We are in the middle of the American Library Association’s (ALA) National Library Week, an annual celebration of all the things libraries are and do. The theme this year, More to the Story, couldn’t be more apt. There’s a lot to the story of what’s going on with libraries.
Public libraries have played a relatively uncontroversial role in American life since 1790, when Benjamin Franklin, in a gesture toward a Massachusetts town named after him, donated a collection of books—instead of the bell they had suggested—to establish the United States’ first free public library. A century later, industrialist Andrew Carnegie began funding the building of nearly 1,800 public libraries in the U.S. Supporting libraries was for more than two centuries widely considered a matter of civic engagement that existed outside of partisan politics. Even Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas wrote in his memoir about studying at Savannah’s Carnegie Library as a young man, and at the library’s 2004 reopening, Thomas was the keynote speaker.
Libraries can no longer count on such support from conservatives, who have mounted an assault on public libraries on numerous fronts, including inflammatory speech and threats of violence against library buildings, workers, and patrons.
The ALA documented over 1,200 demands to censor library books and resources for last year, the highest number of such attempts in the two decades the ALA began compiling censorship data. The books coming in for censorship at libraries mostly deal with the experiences of people of color or those in the LGBTQ+ community. And it’s often the same titles over and over.
“The record number of book challenges we’re reporting today are not the result of a parent filing authentic requests for reconsideration,” said Deborah Caldwell-Stone, director of ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom. “Overwhelmingly, we’re seeing groups and individuals at library board meetings demand the removal of long lists of books obtained from organized censorship groups who share these lists on social media.”
In Llano County, Texas, a conservative group sought to ban 20 books from the library and an appointed member of the library’s advisory board told a reporter she’d like to see over 200 more removed from the county’s three libraries. “I’m in favor of closing the libraries temporarily until we find a solution to the pornographic filth we do have.”
In Missouri, a Republican State Representative and chair of the Budget Committee proposed zeroing out the $4.5 million the state provides to libraries. A cost saving move? Nope: It was retaliation against the Missouri Library Association, which had joined the Missouri Association of School Libraries and the ACLU in a lawsuit contesting a state law limiting materials available in school libraries. The funding was restored by the Senate Appropriations Committee.
Last September, a county commissioner of Victoria County, Texas, threatened to evict the Victoria Public Library from the building the county owns over books—mostly relating to LGBTQ identities—that a group of residents wanted removed from library shelves. Victoria’s mayor directed the library to revise its collection policy so no “pornographic or obscene materials” would be available for patrons under 18, or risk having their budget for new material frozen.
Last summer, a group of Jamestown, Michigan residents calling themselves Jamestown Conservatives accused the Patmos Library of “grooming” children and promoting an LGBTQ ideology,” and accused staff members of pedophilia. In an August election, activists defeated the renewal levy that provides 85 percent of the library’s annual public funding. When the library went back again for the funding renewal in November, it was again defeated.
In Texas, the Huntsville City Council voted to outsource its public library operations after city officials had ordered library staff to remove a Pride Month display highlighting books with LGBTQ themes. That’s only the latest privatization attempt, which we wrote about earlier this year. A private company, Library Systems & Services, continues to circle around libraries that have faltered in funding or in satisfying book banning activists. Its efforts include privatization or partial privatization of libraries in Escondido, California; Farmers Branch, Texas; and Sumter County, Florida, among others.
National Library Week is focusing on a different theme for each day of this week, all of which can be seen as part of the ALA’s efforts to defend free speech and fight back against the many threats libraries face today.
Monday, Right to Read Day, took on the campaigns to ban books with a national day of action, during which the ALA released the Top Ten Most Challenged Books of 2022 (in perhaps an indication of the ever-increasing threat, the list is now a Top 13). And the organization provides actions you can take every day to protect the freedom to read.
Tuesday, April 25, the celebration showed love to library staff—they are the public-facing public servants whose libraries provide an ever-widening range of services and supports in their communities, including summer lunch programs for kids, seed banks, meeting rooms for community discussions, reference help for homework, Coronavirus test kits, and book recommendations that rely on human experience and not algorithms. But they are also on the front lines of the current controversies, bravely pushing back against efforts to ban books, as well as efforts to privatize and defund their libraries.
Today is Take Action for Libraries Day and here’s where you come in. The ALA is asking advocates of free speech to contact members of congress and asking their representatives to support the Right to Read Act.
Want to get more involved in the fight to defend libraries? Is your local library threatened by book bans, privatization, or defunding? Be sure to check out EveryLibrary, an advocacy organization dedicated to building voter support for libraries (the very robust News and Updates section is worth bookmarking and revisiting often).
While this week may be Library Week, every week of the year is free speech week. Our public libraries and the public servants who work at them help make sure of that.