When It Happens to You

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

November 1, 2022

Illustration: Chelsea Feng

High-profile book banning and boycott stories have included everything from Susan Meyers and Marla Frazee’s Everywhere Babies to Pizza Hut’s Book It! program, which some attacked in June for featuring LGBTQ books in celebration of Pride Month. These stories, especially when shared on social media, have accelerated the culture wars and negatively affected library workers and administrators, their work, and their roles in their communities. Here, American Libraries highlights five such stories.

“It’s important to know that this is a nationwide trend, and it’s very possible it will arrive where you are,” said Megan Cusick, assistant director of state advocacy in ALA’s Public Policy and Advocacy Office, at “Prepare Your Library for Today’s Censorship Battles,” a session at the 2022 Public Library Association Conference in March. She recommended that libraries prepare for this eventuality by having conversations in their communities, mobilizing their trustees and Friends groups, building relationships with key decision makers, and developing a communications plan. One of the best defenses? Having an airtight collection development policy, said Cusick’s fellow panelist and OIF Director Deborah Caldwell-Stone.

Library workers and administrators who find themselves caught in a book challenge or in the media spotlight should visit OIF’s resource page and report their issue. For more insight, see “Facing the Challenge.”

Sparing staff the stress | Walton County, Florida

Walton County, FloridaSometimes a book challenge story that goes viral omits key details, leaving local librarians, administrators, and book merchants the time-consuming task of clarifying what really happened.

“A Florida school district banned a rhyming picture book [Everywhere Babies] with illustrations of babies playing and sleeping,” an Insider (formerly Business Insider) headline reported in April. “School districts … are letting bigoted, unfounded claims dictate access to literature for all,” began another April article from PEN America. Both stories were written after the conservative nonprofit Florida Citizens Alliance (FCA) published the 2021 Objectionable Materials Report: Pornography and Age-Inappropriate Material in Florida Public Schools, pushing for Florida public schools to remove 58 books from their shelves.

Rather than go through a review process during what he says was an already difficult time for educators, Walton County (Fla.) School District (WCSD) Superintendent A. Russell Hughes located copies of24 books on FCA’s list across the district’s school campuses and—“being proactive,” according to his April 22 letter to the public—pulled them for review of content and age appropriateness. Hughes said the review will be conducted after the school year; as of late September, it had not been conducted. Contrary to what had been initially reported, “We did not pull Everywhere Babies, as we do not own the book,” clarified WCSD’s Deputy Superintendent Jennifer Hawthorne. A handful of media outlets that had initially misreported this incident clarified through corrections that the book wasn’t in fact banned by the district but had only been included in the FCA document. The pulled books remained available to parents who requested them, Hughes tells American Libraries.

Hughes says that as an education leader, he is tasked with “making sure that we keep a rein on good culture.” He thought, “Nobody’s going to be arrested or ridiculed, not my teachers or principals,” and he removed the books. “I took that on my shoulders to continue the trajectory of academic success in this county,” he says, “and not allow what’s going around the state to infiltrate our teachers.”

Hughes was frustrated by the distraction the situation brought to his district. “I didn’t know the misinformation would go as wide as it did,” he says. The allegation that the district banned Everywhere Babies “was absolutely false, and it caused a firestorm where there should not have been.”

Imposing personal values | Virginia Beach, Virginia

In February, Maia Kobabe’s memoir Gender Queer, and a few other books, were pulled from Virginia Beach (Va.) City Public Schools (VBCPS) after a school board member petitioned for their removal. (What’s more, a Virginia politician sought a restraining order in May against the local Barnes & Noble to block the bookstore from selling Gender Queer and Sarah J. Maas’s A Court of Mist and Fury to minors without parental consent. That case was dismissed in late August.)

Virginia Beach, Virginia

And yet, like many school districts, this one already regularly reviews and culls books for age appropriateness, says VBCPS Director Sharon Shewbridge. The district maintains an existing policy through which parents can indicate the books their children may and may not access. It was an exceptionally busy year for book challenges (with 16 in total), she says, so her district is responding by examining policies and readying standing committees of parents, teachers, students, and library staffers to help review books the committees deter-mine aren’t age-appropriate or relevant.

After several of those books went to committees for review earlier this year and the district received unwanted media attention, Shewbridge says she is particularly protective of the district’s media specialists. Critics, she says, malign them as “peddlers of pornography.” But they know their students, run makerspaces, and help kids find good information sources and books to become engaged readers, says Shewbridge. “[Media specialists] are the backbone of our school.”

Shewbridge wishes more parents could see that, by agitating to remove books on behalf of their children, they are imposing their personal values on other people’s children. “The library is a place of refuge and awareness and experiences of choice. What I’m doing with my children may not be what you’re doing with your children.”

Giving teens access | Brooklyn, New York

In response to the spate of book challenges around the country, Brooklyn (N.Y.) Public Library’s (BPL) Books Unbanned project—launched through the library’s Intellectual Freedom Teen Council—provides free e-library cards to applicants ages 13–21 from across the US who are experiencing book access issues because of censorship. Since the launch of the program in mid-April, more than 5,500 cards have been issued to young adult patrons in every state plus Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico, and more than 35,000 digital items have been checked out. The library also hosts an internship program in which teens are trained to give book recommendations to other teens.

The states with the highest sign-up rates for Books Unbanned include Idaho, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Tennessee, Utah, and Vermont. “You could be from what we would think of as a very liberal blue state, but there are small towns full of racist and homophobic people everywhere, and a lot of the time that filters down to who can check out what books,” says Karen Keys, who oversees the Intellectual Freedom Teen Council at the library.

Brooklyn, New York

Keys says BPL staffers have heard from librarians in other parts of the country interested in launching similar programs in their branches. “It’s been very eye-opening to see people writing over and over again to say they’re Black, or they’re queer, or they’re Jewish, and they can’t check out books about themselves in their communities,” she says.

The experience has enlightened Keys to the many ways that censorship can present itself. “There can be sneaky censorship, where a library is afraid to purchase certain books, so they don’t. It’s not like they’re banning them—they’re just not there,” she says. “It’s not always obvious it’s happening until you look for a book that is LGBTQ and you can’t find it, or you look for a book that deals with police brutality and you can’t find it.”

Circumventing the process | Madison County, Mississippi

Madison County (Miss.) Library System (MCLS) has a process in place for dealing with complaints about materials. “If someone doesn’t like a book, we have an informal conversation, and … resolve it that way,” says MCLS Director Tonja Johnson. A librarian may suggest books that better fit a patron’s preferences, she says. But if a person objects strongly, they are welcome to submit a written complaint that leads to a review. Johnson says this process gets circumvented in many cases, and she has noticed that complainants are increasingly going directly to the mayor or aldermen.

Early this year, Gene McGee, mayor of Ridgeland, Mississippi, attempted to withhold $110,000 in city-provided operational funds from MCLS’s Ridgeland Library branch—about a quarter of the library’s annual budget. According to Johnson, McGee told her via phone call he was responding to several complaints he’d received about LGBTQ books on display at the Ridgeland branch. The display in question featured more than 100 new nonfiction arrivals, four of which had LGBTQ themes.

In response to McGee’s actions, the Friends of Ridgeland Library group raised more than $112,000 to make up for the prospective shortfall thanks to an online campaign that went viral.

Madison County, Mississippi

One of the four LGBTQ titles was The Queer Bible, a collection of essays celebrating LGBTQ history and culture. The title caught the attention of someone visiting the library, says Johnson, “and it was portrayed as if we were pushing pornographic books.” Johnson says the fact that someone saw the word queer on a book cover and it led to such a disruption “was very unsettling.”

Ultimately, the city funded the library for a full year because the aldermanic board treated the situation as a contract—not a censorship—issue. Johnson and her team are now working to determine how to best use the donated funds. Meanwhile, MCLS signed a new contract with the city of Ridgeland, including a memorandum of understanding that emphasizes viewpoint neutrality and states that the city does not wish to “censor, proscribe, or remove any [library] materials.” The contract renews every year unless there is a call for review. “Our position is that we treat all books the same, and we maintain our collection based on the needs of our patrons,” Johnson says. “That is not going to change.”

Johnson was pleasantly surprised and humbled by the support the library received from around the country, she says. But she is also ready to move on from the matter: “My staff commented several times that all we do is answer the phone and answer questions about those [challenged] books. We’re so ready for this to go away.”

What’s been most hurtful for Johnson is the implication that her staff had done something wrong or couldn’t be trusted to choose materials for their library. “My staff is dedicated to our communities and treats everyone the same and tries to meet their needs,” she says. “To have it insinuated that there was something nefarious in their intentions has been very difficult.”

Filing suit against censorship | Llano County, Texas

In April, seven residents of Llano County, Texas, filed a federal lawsuit against the county judge, the four county commissioners, the public library director, and four of the public library’s 13 board members for restricting and banning books from Llano County Library System. The books in question include Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson, They Called Themselves the K.K.K.: The Birth of an American Terrorist Group by Susan Campbell Bartoletti, and Spinning by Tillie Walden.

According to the lawsuit filed April 25, the plaintiffs allege that the defendants “control which books are available at Llano County public libraries” and have “systematically remov[ed] award-winning books from library shelves because they disagree with the ideas within them” and “permanently terminated access to over 17,000 digital books [via OverDrive] because they could not censor and ban two specific ebooks that they disliked.” The suit also alleges that these local leaders have fired previous library board members and replaced them with ideologically and politically aligned appointees; that the county judge told new library board members they were not obligated to include a public comment component in their meetings; and that the library director told librarians via email to not attend board meetings, among other tactics.

Llano County, Texas

“We didn’t come looking for [this case],” says Ellen Leonida, the California-based attorney who is representing the plaintiffs pro bono. She and her plaintiffs have filed for a preliminary injunction to halt what she considers are the county’s attempts at censorship “while the court resolves the larger issue of the First Amendment.” (As of late September, hearings for a preliminary injunction are scheduled for October 28 and October 31.)

In a declaration from Llano County Library System Director Amber Milum filed by defendants July 15, Milum counters that plaintiffs are still able to check out and read the disputed books through Llano County Library System via interlibrary loan, an “in-house checkout system” that will rely on personal or donated books made available to patrons, or through the Bibliotheca cloudLibrary, which she says went live to patrons May 9. Milum also maintains that books were removed from library shelves “not because of the viewpoints or content expressed” but because the process was in line with “normal weeding procedures.”

Leonida says the lawsuit has been mischaracterized by the opposition in the media and in the community as having a political tenor to it. “It started with a bunch of citizens of different political affiliations who love their libraries,” she says. “They saw their books and their right to explore new ideas … being taken away in secrecy. They banded together and said, ‘This is wrong.’ They want their library back.”


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