Libraries Trending as Book Banning Heats Up

Frequently challenged books stand on a table at the Bozeman Public Library.

Been following the news lately? Libraries have become a downright spicy topic as politicians, parents, and activists accelerate book banning efforts to a dizzying rate.  

Many of the book challenges center around school libraries, but public libraries have also seen a surge in requests to have books removed from their shelves.

While most of the challenges focus on perceived sexually explicit content or racially offensive material, deeper themes are emerging: the most-challenged books often focus on gender identity or explore issues of race.

A brief roundup from just the past two weeks:

  • In Montana, a remarkable work of local investigative journalism revealed how library board members at Flathead County’s ImagineIF library discussed instigating book challenges to oust the acting director and change policies that would clear the way to remove books.
  • In Tennessee, a school board unanimously voted to ban the teaching of “Maus,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel about the Holocaust. [Access that link and other New York Times articles free via the Bozeman Public Library’s website.]
  • In Mississippi, a mayor withheld $110,000 of funding from the Madison County Library system, demanding librarians purge “homosexual materials”—and drawing fire, to the delight of news headline writers, from the furry community.

In recent months, prosecutors from Wyoming to Florida have even weighed criminal charges against librarians and school administrators for keeping particular books on their shelves. Texas governor Greg Abbott also ordered a criminal investigation into “the availability of pornography” in public schools, shortly after penning a related directive that cited two memoirs by LGBTQ+ authors.

Book banning is nothing new, of course, but the extensive politicization from across the political spectrum of the current efforts may well be—despite the fact that public libraries take no political stance. 

This is really what is at stake: the struggle over what a child, a reader, and a society are allowed to think, to know, and to question.”

Viet Thanh Nguyen, Pulitzer Prize-winning author

In addition to threatening the fundamental freedom of access to knowledge, the bans can also be deeply personal. For many people in marginalized groups, the challenged books are instrumental in helping them understand their own identity.

Deborah Caldwell-Stone, director of the American Library Association’s Office of Intellectual Freedom, explained in an NBC interview why that matters, particularly for young people. “The impact [of these challenges] will fall to those students who desperately want and need books that reflect their lives, that answer questions about their identity… [that they] often feel that they can’t talk to adults about. The library becomes that safe space where they can get accurate information about these topics that they can’t otherwise find.”

Most of the bans are couched in the language of values most Americans support, such as protecting children from pornography and denouncing racism. Yet far fewer Americans support censorship, even of ideas they vehemently oppose. Many experts argue that the book challenges are less about protecting the vulnerable and more about preventing young people and others from accessing ideas deemed unpalatable.

“Books are inseparable from ideas, and this is really what is at stake: the struggle over what a child, a reader, and a society are allowed to think, to know, and to question,” argued Pulitzer Prize-winning author Viet Thanh Nguyen in a trending opinion piece defending the right to read. “A book can open doors and show the possibility of new experiences, even new identities, and futures.”

“The core value in these situations is the freedom to read,” said Susan Gregory, Bozeman Public Library Director. “It’s important to remember that public libraries provide materials that appeal to patrons with many different perspectives.  We provide a responsibly selected, balanced collection designed to address the needs of as many different community members as possible. The individual chooses what to access and, if that person is a minor, the parent or caregiver guides that choice. The freedom of individuals to read what they choose is a freedom that must be protected.”

Most libraries have collection development procedures to handle book challenges.  Anyone is free to fill out a request form for removing an item. The request then goes to a library staff committee to review and recommend to the Board of Trustees whether to keep, move, or remove it. The Board of Trustees then votes on the recommendation.

“Professional librarians are tasked with carefully looking at the requests and doing a thorough review of the item,” explains Kit Stephenson, Assistant Director at the  Bozeman Public Library. “We read it, we read reviews on it, and make a recommendation. We take the Freedom to Read statement very seriously and do not want to marginalize anyone from accessing the information they are seeking.”

Finally, on a lighter note about libraries in the news, another viral story gave working parents joy that their experience was reflected in libraries: Virginia’s Henrico County Public Library recently installed adult computer workstations with attached playpens to keep small children safely corralled and engaged. In a sign of the times, even those drew controversy.

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The Bozeman Public Library is guided by the American Library Association’s Library Bill of Rights, which states that libraries should challenge censorship in the fulfillment of their responsibility to provide information and enlightenment.

Want to know more about which books are most challenged? The Atlantic recently published a guide.