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Rise in book bans is top of mind at Public Library Association conference in Columbus

Library professionals walk by a sign at the Public Library Association Conference at the Greater Columbus Convention Center.
Allie Vugrincic
/
WOSU
Library professionals walk by a sign at the Public Library Association Conference at the Greater Columbus Convention Center.

In a packed room at the Greater Columbus Convention Center, Kent Oliver with the American Library Association’s public policy office asked several hundred librarians a question: “Is anyone here concerned for the future of freedom to read and the First Amendment?”

Amid a burst of laughter, almost everyone raised a hand, even the folks in the back sitting on the floor.

Oliver and panelists Erin MacFarlane, deputy director for the Maricopa County Library District in Arizona, and Hallie Rich, editor of Library Journal, gave a talk on book bans and policy during the Public Library Association’s biennial conference in Columbus this week.

Public Library Association President Sonia Alcántara-Antoine said that most libraries today are dealing with the upward trend in book banning and attempted censorship.

“And that is extremely alarming, because in the United States of America, we have the freedom of speech, which includes the freedom to read, the freedom to access information, the freedom of expression,” Alcántara-Antoine said. “And we cannot have a healthy and thriving democracy if people are not able to read freely.”

Last year again saw a record number of book challenges, and for the first time, public libraries were targeted almost as often as school libraries.

Public libraries saw a 92% increase in attempts to remove books from shelves. The American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom recorded 1,247 attempts to censor library books, materials and resources in 2023. In libraries and schools, 4,240 different books were targeted.

"We cannot have a healthy and thriving democracy if people are not able to read freely.”
- Public Library Association President Sonia Alcántara-Antoine

“Policy attacks”

During his talk, Oliver said libraries across the nation are also facing “policy attacks” as some lawmakers try to remove legal protections for librarians, change the definition of parental rights or ban the distribution of so-called sexualized content, including LGBTQ+ material.

MacFarlane pointed to a bill going through the Arizona legislature that would redefine grooming. “This was flagged by the ACLU in Arizona. And they said, 'We're nervous that this is being done, so that they can then turn around and say, libraries are grooming children simply by having these books on the shelf.'”

That leaves the library in a tricky spot, MacFarlane said. If they speak publicly against the bill, it ties librarians to grooming. If they say nothing and the bill passes, it could have repercussions in Arizona’s libraries.

Rich, who was formerly on the executive team of the Cuyahoga County Public Library system, added that when legislation fails, backers have started reworking language to move it forward.

“The attacks are getting more sophisticated,” she said.

From left, Kent Oliver with the American Library Association's Public Policy and Advocacy Office, Maricopa County Library District Deputy Director Erin MacFarlane, and Library Journal Editor Hallie Rich speak during a panel on book banning and policy during the Public Library Association Conference at the Greater Columbus Convention Center.
Allie Vugrincic
/
WOSU
From left, Kent Oliver with the American Library Association's Public Policy and Advocacy Office, Maricopa County Library District Deputy Director Erin MacFarlane, and Library Journal Editor Hallie Rich speak during a panel on book banning and policy during the Public Library Association Conference at the Greater Columbus Convention Center.

Educate not advocate

This year is an election year, but Oliver said as government institutions, libraries cannot campaign.

Rich said libraries, however, can lean into civic engagement with candidate forums and voter registration events.

“That's educate, not advocate,” Rich said. “And those are places where you absolutely are within your rights. And I would argue your responsibility.”

MacFarlane added that library professionals can be advocates, as long as they do that outside of work. Libraries can also ask their friends and allies to speak on their behalf.

“We need to make sure that the community is talking about it,” MacFarlane said.

Many titles – many forms

Book challenges have increased so rapidly in the past few years because groups have tried to remove dozens or hundreds of titles at once. Often, the books are about the LGBTQ+ community or people of color.

MacFarlane said libraries can create policies to combat those mass challenges.

“For example, my library, it was one book per form. So, if you want to reconsider 100 books, you're going to fill out 100 forms,” MacFarlane said. “Very rarely do they come back with 100 forms that they've signed off on and said that they've read.”

Unite Against Book Bans also has developed “book resumes” for often-challenged books. The resumes give each title’s educational value and accolades, allowing teachers, librarians and community members to easily defend a book’s importance.

“We need to make sure that the community is talking about it."
- Erin MacFarlane, library deputy director for Maricopa County Library District

Frustrations

For libraries, processing challenges is time-consuming. Rich and MacFarlane said that’s frustrating when there is other more important work to do.

Rich pointed to a challenge to Shannon Hale’s “Itty-Bitty-Citty-Corn,” a picture book about a pink kitten that wants to be a unicorn. “Like that is absurd, and it is an absurd waste of our time,” Rich said.

MacFarlane laughed about her “favorite egregious example,” Adam Rubin’s “Dragons Love Tacos.” “You gotta take it off the shelf, because tacos, as we all know, are a euphemism for female genitalia,” she said. The room burst into laughter.

But MacFarlane said book bans are most frustrating because it feels the like moral outrage isn’t really moral, but political. “And I don't like that we're being put in a situation where we are political scapegoats,” she said.

“I'm going to talk to people and say, hey, be aware, book challenges are coming. It's a threat to our democracy. It's a threat to the First Amendment."
- Leanne Schneider Webb, Columbus publicist

The library community

Debi Stears, a collection development manager from Reno, Nevada, attended MacFarlane, Rich, and Oliver’s talk for the support.

“Our library is very much under attack,” Stears said. “Monday, before I left, I sent out 27 responses to challenges asking to have items either removed or restricted in our library system.”

Stears’ library’s policy is to read each challenged book, which meant she spent hundreds of hours reading some 6,700 pages.

Daphne Silchuk-Ashcraft, director of the Orrville, Ohio, Public Library, said she wants to be ready if someone challenges a book in her library. “What I've heard is that we're all on the same page,” she said.

And Columbus freelance publicist Leanne Schneider Webb was interested in the topic because a client is writing a play about banning plays.

Webb’s takeaway: “I'm going to talk to people and say, 'hey, be aware, book challenges are coming.' It's a threat to our democracy. It's a threat to the First Amendment. And we need to be ready to stand up and say, 'no, I don't want that in my community.'”

Around 7,500 library professionals attended the three-day conference in Columbus.

Librarians, vendors and book lovers traveled from all 50 U.S. states, and nine countries including the U.S. and Canada.

Allie Vugrincic has been a radio reporter at WOSU 89.7 NPR News since March 2023.