Book bans aren’t going anywhere.
In the first eight months of 2023, the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom reported 695 attempts nationwide to censor library materials and services, according to a new report from ALA.
This translates to challenges against 1,915 different titles — a 20% increase from the same period in 2022, which already set a record for the number of book challenges since ALA started keeping count more than 20 years ago.
If anything, book bans are evolving. While previous years saw bans focused on books in schools, they’re now targeting public libraries, says Deborah Caldwell-Stone, director of the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom and executive director of the Freedom to Read Foundation.
“We’ve seen these groups pivot and go to the public library and demand the removal of the same titles from the public library, essentially taking them away from the entire community,” Caldwell-Stone says, “silencing the voices of primarily marginalized groups, LGBTQ people, books about the lives and experiences of Black Americans, people of color.”
And, as we head into primary and election seasons, book bans provide a way to “mobilize those who don’t feel comfortable with some of the topics that are being taken up in books,” says Dr. Sonya Douglass, professor of education leadership at Teachers College, Columbia University, and the founding director of the Black Education Research Center.
“You’re not going to like everything, and you don’t have to,” Douglass says. “But it’s about having the emotional maturity and wherewithal to take up these difficult issues and conversations as adults, and then make sure we’re engaging young people in those civil and civic conversations.”
Nearly 50% of Challenges Targeted Public Libraries
Public libraries fielded about half of the challenges seen in 2023, compared to only 16% in the same period in 2022 — “an enormous increase,” Caldwell-Stone says.
While there have always been conversations about what books should be accessible to students in a school environment, Caldwell-Stone thinks it’s “dangerous and harmful” to turn toward public libraries.
As in previous years, the majority of challenges were against books that were by or about a person of color or a member of the LGBTQ+ community.
“It’s an effort to erase the identities and the experiences of those individuals, to create the idea that they are genuinely outsiders, and that their rights and their lives are not worthy of protection,” Caldwell-Stone says.
And it doesn’t end there. Part of the attacks on public libraries come from local groups, who are now attempting to close down libraries when the books aren’t removed.
A ballot initiative in Washington State, recently ruled unconstitutional, proposed to close Dayton Memorial Library, Columbia County’s only library, over “exposing children to offensive books.” There have been similar efforts in other communities, and residents in Jamestown, Michigan voted to defund the town’s only public library after it didn’t remove LGBTQ+ books.
While there are a handful of these cases around the country, a new report from BERC found these positions, overall, are unpopular, Douglass says. “But educators are fighting back,” Douglass adds, “librarians are fighting back, scholars are fighting back.”
‘The Worst Basis for Censorship’
Another disturbing trend among book bans is the growing attempt to ban multiple books at once.
The ALA report found that 92% of all challenges in 2023 were part of attempts to censor multiple titles — and the majority of all school book challenges in the 2021-2022 school year came from 11 people, according to the Washington Post. Cases involving 100 or more books were seen in 11 states, which nearly doubled from the same period in 2022. But there were no instances of this in 2021.
Organized groups go to library and school boards demanding books be removed “simply because they’re on a list of bad books” that an organization compiled, Caldwell-Stone explains. Prior to these groups, a parent would see their child reading a book, have concerns, and take that to a teacher.
But now the people who represent these organizations demand books be removed “not because they’ve read them or have genuine concerns,” Caldwell-Stone says, but rather to censor whole genres of information because they don’t align with the political, moral, or religious agendas of these groups.
“It’s the worst basis for censorship,” Caldwell-Stone says.
It’s also evidence that they aren’t considering the books as a whole.
“They’re condemning the book simply because it touches on topics they believe should not be available to anyone in the public,” Caldwell-Stone says, “that they have the ability to judge for the entire society what is appropriate and right, and take away that freedom from all of us.”
When Does It End?
After a brief dip in 2020 — likely due to the COVID-19 pandemic — book bans have only continued to skyrocket every year since.
So what is the end goal? And how does this all end? There are two outcomes, Caldwell-Stone says.
The first outcome is that the organizations find success and suppress the ideas and voices of marginalized communities “that have just recently found their place in our society,” Caldwell-Stone says. The end goal of this is elevating one viewpoint and one narrative of history in the United States.
The other outcome is that citizens and residents come together and let elected officials know “we support and want to protect our constitutional freedoms and liberties,” Caldwell-Stone says. There has been some success as courts have determined that book bans violate the First Amendment rights of library users.
“Either we lose the freedom to access ideas and beliefs that a particular vocal minority disagrees with,” Caldwell-Stone says, “or we once again reaffirm the freedom to read.”
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