A standout service of public libraries is responding to the wants and needs of their communities. During the Our Towns visits to dozens of libraries across the country, we have seen this time and again, whether in moments of crisis or during normal days.
In crisis: back in 2012, when Hurricane Sandy hit the East Coast and closed many library buildings, the staff of the Queens Public Library’s Far Rockaway branch set up shop in the parking lot to keep storyhours, offering a sense of normalcy for the kids. After the Orlando nightclub shootings in 2016, that library created space for people’s expressions of their grief and encouraged healing through stories, remembrances, poems, and art. When riots broke out in Ferguson MO in 2014 and schools closed, libraries stayed opened with activities and safe-keeping (and library cards!) for the children. When the pandemic hit starting three years ago, libraries across the country found work-arounds to keep up services as best they could, and to lend their skills, time, and even space to city hall, or county services, or medical agencies.
In easier times: when libraries hear that the public would like more outdoor seating, or hotspots to borrow, or special hours for seniors, libraries rally and come up with answers.
How ironic now that roles have reversed. Instead of libraries comforting those whose lives have been upended, it is libraries being upended by some of the public they serve. The issue now, as we hear and read, is about people objecting to books. Call it what you will: restricting access to books, book challenges, banning books, censorship.
I say “some of the public” intentionally. In one town, there may be practically no one who would think of banning books–and if anyone did, they would not confront the library about it. In other communities, usually where the population and the politics of residents are more diverse, people speak out and act out. Libraries are very local.
We’ve all read in the news about the dramatic scenarios of book challenges. The bad, aggressive kind, in Texas and Arkansas: And the good kind, in Illinois with its “ban the ban” legislation.
Book Bans: A little Perspective.
I recently reconnected by phone with people in three of my favorite libraries around the country to talk about how the issue of banning books has reached their doorsteps, or not. Here is what I heard:
OHIO: In Columbus, the state capital, home to The Ohio State University and perennial battleground for presidential elections, there are 14 public libraries, with two more coming, to serve more than 900,000 residents all across the socioeconomic spectrum.
Patrick Losinski, the CEO of the Columbus Metropolitan Library, has the perspective of one who has seen a lot over his 40 years in the library world, and in a town with a strong 150-year history and tradition of libraries. Columbus founded its library eight years after the Civil War, he tells me. Even during an era when the country was building segregated libraries, Columbus’s stand was firm. “Our founding documents said the library would be open to everyone,“ Losinski said, “When the first library was built in 1907, they carved OPEN TO ALL over the front doors. For generations, our community has adhered to this founding principle. And that’s a pretty darn big deal in my mind.”
Book banning is centuries old. Matthew Taub writes in the Atlas Obscura that Thomas Morton’s New English Canaan, a harsh critique of the Puritans, was the first book banned in America, in 1637, by the government of the Puritan Massachusetts Bay Colony. For public libraries, book banning is hardly a first-time issue, but as Losinski says, “it is certainly in a new context, given the divisiveness in our country now.” He has seen ”the ebb and flow of the kinds of challenges libraries are facing now.” “Right now, we’re certainly in a very strong spike of objections to library materials,” Losinski says.
Principles and practices: Libraries are solid.
As you’d expect, libraries are solid in their principles and are prepared for many challenges. In the case of book bans, libraries have not been caught off guard. The American Library Association (ALA) created a Library Bill of Rights in 1939, starting with point number 1:
“I. Books and other library resources should be provided for the interest, information, and enlightenment of all people of the community the library serves. Materials should not be excluded because of the origin, background, or views of those contributing to their creation.”
Both selecting books for their shelves, and when necessary, defending their selections is serious business for libraries. As Losinski told me, “we respect the individual’s right to object to the material, and to guide their own child’s reading, however, not to object on behalf of others and behalf of how others may choose to make materials available to their children.“
The Columbus library, and every other library I’ve talked contacted, has processes in place for book selection and for dealing with trouble when that might come along. Imagine, Losinski describes, that ”you have a staff member who’s going about their business helping customers, and all of a sudden” – and he CLAPS for emphasis, startling me even over the phone”–they’re faced with a customer who might be very upset.” To defuse the situation and move forward, the library can present a copy of the Library Bill of Rights, and a “reconsideration of materials” request form, which tasks the customer to describe the objection and also what they are asking, like to remove the book from the shelves.
In response to a particular challenge, the library researches a record of the book, including reviews, awards, recognitions, and data that can look something like this, says Losinski: ”It may say we have 34 copies of the book that you are requesting that we remove. And it has circulated 754 times since we purchased it without objection from any other customer. And it may refer to the Worldcat database showing that 812 libraries own a copy of the book.“ Librarians are nothing if not thorough!
How big is the problem? “I can tell you that in 40 years, I’ve never accepted a recommendation to remove a title,” Losinski told me. “And I’ve never had a Library Board of Trustees (a layer of appeal) vote to have an item removed.“ But what they have done in Columbus and in other libraries is to move a book from one section to another, often on age-appropriate grounds, say from the teen to adult section.
Responding on all levels to challenges.
OREGON: Emily O’Neal is the Technical Services Manager at the Deschutes Public Library in Bend, a rapidly growing town of just over 100,000, in the high desert of central Oregon. She is also chair of the Oregon Library Association’s Intellectual Freedom Committee, and in that role addresses all intersections where intellectual freedom meets libraries, including now, censorship. This work elevates book challenges to the highest plane of constitutional rights, First Amendment rights, and ultimately what it means to our democracy. “The legal battles are significant,” she says. “It’s a pretty massive undertaking that is really being pinpointed at libraries, with much bigger ramifications to our society.”
On the street level, in practical terms for Bend, how are they responding now? O’Neal says, “for us specifically, the first and most important thing is to be proactive.” Over the past few decades, the Bend library staff and librarians have been extraordinarily proactive in moving from behind their checkout desks into the community, embedding themselves in the civic life of the town by joining dozens of clubs and organizations, and forging relationships and building networks to serve the community overall. In that spirit, being proactive toward book challenges is an obvious and familiar posture for them.
The library helps educate the public on the issues with webinars and videos and presentations to their community partners. We want to make sure “that our community is there to stand up for the intellectual freedom rights,” says O’Neal.
Inside the library, being proactive means first, making sure the house is in order. That in turn means documenting clearly all the policies and processes, and the roles of the administrators. It means training everyone on procedures, from staff to administrators to the library board, so all parties are in sync should any kind of challenge arise. The goal is objectivity and following the well-documented scores.
For book challenges in particular, O’Neal says, “ultimately, the decision is not a content-based decision, but an objective review. Does this title fit our policy? Yes or no. And then re-up on our decision to keep it– or explain, ‘Oh, this book actually stopped circulating, you know, five years ago. So it’s no longer popular. ‘” The message from O’Neal is loud and clear: “we would never remove a title because of content; that is absolutely censorship.”
While Deschutes County has been relatively quiet, the state of Oregon received 43 challenges in 2022. The stories not counted in statistics are the most unsettling. These are the stories of people bypassing the formal processes of objection. O’Neal says, “They are using aggression tactics to intimidate both the board and the library staff. They’re slandering librarians’ names on social media… it’s very ugly,” Sometimes, the pressure is too intense, and books are removed from shelves — outside the standard procedures. And sometimes, challengers are getting elected onto boards, securing roles as deciders.
Even for those not directly in the line of fire, the toll on time away from normal library life is deep. For those, like O’Neal, whose job is to deal with book challenges, the lift can be heavy and the and stress can be severe. “The emotional impact feels unbelievable.” She says.
Quiet on some fronts.
VERMONT: In Burlington, population 45,000, where Bernie Sanders started his political career as mayor, some people refer colloquially to the two political dispositions as Democrats and Socialists.
The Director of Burlington’s Fletcher Free Library, Mary Danko, said that while book challenges are not currently an issue in Burlington, “from my standpoint, as a librarian in Vermont, I think what worries us the most, is what I would call the ‘chilling effect’ that this can have.”
We all bring what we hear happening elsewhere into our own lives in some way, as with school shootings. As parents, we may look at our own kids’ schools with a little more scrutinizing and evaluative eye. That’s chilling indeed.
Similarly, it’s an easy step to imagine the reports of troubles over book bans sending a whisper of extra caution as libraries make decisions about choosing books. As Danko says, “we hope that this doesn’t make librarians want to self censor, and say, gosh, yeah, I’m just not going to purchase that book, because I just don’t want to have to deal with the possibility. Yeah, something could happen.”
In its comparatively halcyon environment, Burlington can afford to take an old-fashioned approach: making lemonade out of lemons. They combine Banned Books Week, an event observed by libraries nationwide to raise awareness about the issue, with a celebratory Green Mountain Book Festival. Last year, Danko recalled “we ran a program out on the front lawn where people could just come up and read from banned books. ” People were picking some of their most favorite books that have been challenged or banned… To stand up there and say those words out loud, on our front lawn, it felt really powerful.” Sometimes people walking past would stop and listen, she described, or would sit down for a few readings creating a feeling of camaraderie and kinship, and making for a great experience.
And Party Time:
Today’s public libraries are busy on all fronts, from their traditional fare of lending books and providing information, to the come-again challenges of addressing book bans, to nurturing a spirit of creativity and fun in their communities.