I’ll never forget where I was the moment I got really scared. It was March of 2022, and I was sitting in the front row of a large ballroom at the Oregon Convention Center in Portland. Directly in front of me was a table of panelists, including Deborah Caldwell-Stone, executive director of the American Library Association’s Office of Intellectual Freedom. The panel was part of a three-program series on intellectual freedom at the Public Library Association Conference that year.
Deborah gave us a preview of new data the ALA was set to launch, documenting 1,269 demands to censor library books and resources in 2022. This was the highest number of attempted book bans since ALA began compiling data about censorship in libraries more than 20 years ago. It was nearly double the challenges reported in 2021.
That’s a jaw-dropping statistic. It’s like hearing the rush of floodwater before you see it.
Then, Deborah and the panelists shared stories that illustrated the growing threat. The one story that I’ll never forget involved a library in Campbell County, Wyoming. The sheriff of that county had received a report of alleged criminal activity at the library. Community members, who were challenging several LGBTQIA+ books in the library’s collection, alleged that the library board and director committed crimes by disseminating obscene materials to minors. A special prosecutor later rejected criminal charges. But still... that story haunted me. Filing criminal complaints against librarians for providing books is a threat to democracy.
The library is one of humanity’s greatest inventions. It’s been a pivotal organization in my life. Bonnie Brzozowski also loves libraries. She is a Public Services Librarian at the Corvallis-Benton County Public Library, where she has worked for 11 years. She performs a variety of tasks in her work. She answers questions at the reference desk, recommends books to readers, creates promotions, facilitates events, and does collection development. She does all that work because she values intellectual freedom.
But she has faced incidents of community members who seemed to question the intellectual freedom of readers. In one instance, someone tried to hide books about race, Black history, and LGBTQIA+ content in the bottom of a trash can. This, combined with the growing national trend of book challenges, led Bonnie to a decision. She is using her marketing skills to educate her community about intellectual freedom and the threat of book bans.
She started small. She created a trifold brochure listing banned and challenged books over the last decade or so. "People are really interested in this brochure,” recalled Bonnie. “And sometimes people come into the library seeking information about banned and challenged books and wanting to understand that better. So, we often will give them the trifold as kind of a starting place. It specifies what the difference between a ban and a challenge is and clarifies that not all challenges result in bans.”
Bonnie also creates banned book displays, and she added incentives to her summer reading program for reading a banned book. And when then Texas Representative Mark Krause released a list of 850 books he wanted to ban, Bonnie put them on the homepage of her library’s catalog to draw attention to the issue.
Bonnie and other libraries across the U.S., Canada, Australia, and New Zealand are part of a movement to fight book bans through education. They are explaining how their libraries make collection development decisions. They are talking openly about their mission, vision, and values. They are training partner organizations about how to defend the library against book challenges. And they are letting their community know about the threat that book challenges have on their libraries.
You might think that book challenges are made by reactive community members, who stumble across a book to challenge while browsing. But most book bans are the work of a growing number of organizations that have made demanding censorship part of their mission. They follow a formula for filing challenges and often use the same language in their challenges. For example, last school year, the group Moms for Liberty filed nearly 200 challenges in one week against a North Carolina school district. All the challenges targeted the same list of about 20 books.
Book challenges are scary and demoralizing. They drain money and productivity from your library. And most importantly, they threaten your library’s existence by compromising the service you provide to your community. That’s why this promotional work is so important. Everyone on your staff can, and should, play a role in promoting the freedom to read at your library.
When I left the panel, I had formed an idea. I wanted to do something. I’m not a politician or a lawyer. I’m a marketer. And it was clear to me that we can use communication to give power back to libraries. We can’t completely prevent these challenges. But we can make it harder for those who challenge your library to win. Communication is the key.