A Library Learnings “extra”

Batten down the hatches!

Starting on April 23, Americans…well, some Americans…will celebrate National Library Week, an annual event there since 1958. This year, it has as its theme, “There’s more to the story”. But one wonders if “Batten down the hatches”—as in, to quote the Canadian Oxford Dictionary, “prepare for a difficulty or crisis”—might not be a more appropriate slogan to upraise.

“By the end of 2022,” Melissa Gira Grant reports, this in a piece for The New Republic published in March, “attacks on books and libraries…were commonplace throughout the country.” Indeed, she tells how “[l]ibrary staff in every state faced an unprecedented number of attempts to ban books,” as affirmed by the American Library Association.

Miles Doyle picks up the story: “[T]he association documented more than 1,200 demands to censor library books and resources, nearly twice as many as 2021, and the highest number since the association started tracking this data 20 years ago.” He, Commonweal’s special projects editor, tells—this in the magazine’s April 1 issue—“A record 2,571 unique titles were targeted for censorship, the majority of which were written by or about people of colour and members of the LGBTQ+ community.”

Even as legislative bills which make it easier to restrict books have passed in various American states, groups such as Moms for Liberty “have played a role in at least half of the book bans enacted across the country. What’s more,” he adds, “PEN America found that in many cases school authorities ignored existing policies, protections, and best practices, and removed titles, simply because they were challenged, rather that after an official review.”

“Now, banning books has become a call to arms, a fresh cause for conservatives to rally around,” Grant attests, “a demand through which the right could question the function and existence of the public library.” It’s now “not enough to defend a title. You have to defend the library…. That includes defending the people doing that work.” The NR’s staff writer has it that “responding to challenges” has become “a full-time job for some library workers.”

Public libraries, school libraries—it doesn’t matter: they’re being targeted. In Michigan, where Grant delved deeply into this matter, “Public meetings across the state are getting more chaotic, more sideshow-y. Crowds of hundreds in Dearborn demanded the banning of books…and overwhelmed board meetings with sheer numbers.” A library worker in Lansing reckoned, “There’s a lot of fear around library board meetings now…since the right has seized on them as a political platform.”

How menacing can such assemblies be? At one, “a school board member read aloud selections from rape and death threats she had received for not banning books: ‘I hope one of those parents kicks the shit out of you.’”

To help make sense of such belligerence, Doyle turns to Deborah Caldwell-Stone, director of the ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom: “‘Each attempt to ban a book by one of these groups represents a direct attack on every person’s constitutionally-protected right to freely choose what books to read and what ideas to explore. The choice of what to read must be left to the reader…. That choice does not belong to self-appointed book police.’”

Still, it’s true that “only a minority of the public may be behind renewed book-banning efforts,” Grant allows, but even small numbers of vigilantes have “an outsize voice in our politics, and, as a result, in what books are available at schools and libraries. These people are the ones most likely to attend a library board meeting to shout their objections….” It’s as youth librarian Mary Grahame Hunter told Grant, in their pursuits,“‘these right-wing groups’” can be “‘relentless’. These groups seem to have boundless energy and time.”

What’s maybe especially galling is that meetings are being disrupted by people who may “have never heard of [the books being pilloried], but saw [them] on a list of ‘pornographic’ works” posted on Facebook by mischief-makers. What especially draws their ire are books “with queer and trans subjects,” Grant notes, adding, “It’s no surprise that [such] books would be a threat to those seeking to lead us further into unfreedom.”

Book bans “are an attack on intellectual freedom,” she warrants, and “a tool to undermine libraries as public entities.” The writer describes the “free public library as we know it in the United States as a public good,” as “a space open to anyone, and meant for everyone….”

To end her account, Grant returns to that youth librarian who, coincidentally, wears, and shows off in an accompanying photo, her name-tag lanyard, adorned with several pins and buttons, one of which blazons, “Freedom, ideas, libraries”. “As Mary Grahame Hunter told me, while kids browsed and played around us in a room meant for them, ‘The library is the place of liberty.’”

Ken Fredrick