. . . But What Can I Do About Book Bans?

Jessica Fredrickson, Emeritus CLEL Training & Advocacy Chair

According to the American Library Association (ALA), 2022 is a record breaking year for the number of attempts to ban or restrict library resources in schools, universities and public libraries. In fact, it’s the highest record of attempted book bans since ALA began compiling these lists more than 20 years ago. Similarly, PEN America’s latest report on the growing movement to censor books in schools tracked 2,532 bans on 1,648 unique titles in 32 different states, impacting more than 4 million students last year. 41% of those books featured LGBTQ+ themes or characters; 40% featured characters of color.

Bar Graph: Subject Matter of Banned Content, 2021-2022 (PEN America)

Colorado Libraries for Early Literacy (CLEL) recently hosted co-chairs of the CAL Intellectual Freedom Committee, Miranda Doran-Myers and Dodie Ownes, to talk specifically about the state of censorship in Colorado. Miranda and Dodie took us through censorship trends, the groups behind the book bans we’re seeing today, and how to prepare/respond to program or book challenges. If you weren’t able to watch the webinar live, make sure to check it out on the CLEL Training Archives!

A lot of advice was centered around preparedness through training and written policy revision. Those of us on the library floor (and not on the library board) may have wondered… but what can I do?

Attend Local Library and School Board Meetings

As the old saying goes, “all politics is local.” What is happening in the school and library district where you vote? Formal reconsideration policies are great, but they’re only as strong as the people writing and enforcing them. Can you run for a position yourself, or volunteer for candidates who defend intellectual freedom and students’ right to read? Can you attend a board meeting or write a letter to the board voicing your support? If you’re not sure what to say, check out these templates from the #Freadom Fighters Project.

Be sure to check out the ongoing School Board Project, a massive database of every school board, school board election, and related information for anyone to access. Although Colorado has not yet been added to the database, with three Moms for Liberty county chapters and with more than $2.8 million pouring into school board campaigns last year, you can bet book bans are on the agenda. If you’re not sure where candidates stand on the issue, find out with this Candidate Questionnaire from the ALA Unite Against Book Bans toolkit.

Display Diverse Books

Check your shelves. Do books with LGBTQ+ characters only come out during Pride month? Making sure all of our displays are inclusive, promoting diverse books in our programs and checking out frequently challenged books ourselves are solid action steps. All of these actions drive circulation, and circulation statistics help library directors prove that challenged materials are needed and valued by the community.

Is your library partaking in Banned Books Week this September? Make sure to check out this recent Book Riot Article on how to create a good (and accurate) Banned Books Week Display.

Empower Your Supportive Majority

Florida’s 7th largest district (Polk County Schools) recently implemented a tiered restriction system: caregivers can revoke their child’s access to select titles or they can restrict their child’s access to the school library entirely. Of the 110,000 students in the district, less than 160 parents chose to restrict library access.

Although it is a small minority behind most of the book bans and challenges we see today, they are also an incredibly loud and well-organized minority. These groups have scripts. They have spreadsheets. They host meetings and teach their members how to run for public office.

We need to find ways to similarly educate and empower the overwhelming majority of our patrons! Many of our library patrons are not even aware that the library is governed by a library board. Does your library advertise their board meetings to the public? Is there an option to attend virtually? Are board meetings recorded and available for later viewing? The more transparency, the better. These are things we can all advocate for from our library leadership.

Moreover, do you personally encourage patrons to attend library board meetings and voice their support? When you get compliments on inclusive displays, encourage those patrons to share their positive comments in a letter to the board — and/or on the library website or social media, where the entire community can see. Take the time to also explain why you’re asking. According to a recent poll, almost 92% of registered voters have heard at least something about book banning. Now is the time to tell our side of the story.

Lock Down on Social Media

After seeing how local teachers and public health officials in my community were doxxed and received death threats during the pandemic, I decided to lock down my social media. It felt like only a matter of time before librarians became a target, too. (Look what happened to Amanda Jones, 2021 School Librarian of the Year). This was a difficult decision because I’ve learned so much from Library Twitter, but there are safer online spaces to connect with fellow professionals, such as private Discord servers or private Facebook groups.

Practice Your Script

Don’t wait for an angry patron to slam a children’s biography of Che Guevara on the desk in front of you or for the Proud Boys to storm your storytime before you think about what to say. Make sure you know your library’s collection development and challenge policies and feel comfortable talking about them. If you have questions or suggestions for those policies, take those to your library administration.

Rally Your Support Network

Do you know where to go for help? Here are some great places that offer pro bono advice, resources and support:

Be sure to also report censorship to the American Library Association.

Remember, communication with public employees is subject to FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) requests, so keep this communication on your personal email.

Stay Informed

Sign up for the Literacy Activism newsletter from Book Riot and check out Kelly Jensen’s amazing weekly reporting on censorship.

Show Up for Each Other

22% of librarians recently surveyed by School Library Journal reported not purchasing a book for fear of repercussions from administrators, school boards, or community members. But keeping silent and self-censoring for fear of “waving a red flag” won’t make book bans go away.

You are not alone. Talk to your friends and family about what’s happening and why it matters. Talk to your teammates. Reach out to your professional community. It’s much harder to hammer down the nail sticking out when all the nails stick out together! Solidarity gives us the strength we need to combat censorship.

Speaking of solidarity, you may remember that Colorado librarian Brooky Parks was fired four weeks after calling out a new library policy that censored programming. You can help show up for Brooky by donating to this Go Fund Me.

Colorado Libraries for Early Literacy supports children’s freedom to read. We believe that while caregivers reserve the right to guide their own child’s reading and education, individuals should not be able to make decisions for other parents’ children. Will you join our matching fundraising campaign for the National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC)? For the past 50 years, the NCAC has been a first-responder to protect freedom of expression. Their work includes the Kids Right to Read project, which focuses on supporting those facing book challenges and bans in schools and libraries.

From August 1 – October 8, 2022 CLEL will match donations made to the National Coalition Against Censorship up to a total of $500.

UPDATE: We met our $500 goal for the matching fundraiser to the NCAC. CLEL matched these funds and donated an additional $500. Thank you to all who contributed! You can always donate directly to the NCAC or other organizations that support intellectual freedom.