Beyond Book Bans | Censorship

Censorship efforts in the 2020s have moved beyond concerned parents to include restrictive legislation, library board power plays, and defunding.

Challenging Times  As intellectual freedom attacks gain momentum, they increasingly call for all hands on deck to battle censorship campaigns and threats. LJ takes a look at some of the leading conflicts (below), how one library weathered hostilities, and ways to be ready when challenges come to you.


Censorship efforts in the 2020s have moved beyond concerned parents to include restrictive legislation, library board power plays, and defunding

With the 2020s, censorship efforts in libraries entered a new era. Book challenges and calls for material reconsideration have soared; in the first nine months of 2022 alone, the American Library Association’s (ALA) Office for Intellectual Freedom tracked 681 attempts to ban or restrict library resources, targeting more than 1,600 titles—the highest in decades.

These numbers, however, are symptomatic of something more virulent, as censorship pushes have gone beyond book challenges. Book banning has become a weapon for right-wing groups, with politicians feeding off hostility to LGBTQIA+ issues and anti-racist ideas and playing to public concern about “parents’ rights.”

State legislatures have seen proposed bills attempting to limit public access to library materials, and even to hold librarians criminally liable, while growing numbers of pro-censorship members are being appointed to library boards by local government officials.

K–12 school libraries have been a prime target for censorship efforts, but public libraries are also facing opposition, with the focus on displays, programs—particularly drag queen story hours—and materials in the children’s and young-adult sections that have been labeled “pornographic” by detractors. In the process, librarians have been demonized and accused of pushing left-wing agendas.



“Not only are we seeing more challenges, but the nature of these challenges has changed,” says Public Library Association President Maria McCauley. “In the past, most of the challenges came from individual parents or caregivers about individual books. Today we are seeing small groups of people challenging multiple books they have not read. Even more worrisome, some lawmakers are using the power of government to limit the freedom to read.”

A 2022 bill in Idaho’s legislature proposed fining librarians $1,000 and sending them to jail for a year for checking out materials to a minor that are deemed harmful. The bill passed the House but died in the Senate. 

In Iowa, a bill introduced in 2022 would require the state’s public libraries to create a secondary adult section to keep materials that any local resident might deem “sensitive in nature”—the full extent of the bill’s criterion—away from minors. It would also give the city council authority to overturn library decisions on books subject to challenges. 

North Dakota lawmakers crafted legislation in January that would ban books with visual depictions of content including portrayals of sexual and gender identity as “sexually explicit.” The bill proposes up to 30 days imprisonment and a $1,500 fine for librarians who refuse to remove books deemed offensive.

A bill passed in Missouri in fall 2022 would make it a criminal offense for library staff to provide books with graphic depictions of a sexual nature. The law is specifically aimed at school librarians, but jeopardizes public and academic library employees who work with K–12 schools.

Also in Missouri, Secretary of State and potential gubernatorial candidate Jay Ashcroft’s proposed rule would block public funding for libraries offering materials that “appeal to the prurient interest of any minor.” 

“It is a really stressful time,” says Otter Bowman, president of the Missouri Library Association. “I don’t think there has ever been a time quite like this where it feels like our profession is under fire.” It has even reached the point, she says, where she has been asked by library staff, “There is one panel in this graphic novel that might be deemed offensive, so if I were to put some tape or a black square over that panel, can I keep this book in my collection and not have to worry about being prosecuted in some way?”

Although academic libraries have not seen the same numbers of challenges and incidents as school and public libraries, they haven’t avoided controversy altogether. In the wake of criticism by such conservative voices as Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who signed the Stop the Wrongs to Our Kids and Employees (WOKE) Act limiting protected speech around such issues as racism and gender discrimination, the College Board, which owns and administers the Advanced Placement (AP) program, revised AP curricula in African American studies. As a result, Black writers and scholars associated with critical race theory, the Black LGBTQIA+ experience, and Black feminism find their work optional for AP students rather than required.



In Louisiana, Lynette Mejia, cofounder of Lafayette Citizens Against Censorship, has clashed with the Lafayette Public Library (LPL) Board of Control, which, Mejia tells LJ, is being stacked with appointees whose only criterion for qualification is “are you a right-wing Christian nationalist?” Among other actions, in 2022 the board tried to fire LPL North Regional Library Branch Manager Cara Chance for insubordination after she featured a Pride Month display of LGBTQIA+ teen romance books, in defiance of the library system director’s ban on book displays on “political subjects.”

Another controversy involving a local library board arose in Llano County, TX, where county commissioners appointed board members who had objected to such library materials as the “butt books” children’s series by Dawn McMillan. One new member developed a spreadsheet of objectionable materials, including titles the system director eventually weeded.

Skip Dye, Senior VP of Library Sales and Digital Strategy and Senior VP Director of Sales Operations at Penguin Random House, who chairs ALA’s United for Libraries’ intellectual freedom, advocacy, and public policy committee, notes that there is a movement to convert elected library board seats to appointed positions, taking the power out of the hands of local voters and giving the authority to mayors, county executives, and even governors. United for Libraries, which serves library trustees, advocates, Friends, and foundations, is working with ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom on a formal peer-to-peer network to help trustees work better with their boards, Dye says.

Even when a board stands up for the freedom to read, the library still has to contend with citizen censorship efforts. In Oregon, where the state library reported that libraries received 54 challenges to materials in 2022—more than double the year before—the Crook County Library board rejected an attempt to segregate LGBTQIA+-friendly children’s books into a separate section. Over several months, however, staff found books in trash cans, stuffed behind diaper-changing stations, and hidden behind shelves.



New legislation is not necessary to create an atmosphere of harassment and fear, however. Texas State Rep. Matt Krause provided book banners with a valuable tool: a list of 850 books, originally circulated to the Texas Education Agency in October 2021, that proved useful to those seeking to challenge clusters of books sight unseen.

In Louisiana, Attorney General Jeff Landry, who is also running for governor, instituted an online “tip line” for reporting what the webpage calls “extremely graphic sexual content that is far from age appropriate for young audiences” in libraries. The state has become a censorship battleground, with one group, Citizens for a New Louisiana, pushing to remove a range of books with LGBTQIA+ content. 

Campbell County Public Library, WY, came under fire in 2021 over books featuring sex education and LGBTQIA+ content. Library officials also canceled an appearance by a magician who is transgender after threats were made to the magician and library staff.

In 2022, a group of Idaho residents accused the Meridian Library of distributing “smut filled pornography” to children. Concerned Citizens of Meridian attended a Meridian Library Board meeting and accused library staff of “grooming” children.

In Bonner’s Ferry, ID, Boundary County Library Director Kimber Glidden announced her resignation in August 2022, after several months of tension within the small community—including some arising from challenges to a book that the library didn’t have in its collection. “Nothing in my background could have prepared me for the political atmosphere of extremism, militant Christian fundamentalism, intimidation tactics, and threatening behavior currently being employed in the community,” she wrote.

Sometimes challenges go beyond a library’s collections and harm its long-term prospects. A conservative coalition in Jamestown Township, MI, objecting to LGBTQIA+ material on the Patmos Public Library’s shelves, organized a “Vote No” campaign when the library’s millage came up for renewal. The ballot measure failed twice, and the library, now defunded, may be forced to close.

However, it’s important to note, says McCauley, that “in spite of the increased volume and vitriol, we also know these efforts are the work of a vocal minority. ALA’s polling tells us that large majorities of voters and parents across the political spectrum oppose book bans. Furthermore, 90 percent or more of voters and parents have a favorable opinion of librarians in public and school libraries.”

She adds,“Library professionals in every context—school, public, academic—need to have each other’s backs and advocate for our colleagues facing tough situations.”

Steve Zalusky is a newspaper journalist with a background in library media relations, based in suburban Chicago.

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