Facing the Challenge

PLA webinar offers tips for protecting intellectual freedom in libraries

November 1, 2022

Illustration of a stack of books with a pickaxe
Illustration: Chelsea Feng

As libraries, schools, and universities continue to confront unprecedented attacks on the freedom to read, the Public Library Association (PLA) invited library colleagues to participate in “Facing the Challenge,” a virtual town hall held March 4. As those who have endured book-banning attempts and related legislative efforts know, the experience is often isolating and stressful. During this event, speakers discussed effective responses to the coordinated attempts at censorship currently sweeping the nation. (For a look at some of these challenge stories happening nationwide, read “When It Happens to You.”)

Presenters included Kathy Carroll, school librarian at Westwood High School in Blythewood, South Carolina, and 2020–2021 president of the American Association of School Librarians (AASL); Melanie Huggins, executive director of Richland Library in Columbia, South Carolina, and then–PLA president; and Deb Sica, deputy county librarian at Alameda County (Calif.) Library. The session was moderated by Angela Maycock, PLA’s manager of continuing education.

Organized book-banning attempts aren’t new, are they?

Deb Sica
Deb Sica

Deb Sica: The current situation is very difficult, but it’s nothing we haven’t dealt with before and nothing for which we don’t have huge amounts of support. I’ve lived in Texas and Mississippi, and now I’m in the East Bay of San Francisco, and I’ve seen intellectual freedom challenged for various reasons across the political spectrum.

The American Library Association (ALA) has had the Library Bill of Rights since 1939. It’s a one-page document that has lived through wars, through political ups and downs, and it holds true. We have 28 hefty interpretive documents supporting it, addressing content evaluation, privacy protections, collection weeding, labeling and processing your collection, and other things. If you haven’t revisited those documents lately, they’re a wonderful way to get into the historical underpinnings of what we’re going through now.

How do school libraries differ from public libraries when it comes to challenge attempts?

Kathy Carroll
Kathy Carroll

Kathy Carroll: With school librarians, most of our patrons are minors, and often that comes with erroneous expectations that the tenets of information freedom and the Library Bill of Rights do not apply. But they do. So we have to educate others that there is a set of guidelines that we all follow.

We have students at such a pivotal stage of their lives. They need to have access to information because they need to see themselves in the literature, they need to have that sense of self, and they need to see others and worlds that they cannot even think are possible. Besides providing the correct information, access leads to building core values of empathy and understanding.

Regardless of our situations, we must have a plan. We must be proactive and have policies in place. We should not work in isolation; we must have advisory groups and get other interested stakeholders involved. We have to talk to our administrators, and we have to tap into ALA and AASL resources.

It’s so important to have certified, qualified librarians in school libraries. When you have someone with the educational background and expertise in collection development, that will often offset many of the concerns that arise.

We’re not going to respond to attacks in kind. That is not who we are. We’re going to explain. We’re going to provide evidence. We’re going to do the research needed to educate. But ultimately, we’re going to stand on the side of the students.

How can public libraries support their school library colleagues? What do those partnerships look like?

Melanie Huggins
Melanie Huggins

Melanie Huggins: As a library administrator, when I see these challenges happening in public schools across our state, across our country, the first thing I want to say is, “How can I help you? Do you know that I have your back, that I will support you?”

If you can, get a group of library people together and start talking. Kathy and I have met with a group a few times and just chatted about what we were seeing. Our goal was not to be surprised and to stay ahead of what was going on in our state. We invited our state librarian to this group, and there’s a member from a private school and a member from University of South Carolina.

A week or two after one of our first meetings, when we had started sharing an online folder of resources, I got a call from a school board member at the school where my child goes. He said they had a group of parents coming the next week to talk with the board and asked me to help him get ready. And I was like, “Boy, can I ever help you!” Because I have these connections with Kathy and other resources.

If you’re a public library CEO, pick up the phone and call the superintendent of the local school district. If you don’t already have a relationship with them, make that connection. If you don’t know who the board chair is of the public schools that are facing these issues, call them and just say, “Hey, I’m here—whatever you need.”

Angela Maycock
Angela Maycock

Angela Maycock: ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom (OIF) provides support as well. Whenever you’re having a challenge, please contact them. ALA tracks the numbers so we can more accurately reflect what’s happening in the field and provides resources to folks who are directly responding to challenges.

Putting our principles into practice isn’t always easy. Any tips on how to respond to a challenge in the moment, as it’s happening?

Huggins: I wish I could say I knew exactly how to do this. I have had librarians in tears on the phone listening to people rail about something. For some public libraries it’s not so much about materials, it’s more about programs, because we do things that are very out-front.

I know school librarians sometimes are harassed outside of their homes—things have gotten so personal. It’s hard to say “don’t take it personally” when for so many people, it is personal.

Sica: One of the most horrifying experiences I’ve had in my career was with a mother with a high concern about content who just completely unloaded on me. The only thing I had going for me was a piece of paper: a request for reconsideration. Giving it to her took the energy off me and gave her a way to let her righteous indignation pour out. It’s not that we want to give people a form and send them away. It does take the heat off, and it is a coping mechanism. But the follow-up piece of that is, how do we respond?

As we go along in our busy library lives, we do all the things that make us function and serve our public and our students, but we often neglect collection development policy, or we do not have firm documentation or the proper forms in place. Staff training is also key.

I would say immediate engagement is not the way to go. Have that policy or that buffer in between; have reconsideration forms available at your desks and give them out and have a conversation later.

You want to be able to go back and look at the tools that OIF has given us to use and think about it. They have an entire section on just how to contend with challenges. Don’t get immediately in a line of fire—be thoughtful. And constantly remember that we’re modeling a behavior of inclusion here, a behavior of belonging, and trying to reassure people that there is something for everyone and that this one might not be for them.

Carroll: School librarians are encountering many of the same situations, though sometimes the grievances aren’t directly communicated with us initially. That’s why it’s so important to be proactive. If something is happening, we want to be in on the conversation immediately. We want to give the rationale, be the calming force, articulate what’s going on.

It’s also important to be able to articulate why having books that are windows, mirrors, and sliding doors is integral to the development of our students. We would be remiss if we just had books that would provide one narrative—then we aren’t doing our jobs. So that’s something we need to be able to share as well.

For librarians who may feel isolated or feel that they don’t have allies—or perhaps are facing a hostile board—where can they start?

Carroll: My first tip is to navigate toward your state colleagues. Almost every state in the country has a strong chapter association. Start getting in touch with like-minded people. You can have productive conversations and come up with strategies as a group.

Maycock: Many state library associations have an intellectual freedom committee or other group dedicated to these specific issues that can assist as well.

Sica: Reach out to community-based organizations, too. The mighty PFLAG parents will often come in and help support LGBTQIA content, or the preservation of access to that, for example. Sometimes there are supportive churches or other groups that will help to build the empathy piece of it. Building in a platform that enhances or complicates the narrative with the help of organizations that connect community is a way to go.

Huggins: If you have local allies and partners, that’s going to go a lot further when talking to school boards and trustees, because—I’m sorry!—they don’t want ALA telling them what’s right for their community. You can be buoyed up by all the amazing resources that ALA has to offer. But the face and the voice of your campaign needs to be local.

I’ve been thinking a lot about students and parents. When that school board member called me, I told him to remember that the parents that are coming and complaining to you are in the minority. Do not have a knee-jerk reaction just because of a small, organized, vocal group. That made me think about how public libraries could better help organize parents and students who want to be activists in their own communities. The National Coalition Against Censorship’s website has good resources for student-led organizing and parents’ organizing, so please check that out.

Sica: There’s a good example happening in the Houston area. There’s a small local independent bookstore—Katy Budget Books, shout-out to you—and they’re supporting students. I think they gave away 150 banned titles. Book distribution and student activism are ways to counter the challenges. And if people need a place to rally, they can come to the public library and do it.

Carroll: I think we can all agree no one has the righteous indignation of a teenager. When we get them on our side and we get them to rally together, they’re quite vocal and have a sense of conviction like no one else.


When It Happens to You

Library workers and school administrators talk about getting caught in the crossfire of book challenges

Librarian's Library by Allison Escoto

Up to the Challenge

Books to navigate threats to intellectual freedom