Louder Together

Three librarians offer practical tips on combatting book challenges by changing the narrative

June 24, 2023

Pictured: Erin MacFarlane wearing an orange jacket and has yellow hair speaks into microphone as Becky Calzada, wearing glasses with dark hair and a yellow shirt, listens
Erin MacFarlane (left), legislative committee chair of Arizona Library Association, and Becky Calzada, district library coordinator at Leander (Tex.) Independent School District Photo: Rebecca Lomax/American Libraries

Politics—and policy—are very much local. That was the message at “Changing the Narrative: ALA Policy Corps Takes on Book Banners,” a News You Can Use session at the American Library Association’s (ALA) 2023 Annual Conference and Exhibition in Chicago on June 24.

With the unprecedented number of book challenges in the United States this past year, “the rubber meets the road on advocacy when we’re working at the local and community levels,” said moderator Kent Oliver, retired Nashville (Tenn.) Public Library director and senior policy fellow in ALA’s Public Policy and Advocacy Office.

Oliver and a panel of three librarians discussed national initiatives like ALA’s Unite Against Book Bans and Policy Corps as well as state coalitions, and how they can be leveraged to “retake the higher ground for libraries and librarians in what we all know are truly dangerous times,” Oliver said.

For Erin MacFarlane, deputy director of Maricopa County (Ariz.) Public Library, that meant putting her “feels and opinions to work.” She became legislative committee chair of the Arizona Library Association and joined the 2020 cohort of ALA Policy Corps to help advocate on key policy issues on behalf of the library community.

In that statewide work, MacFarlane said it has been critical to reach beyond libraries, connecting with community college and school board associations to share messaging and talking points as well as seek support.

“Our voices alone are important,” she said, “but together we can be much louder.”

Creating these networks also provides a “pulse of what’s going on,” said Becky Calzada, district library coordinator at Leander (Tex.) Independent School District. Use these opportunities, she said, to proactively practice scenarios so you can be more prepared and confident in the face of a challenging situation.

Calzada recommended creating an FAQ of questions that often come up at the library, such as how books are selected. Posting this information online, alongside the school district’s core values and mission, ensures that everyone is “on point and systematic” when challenges arise. Referring people to a webpage can also help diffuse a potentially emotional situation. “There’s clarity and transparency, and you’re also able to build trust,” Calzada said.

Proactivity is key, said Amanda Kordeliski, director of libraries and instructional technology at Norman (Okla.) Public Schools. Her state’s school library association reached out to the Texas School Library Association to adapt its reconsideration and collection development policies for Oklahoma, and later shared that template with school districts.

What’s more, Kordeliski said, it’s “really essential” to be aware of what’s happening legislatively in other states, as some of those same policies may come to your state within a year or two—a trend she has noticed in Oklahoma following legislation in Florida and Indiana. Knowing what those bills will look like can help libraries prepare a message, create one-pagers, and build relationships so that “when that [bill] comes to us, we aren’t blindsided.”

Calzada also suggested building relationships with local leaders early. Send a welcome message and offer support to newly elected mayors, city council members, and principals. And anytime the library does something great, libraries “need to saturate social media,” advised Kordeliski, to remind people to speak up on your behalf.

Seeing the next generation of young people gives MacFarlane hope. “This is happening at a time when they’re learning how to advocate. They’re learning how to stand up for their rights,” she said. “Don’t let the really loud, small number of people outweigh the number of people who are in support of what you do and of intellectual freedom.”


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