Advocating for the Right to Read | Digipalooza 2023

Book banning groups are becoming more organized, but libraries are evolving new tactics to oppose censorship efforts, panelists said during the “#UniteAgainstBookBans: Advocate for your community’s right to read” panel with Emily Drabinski, Sara Gold, and Lisa Varga, with moderator Brian Potash, at OverDrive’s biennial Digipalooza conference in Cleveland August 9–11.

Four vintage Amazing Stories magazines
l.-r.: Lisa Varga, Sara Gold, and Emily Drabinski

Book banning groups are becoming more organized, but libraries are evolving new tactics to oppose censorship efforts, panelists said during the “#UniteAgainstBookBans: Advocate for your community’s right to read” panel at OverDrive’s biennial Digipalooza conference in Cleveland August 9–11. Emily Drabinski, current president of the American Library Association (ALA) and critical pedagogy librarian, City University of New York (CUNY), who will soon join the faculty of Queens College, CUNY’s MLIS program, was joined by Sara Gold, manager of the Wisconsin Public Library Consortium (WPLC) and Wisconsin Schools Digital Library Consortium (WSDLC); and Lisa Varga, executive director of the Virginia Library Association (VLA). Brian Potash, regional manager, education sales for OverDrive, moderated the panel.

Like most library organizations, VLA has been dealing with book challenges for years, but In April 2022, Varga quietly attended a meeting held by a political candidate who was claiming on social media that he had “scored a major legal victory against pornography in our schools…. It was just as bad as you can imagine—just horrible words, hateful misinformation,” she said. The “major legal victory” turned out to be a temporary restraining order against Gender Queer: A Memoir, by Maia Kobabe, and A Court of Mist and Fury, by Sarah J. Maas, filed against the authors, publishers, and distributors of the books.

A judge ultimately removed the restraining order, ruling in favor of the authors, publishers, and distributors months later, but Varga believes the ruling simply made these book banning groups adapt. “Almost immediately after the judge’s filing, we saw a shift away from [accusations of] pornography and obscenity to ‘sexually explicit’ when it came to trying to file for legislation” in Virginia. “You all know this this is a colossal waste of everybody’s time and energy,” Varga said to the audience. “We know that there are no books that meet the legal definition of pornography or obscenity on our library shelves.”

Campaigns are also becoming more coordinated. A group of 53 residents of Front Royal, VA, recently hosted an event offering free beer and babysitting to anyone who would come fill out reconsideration forms seeking to remove books from the shelves of the Samuels Public Library. The library was inundated with more than 500 handwritten reconsideration forms targeting 134 books. “You know what that does,” Varga stated. “That paralyzes a library, and that was their intention.” A rival group of locals have formed Save Samuels Library to raise funds and oppose the removal of the challenged books, but earlier this month, Samuels’s director, Michelle Ross, resigned.

“We could see the toll it was taking on her physically,” Interim Director Eileen Grady told The Northern Virginia Daily, referring to the book banning efforts.

Varga, however, has begun exploring new tactics to confront would-be book banners as well—turn the focus to the waste of time and money caused by frivolous challenges. Last fall, when a school board member who had been generating “no end” of book challenges wrote on social media that “she’d found a hundred more books” to challenge, Varga went to a school board meeting and presented her with an invoice for $7,000,000. “I told her I was going to go to the city council and ask them to put $7,000,000 into the school budget to deal with this problem she was creating, and that I wanted the school budget to name it after her, so when everyone’s taxes went up, they would know it was her fault.”

This wasn’t just a stunt. At local school board or town hall meetings about these issues, Varga said that people who want to ban books, and people who oppose libraries more generally, “always approach the microphone and say ‘I am a taxpayer.’ We should all be saying that when we write letters or when we get up to speak. We are all taxpayers, and that’s the point I was trying to prove with these invoices. Every minute of this takes away time and money from the things that we have to do for our communities.”

Another effort at VLA involves the creation of “book résumés” by volunteers, “so that when a challenge happens, a librarian has already created a profile for that title that shows the ratings, the reviews, the awards, the articles written about it—so that our members are able to have a document to be able to pass on to their trustees…and save them the time,” Varga said.



WSDLC has a selection advisory committee overseeing collection policy and reviewing any reconsideration forms, but as a consortium, it has had to help its member libraries address bans of ebooks at the local level.

“Social and political views vary widely in Wisconsin, and because of this the WSDLC needed a way to allow districts and schools more autonomy over titles in our three [separate grade-level] collections,” Gold said, adding that the consortium began seeing an increase in requests for reconsideration following the 2020 U.S. Presidential election. “We also had a few districts leave the WSDLC because they were unable to deselect or hide titles in the shared collection. So, the WSDLC…advisory committee and the project managers came up with a list of needs and then worked with our OverDrive team to come up with a solution in the Sora [K–12 e-reader platform] and marketplace interfaces to allow members to control which titles in the shared collections were visible to their students.” While a solution enabling individual systems to obscure the discovery of content in a shared collection may be viewed as an unfortunate result, it has enabled some K–12 libraries dealing with book challenges to remain in the consortium.

A WSDLC member library was still attacked by the Libs of TikTok social media channel for an ebook their middle-school students could not even access. The channel featured This Book Is Gay, by Juno Dawson and illustrated by Spike Gerrell; the superintendent of a WSDLC member district was tagged, stating incorrectly that middle-school students had access to the title. The channel never corrected the error.

“The title was not available or even searchable in Sora to middle-school students,” Gold said. “The content access levels were working exactly as they should.” She acknowledged that the title was discoverable—but inaccessible to students who weren’t in high school—in the district’s public catalog (how it was found by Libs of TikTok), which ultimately resulted in the consortium’s request for OverDrive to remove the title from public searching in the district.

To combat book banning, Gold recommended that consortia and individual libraries “have well developed and annually reviewed collection development policies. We also have board and committee members involved in the annual review process of the policies.” In addition, she suggested “having an up-to-date reconsideration form that is required on our website—and I say that it is ‘visible but not too visible’ [on the website] is something that we have found to be very helpful—having a documented reconsideration process and selection advisory committee to review all reconsideration requests in place before any challenges received has been very beneficial to us.”

Gold also recommended consortia consider creating a statement such as the statement on shared collections created by the WSDLC board.



Drabinski discussed how these attacks on books are also attacks on the people and communities represented in those books, and how these banning campaigns can be very hurtful on a personal level.

“I’ve met with library workers from South Carolina, one of whom had…a board member enter their library during banned books week and pick up their bookmarks with a list of banned books and throw them in the garbage,” she said. It’s “an example of how mean these attacks are and how petty they are.” In another anecdote, she explained how a librarian in her home state of Idaho wanted to discuss what was happening in her school library, but waited until they were outside and across the street because the librarian was uncomfortable discussing the situation in the building, believing it might be surveilled.

“That silence and the real shame some of us feel when we’re attacked in these ways was really palpable,” Drabinski said. ALA recently announced a $1,000,000 initiative to expand the organization’s efforts in the defense of intellectual freedom, she said, including doubling the staff of the Office of Intellectual Freedom. In addition, ALA is reinvigorating its lawyers for libraries program to provide legal support to librarians across the country. Training in crisis communications and advocacy will be available this winter. And following the LibLearnX conference in Baltimore next January will be an “intellectual freedom convening to bring together organizations that have a stake in what’s happening right now,” Drabinski said. “That is only possible through the support of members, the support of our allies outside of the association, and people who see what’s happening to libraries as a microcosm of what’s been happening in the country.”

While dealing with these book challenges is exasperating, Varga emphasized that librarians should not allow them to consume their lives or harm their mental health. “Take a deep breath,” she said. “It’s really easy to want to try to solve this, and we know the right arguments to do that, but it can take a [toll] on you mentally. So please don’t let these consume your life or the lives of your staff. You have work hours—stick to those work hours as best you can…. My biggest [rule] is, don’t fight with people on social media; you’re not changing their minds there.”

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Matt Enis


Matt Enis ( is Senior Editor, Technology for Library Journal.

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