By Adriana White
Over the past year, American libraries have been under attack. Coordinated efforts to remove diverse books have spread nationwide, with libraries in at least 38 states reporting some kind of book ban or challenge. There are countless other challenges flying under the radar. The American Library Association (ALA) estimates that “90 percent of book challenges remain unreported and receive no media attention.”
It’s understandably easy to feel overwhelmed by it all.
But we can’t lose hope or stop fighting.
When State Representative Matt Krause targeted a list of 850 books, a group of school librarians in Texas banded together to create #FReadom. Similar advocacy organizations have popped up across the US, run by concerned librarians, parents, community members, and even students. While stories of book challenges are making national news, the battle against them is taking place on a much more manageable scale. As the librarians behind #FReadom point out: “All censorship fights are ultimately local.”
Here’s what you can do to fight book challenges in your own community.
Some common misconceptions
First, it is important to correct some common misconceptions about book bans and challenges. A book challenge is what happens when a complaint is raised about a book. Or, as ALA defines it: “A challenge is an attempt to remove or restrict materials, based upon the objections of a person or group. A banning is the removal of those materials.” Many books are challenged, but most do not end up being permanently banned or removed.
- Myth #1: “You should buy copies of banned books.”
- Reality: Purchasing banned books is usually our first instinct, but on its own, it’s nowhere near enough. As Karen Jensen of Teen Librarian Toolbox writes: “Buying the book will help keep it in publication, but it doesn’t necessarily help libraries, school or public.” Ultimately, it depends on what you’re planning to do with the books that you purchase, which leads us to Myth #2.
- Myth #2: “You should donate banned books to local libraries or schools.”
- Reality: Not all libraries are able to accept donations. Often, libraries need books to be in a particular format, with special binding that comes from specific vendors. For those that do accept book donations, challenges may prevent any donated books from being used. Schools that are being told to remove a book from their library shelves will likely not be able to give out free copies of that same book to their students. And more importantly, giving away copies of one banned book won’t prevent other books from being challenged or removed.
- Myth #3: “If a book is banned at school, students can just go to the public library instead.”
- Reality: Public libraries are not nearly as common as they should be. Many students live far away from their local library, and they may not have access to reliable transportation. Students may also have difficulty obtaining a library card, which often requires proof of a permanent address. Additionally, book challenges are beginning to affect public libraries, as well.
- Myth #4: “Having a book banned or challenged is a badge of honor.”
- Reality: Having a book banned or challenged can be incredibly traumatic for authors, especially those from marginalized backgrounds. Pouring their heart into a book with a unique main character and story, only to see it declared “inappropriate” or somehow wrong for being different, can be devastating. It also sends a horrible message to any writer or reader who can relate to that main character: “Your kind of story isn’t welcome here.”
- Myth #5: “Having a book banned or challenged will lead to increased sales.”
- Reality: Having their book banned or challenged can have a huge impact on an author’s livelihood. Authors could lose one of their primary sources of income: School and library visits. Most authors are unable to live off book advances or royalties alone. Once a book is seen as “controversial,” an author could be dropped from events, or they may be asked to talk about a book or topic that is more “appropriate.” It is also possible that library workers will engage in “soft censorship” with these books, deciding not to purchase a book if it might potentially lead to challenges or controversy.
As targeted attacks on libraries spread across the nation, people with good intentions shared a lot of these myths. And as these ideas went viral, they had the unfortunate side effect of distracting people from the more effective actions they should have been taking.
There was a moment, in the summer of 2020, when a lot of black squares were posted to Instagram. The intent was to show solidarity with the #BlackLivesMatter movement, but the end result was repetitive and confusing. In the aftermath of #BlackOutTuesday, some great articles were written about how a small movement with a clear and specific goal exploded into “a social trend,” lessening the impact of the event and minimizing the message its creators had hoped to send.
When news of increased book challenges began to spread in the fall of 2021, people wanted to do something to help. Instead of reaching out to organizers and activists who were already engaged in the fight against censorship, they tried to come up with ideas on their own, and excitedly shared them out on social media. These ideas were liked and shared and cheered—often over the protests of librarians and activists.
This kind of gesture, known as “performative activism,” is what happens when people want to be seen doing something good for a cause, even if it’s not actually helpful or necessary. These ideas can end up doing more to harm than good, even when they come from a place of good intentions. As these ideas spread, they can often drown out the voices of those who are working toward real change.
Librarians don’t want people to buy a certain number of books and then wash their hands of the entire affair. Activists want people to engage and become a part of the system, so these kinds of challenges are less likely to happen in the future.
What you can do locally
With all of that in mind, here’s what you can do to help your local community.
- Get organized. Start an organization in your own community, and research what others have been doing. A lot of people have been hard at work fighting book challenges for a long time. Instead of trying to reinvent the wheel, learn from their experience, and see what you can do to help. You might be able to provide the manpower or funding they need to increase their impact.
- Get involved in your local school board. Run for a position, vote in your local elections, and show up to voice your support for diverse books. #FReadom recommends “letting school boards and school officials know that you support diverse library collections that are addressing a wide variety of interests, maturity levels and families.” The #FReadom librarians add that you also want to focus specifically “on how this benefits students, [and] prepares them for the wider world of college or the workplace.”
- Keep your ear to the ground. As Alex Brown points out in their excellent Tor article, “Most bans happen with little to no fanfare or public attention.” Don’t let local book challenges go unnoticed. Keep up with what’s happening. Make sure you find out the end result of the challenge.
- Request diverse books at your local public library. Check them out. Read them. Recommend them to others. Request more. Repeat.
- Support your local libraries and library workers. Educators and librarians are experiencing a lot of burnout right now. Their jobs are difficult, and they don’t receive near enough praise for what they do. Let them know how much you appreciate them!
Defending diverse books can feel like an enormous task, but you can make a difference. As #FReadom reiterates, “although the national news and trends may be overwhelming, focusing on what you can do locally would have the most significant impact.”
Want to learn more? Here are some great resources.
- #FReadom: https://www.freadom.us/
- EveryLibrary: https://www.everylibrary.org/
- ALA OIF: https://www.ala.org/aboutala/offices/oif
- Book-Loving Texan’s Guide to the May 7th School Board Elections
- Dr. Magnusson’s Database of Book Bans and Challenges
- How To Fight Book Bans and Challenges: An Anti-Censorship Tool Kit
Have you witnessed soft censorship in your community? We’d like to hear from you in order to better understand where this is happening and how we can help. (Replies can be anonymous.)