Preserving the freedom to read: After 40 years of Banned Book Week, librarians craft new plan to fight back

Banned Book Week started 40 years ago as a celebration of the freedom to read but the librarian-led movement is shifting into the world of grassroots organizing as an unprecedented number of book-ban efforts have emerged around the country.

The campaign, Unite Against Book Bans, is a collaborative effort launched by the ALA and a wide range of individuals and groups to provide local residents tools for outreach and organizing to combat the growing effort of book banning and censorship, said Deborah Caldwell-Stone, director of American Library Association's Office for Intellectual Freedom.

"Unite Against Book Bans offers practical tools for anyone to use right now to address book censorship in their community," Caldwell-Stone said. "It's really important for everyone to know what's going on with their local boards to support their local libraries, to participate in this conversation." 

The move is in a direct response to the special-interest groups that have targeted elected officials with organized campaigns to cancel from public libraries books that  discuss experiences in the LGBTQ, Black and indigenous communities, as well as other marginalized groups, Caldwell-Stone said. 

Similar themes are reflected in many of the books that make up the top 10 most challenged titles last year, according to the American Library Association.

  1. "Gender Queer" by Maia Kobabe
  2. "Lawn Boy" by Jonathan Evison
  3. "All Boys Aren’t Blue" by George M. Johnson
  4. "Out of Darkness" by Ashley Hope Perez
  5. "The Hate U Give" by Angie Thomas
  6. "The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian" by Sherman Alexie
  7. "Me and Earl and the Dying Girl" by Jesse Andrews
  8. "The Bluest Eye" by Toni Morrison
  9. "This Book is Gay" by Juno Dawson
  10. "Beyond Magenta" by Susan Kuklin

The number of challenged books hit an all-time high last year. with 729 challenges, affecting a total of 1,597 books – nearly triple the number of challenged books in 2019, according to the American Library Association, which has tracked the annual number of challenges through media and voluntary reports since 1990.

“We’re now seeing efforts to remove books en masse. In the past it might be one parent challenging a particular book in a library and now we’re seeing organized groups take lists of books to boards demanding their removal,” Caldwell-Stone said. “Demanding that elected officials censor these works because they find them offensive, which is the very antithesis of democratic freedom to read, a real attack on liberty.”  

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Combating movement to ban books on a local level

The Unity Against Book Bans campaign comes with a “toolkit” to help individuals combat the growing movement book bans within their community, including a set of talking points on book bans, how to mobilize at a community level and how to contact local leaders and media outlets to speak out against bans.

PEN America, a nonprofit organization and partner of the campaign, is launching its own, similar campaign, #FreeTheBooks, to combat the nationwide book banning movement.  

“We need people to get engaged at local school board meetings, to be active and pay attention to school board elections,” said Jonathan Friedman, the director of free expression and education programs at PEN America.

“It’s not about calling for any and all books be at any and all libraries at all times, but it is about calling for the basic mechanics of due process around books to be considered in these decisions,” Friedman said.

Since local elections play a significant role in the book banning efforts, the American Library Association will also focus its efforts on getting individuals registered to vote as National Voter Registration Day falls during its annual Banned Books Week, Caldwell-Stone said.  

“It’s really important for everyone to know what’s going on with their local boards to support their local libraries, to participate in this conversation … and take action accordingly to make sure that everyone has the right to make their own choices about what they read, and that the library is there to serve everyone’s information needs,” Caldwell-Stone added.

Schools are banning LGBTQ books:Here's how kids can still read them.

The local efforts to ban books

Voters in Jamestown Township, Michigan, voted to defund the Patmos Library – its only library – in August after the library staff refused to remove books containing LGBTQ themes. The western Michigan library lost 84% of its operating budget after residents failed to vote for the renewal of a property tax that funded the library.

The Palm Beach County School district in Florida is holding off from purchasing books or accepting donations until the community is able to review the new additions to school libraries or student reading lists, an authority granted through a change to district policy, which will be up for a vote by the school board in November.

The policy change is the Florida school district’s attempt to align with the state’s new law requiring input from “community stakeholders” prior to adding books to their school libraries or reading lists.   

The increased efforts to police books is in part tied to the current political climate, said Friedman, pointing out several politicians, including Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin, who campaigned on the idea of “parents’ rights.”

“I think you cannot separate it from the politics of the moment,” Friedman said. “It plays into long standing fears around parents and schools and the notion that (if) students are being exposed to ideas in ways that their parents don’t like then, therefore, something needs to be done about it.”

The efforts of these bans also represent the growing views that schools shouldn’t teach sex education or discuss sexuality, Friedman added.

While there are several examples of a successful book banning movement, residents in some cities turned out to prevent similar efforts – providing some hope that tactics in the American Library Association and PEN America playbooks can work.

Twenty Rochester, New York, residents opposed their city councilor’s attempt to ban four books containing LGBTQ themes from the city library last week. The City Council voted 12-1 to remove the councilor’s request to discuss the removal of those books, blocking any potential ban.

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