I have been a librarian for more than a decade, and a school librarian for nearly half of that. I didn’t get into this field to wage a war against a political system that has declared me the enemy. All I wanted to do was to make fun displays, teach teenagers research skills, and provide them a vast array of books to act as what the inimitable Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop called “windows, mirrors, and sliding glass doors.” Yet here we are in the middle of a fight that will have devastating long term effects regardless of who comes out on top.
I’m exhausted, afraid, and frustrated. But mostly I’m angry.
Book bans aren’t new, but we haven’t seen this kind of surge in years. In 2020, 156 challenges, censorship attempts, and bans were reported to the American Library Association; in just the last three months of 2021, 330 were reported. Countless more skated under the radar or weren’t reported to ALA at all. This new wave hit hard and fast and shows no sign of abating.
Banning books is always bigger than just the ban or just the book. It’s a concerted effort to whitewash and sugarcoat history, to deny the truth of what happened and who we are as a nation, and to continue the dismantling of our public educational institutions. This current surge is not a grassroots movement of individual parents wanting to protect their children. No, for the most part these are extremely well-funded, politically connected, and highly coordinated conservative groups determined to dominate and oppress.
Calling queer books “pornography,” passing anti-Critical Race Theory laws, removing books for the “crime” of asserting the humanity of marginalized people, threatening library workers and teachers with bounties and jail time, it’s all part of the same rotten plot. It boils down to bigots wanting to lock people, particularly children, out of knowledge of themselves and of the world around them. I think of the years I spent not knowing my queer identities and feeling broken; the thought of adults intentionally doing that to children, of them forcing children to stay or go back into the closet, fills me with a raging fire. I think of the mess this country made of its educational and political systems and see the throughline to parents and politicians trying to make that ignorance the default mode.
Which brings me right back to that anger.
I’m just one librarian and educator. I don’t have all the answers, and the ones I do are rooted in my personal feelings as much as my professional knowledge. A single article cannot include everything you need to know, but I can offer some strategies for both stopping bans before they happen and what to do after the ban is in place.
Before we get into it, it’s important to understand some terminology. People often conflate censorship, bans, and challenges even though they mean different things. A challenge is when someone makes an official request to have a book removed. Censorship is when portion of a book is edited or removed. A ban is when the entire book is removed from the collection. In the case of that Tennessee school board that went after Maus, the original complaints by members of the Board of Education were the challenges. The suggestion that they cut out or obscure the panels showing the challenged sections was an attempt at censorship. The eventual removal of the book from the curriculum was a ban.
These are the most basic definitions. In reality, things are more nuanced and complicated than this. Context, intent, and accessibility/availability matter a great deal. Weeding, when done according to a policy, is not a ban but a sign of a healthy, active collection. Removing a book from a required reading list but still making it accessible to students via the library and/or curriculum is also not a ban. However, moving a children’s book into the adult section due to its supposed controversial content is a kind of ban because as far as the child is concerned that book might as well not exist.
Do not donate banned books to libraries! I know it sounds counterintuitive, but hear me out. For one thing, if an institution has banned a book, sending them additional copies won’t do any good. Other libraries that haven’t banned it probably already have copies and don’t need more. Some libraries cannot or will not take book donations at all, and of those that do, few add donated books directly to their collection. In other words, all those copies of Maus people have been donating are probably going to the Friends of the Library to sell, not onto the shelves. If 100 people send a copy of Maus to the same library, the Friends are now stuck trying to sell 100 copies of a one book that many people will lose interest in once this news cycle ends.
Instead, donate money. Many nonprofits prefer cash over materials because they can spend it on what they need and when. Materials donations require time and labor to sort through. Depending on the library’s size and staffing (both paid and volunteer), book donations can be more trouble than they’re worth. School libraries can be restricted as to how or if they can accept monetary or collections donations. However, there are a variety of ways to financially contribute to a public library, from a standard financial donation to grants to special funding projects and so on. Contact your library to find out which option works best for your situation. In my experience, donating money to the Friends is preferable because most of that money directly supports the library’s programs, services, and collection development.
Ultimately, we cannot spend our way out of oppression. Giving cash is good; giving cash and taking action is better. If you really want to donate books, do your research and find groups or organizations that actually want and have the set-up to process donations. There may be little free libraries or book clubs who rely on donations. But don’t use donations as an opportunity to get rid of your unwanted, outdated, or worn out books.
As far as professional organizations go, advocacy and activism can be thin on the ground. Library workers desperately need sustained in-person, financial, and legal support. Personally, I want my professional organizations to go on the offense, to be on camera and online condemning these bans and to be in the room when these board meetings are happening. Sometimes it feels to me like some of our professional organizations are acting more like field hospitals when what I believe we need right now are generals on the front lines. The time for “bringing awareness” is over. We need to stop bans from happening in the first place rather than merely issuing a finger-wagging statement once the ban is in place.
Most bans happen with little to no fanfare or public attention. Administrators and library workers quietly remove books all the time without going through due process. Patrons and staff take books they don’t like off the shelves and purposefully lose or destroy them. Staff doing collections development may avoid purchasing frequently banned and challenged titles. When library workers fear repercussions (or believe they can get away with it), they’re more likely to preemptively remove “controversial” titles or not buy them in the first place, what’s known as soft censorship.
It’s up to you to find out what’s happening in your public and school libraries. If books are being removed, especially without undergoing proper procedures, get loud about it. Attend and speak up at school and library board meetings. Write letters defending your library workers and collections to boards and administrators giving airtime to bans. Protest and send out petitions when books are at risk of removal. Post on social media and contact your local news.
I’m begging you to be nicer to library workers and educators. Most of us are trying to do our jobs the best we can under soul-crushing circumstances. We were already pushed to the brink after years of being underpaid, underfunded, and overworked, not to mention vocational awe, job creep, and the stress of having marginalized identities in a profession that is overwhelmingly white and cisallohet. Like in nearly every other field, the pandemic pushed many of us over the edge. Thank the staff at your library and school and tell administrators that you’re grateful for staff’s hard work. A little appreciation goes a long way.
Library workers are in the trenches everyday. Non-library people, you need to step up, too. Vote in and run for library and school board positions. Campaign for more funding through tax increases or bonds and measures. Many libraries allow patrons to request books for purchase, so put in requests for titles by marginalized authors. Even something as simple as getting to know your library’s collection development policy can be a big help. If your school or public library doesn’t have one or doesn’t have a strong one, put pressure on them to address the issue.
Remember: many kids will never read a banned book. If they don’t know it exists, they’ll never know they’re supposed to read it. Not all kids are active online. Not all kids have a library they can go to outside the one in their school. Not all kids have library workers in their lives who are dedicated to having a diverse collection. Not all kids can afford to buy banned books for themselves, and even if they do track it down, they may not have the context around it or the benefit of an educational discussion. We cannot afford to tread lightly or wait for this banning surge to peter out. Fight wisely, fight efficiently, and fight bravely.
Alex Brown is an Ignyte award-winning critic who writes about speculative fiction, librarianship, and Black history. Find them on twitter (@QueenOfRats), instagram (@bookjockeyalex), and their blog (bookjockeyalex.com).