telegram posts being circulated, asking for trouble at the library board [meeting], to reach out to the to the relevant authorities.”

Melanie Huggins, executive director of Richland Library, SC, and president of the Public Library Association, urged public library workers to stay aware of what’s happening in their community. If school libraries are being targeted but not public libraries, it’s not the right time to look away. “Public libraries need to align themselves with school libraries,” she said. “The first question should be, ‘How can I help?’”

“This idea that ideas are dangerous is really a dangerous idea,” said Pelizzari.




If your library is facing challenges, there are several resources you can ask for help:

United for Libraries Trustee Resources for Program & Material Challenges

ALA’s Fight Censorship Resources

ALA’s Challenge Support Resources

ALA’s Challenge Reporting Toolkit

SLJ ’s Censorship Tips Hotline

SLJ ’s censorship coverage

NCAC’s Youth Censorship Database

NCAC’s Free Expression Educators Handbook

Comic Book Legal Defense Fund’s Censorship Reporting Form

PEN America’s Free Expression and Education Program

EveryLibrary’s Rapid Response Fund

Texas Library Association’s Texans for the Right to Read Coalition

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