Rep. Jamie Raskin (D., Maryland) capped off the second annual Libraries Are Essential program at the U.S. Book Show, a day-long program addressing key issues in libraries. “Libraries are a fountain of access to public knowledge,” Raskin said at the top of his keynote. “They are critical and essential in terms of civic engagement and the transmission of core basic values.” Raskin is the author of the New York Times bestseller Unthinkable: Trauma, Truth, and the Trials of American Democracy.
Raskin captured the tone of the day’s program by recounting something that happened to him personally just this week: he was "canceled" in two places. Russian president Vladimir Putin placed Raskin on a list of several hundred Americans permanently banned from entering Russia due to his outspoken stance against the war in Ukraine. And in Texas, Raskin's 2008 book We the Students, published in sponsorship with the Supreme Court Historical Society as a resource for young people to get acquainted with the Bill of Rights and the Constitution, was targeted for removal from Texas public schools.
“Both of these developments have made me think about how book banning is so closely connected to other mechanisms of authoritarian control,” Raskin said. He called the surge in book challenges and educational gag orders taking place across the nation "a full-blown effort to purge society of certain ideas considered by some to be subversive" with a focus on books dealing with sexuality and "America’s history with racism.”
The Battle Against Censorship
The morning program block focused largely on the issue of book banning, one of the most alarming issues facing the country’s schools and library systems in 2022,
In an opening conversation, Deborah Caldwell-Stone of the ALA's Office for Intellectual Freedom put the wave of book bans in context, noting that the number of challenges tracked by the ALA in 2021 has nearly tripled over previous years, due to an organized political movement that is targeting books dealing involving race and the LGBTQIA+ communities.
PEN America's Jonathan Friedman called the influx of books being challenged an intensifying attack. “We’ve seen entire libraries boxing up books simply at the demand of a handful of parents, or in some cases advocacy groups or politicians,” he said, pointing out an especially alarming trend: of the books challenges tracked by PEN America, nearly 98% aren’t being given due process. “The books are simply removed” in response to allegations from certain groups.
As noted by Raskin in his keynote and echoed by David Lankes, author of Forged in War: How a Century of War Created Today’s Information Society (Rowman, 2021), misinformation also looms as a major challenge in today's fractured, social media-driven political environment, noting that censorship efforts today are often based on undermining our trust in key institutions such as the free press (and increasingly, libraries and schools) by flooding the information zone with lies, alternative facts, and in some cases alternate realites.
“It’s the idea that the truth is out there, and you can't silence it,” explained Lankes, “Instead, you create so many other things to pay attention to so that the truth is drowned out.”
There is hope though, particularly in the large number of people, according to a recent ALA survey, who are opposed to the widespread influx of censorship: more than 70%, according to a recent ALA poll. “It’s about showing up right now,” said Caldwell-Stone. The concern has galvanized efforts to spread awareness through such grassroots advocacy campaigns as Unite Against Book Bans, which are aimed at promoting and empowering parents and voters to stand up and speak out in their communities.
Libraries Are Not Neutral
Other issues orbiting book banning is the misconception of “library neutrality” and the politicization of libraries and their collections. In a panel discussion focused specifically on the topic of “neutrality,” librarians discussed the myths of librarianship, the tenets of the profession, and when “neutrality” is relevant to the profession—if it is at all.
“There’s a fallacy about library neutrality,” said Nicole A. Cooke, and associate professor at the School of Library and Information Science at the University of South Carolina. “As librarians, we talk about information and access for all, which means everyone has access to library materials, no matter what the material may be.”
One persistent mischaracterization of libraries is the idea that they are, as Yasmeen Shorish, associate professor at James Madison University Libraries, explained, “places with books on shelves and anyone can come in and find books they want.” Shorish pushed back on this myth, instead defining what a library really is: “a place of community and the people building and maintaining the library collection.”
Renate Chancellor, associate professor in the Department of Library and Information Science at the Catholic University of America, brought up the historical context of the profession.
“When you look at the history of the profession, there’s no way anyone would agree that libraries are neutral,” she said, pointing out that for most of tthe 19th and 20th centuries, Blacks were not allowed to use the library in many parts of the country. And while the American Library Association was founded in 1876 on the values of equity and democracy, that mission, Chancellor explained “wasn’t possible, because not everyone had access to libraries."
Another system deeply affected by the current waves of book bans—arguably even more so than public libraries—is the public education system. “The public education system itself is under assault right now,” said Donald Cohen, founder and executive director of the nonprofit In the Public Interest. Cohen pointed out that today's wave of book bans is the latest front in an ongoing war against public institutions, with schools and libraries now under under assault. “The politicization of the bans is to have people leave public education and move to private education.”
In her remarks, Caroline Richmond, executive director of nonprofit We Need Diverse Books expressed concern about the rise of "soft censorship," where is librarians and teachers, facing intimidation from their administrators or from local school or library boards, decide not to choose certain books for fear or reprisal.
And John Chrastka, executive director and founder of EveryLibrary, was urged library supporters not to get too distracted by all the headlines and stories of local bans and actions, because the fight has already moved into state legislatures. "Focus on the state level,” Chrastka warned.
“Post-Pandemic” Librarianship and Equitable Access
Given the strain the pandemic put on all frontline workers—circumstances quickly followed by attacks on libraries and the librarian profession nationwide—the health of library workers is an issue that should not be understated. An afternoon panel, picked up on issues raised in a February webinar called "We Are NOT Okay: Library Worker Trauma Before and During COVID-19 and What Happens After." The Covid-19 crisis and its aftermath have exposed the signfiicant burdens placed on library workers, the panel poitned out, highlighting the need for systemic change to protect the physcial safety and well-being of library workers.
“Since 2008, we have seen large systems constantly have our budgets and materials cut, yet demand for frontline workers increased,” said Andrea Lemoins, outreach coordinator for the Free Library of Philadelphia and founder of the group Concerned Black Workers of the Free Library of Philadelphia. The strain has been a long time coming, she continued, and the pandemic only exacerbated it: “We were surrounded by black death during the summer of 2020, and our library system did not care.”
Library workers have labored tirelessly for their communities throughout the pandemic, and though many of the communities they serve gave back during that time, on the library system and governmental level, indifference still persists, panelists agreed.
“We’re finding that trauma is endemic across the library profession, particularly in urban areas,” explained Christian Zabriskie, executive director of the Onondaga County Library System in New York state. “It’s happening at all levels, and people are becoming numb, gaining a cavalier attitude to survive.”
Another panel addressed equitable access to digital content, which continues to be both a goal to strive toward and a point of frustration for libraries. Consumption of digital content shot up when the pandemic first hit in 2020, demonstrating firsthand the power of digital media in offering increased equitability and open access for both libraries and their communities.
But libraries are still caught in a one-step-forward, two-steps-back situation, with libraries facing significant cost increases to maintaining access to digital e-books. Carmi Parker, an ILS administrator at Whatcom County Library System, said that digital circulation in her system “is actually down from 2020, yet our costs have shot up 30%.”
Kelvin Watson, executive director of the Las Vegas-Clark County Library District, said more communication was needed between publishers and libraries, and explained that a step toward equity would be having digital access that is more similar to access with the library's print materials.
And Michael Blackwell, director of the St. Mary’s County Library in Maryland, spoke about the state's library e-book law, which a federal court recently struck down after the Association of American Publishers challenged the law on copyright grounds. Libraries are not seeking to undermine copyright, the panel explained, but to have publishers negotiate fairer and sustainable digital access terms.
“We need variable and reasonable license terms, licenses by circulation and not by time period—give us 36 circulations, not 2 years,” Blackwell said, addressing publishers. “Give us print equivalent pricing, don’t make e-books that much more expensive than print.”
A lunchtime program, meanwhile, offered a look at the growth of digital. Leading digital provider, OverDrive CEO Steve Potash shared data showing the sharp rise in digital lending in libraries and schools. And in a fascinating presentation, Portland State Univeristy professors Kathi Inman Berens and Rachel Noorda were joined by inclusive marketing expert Sonia Thompson to discuss the results of a recent survey on Millennial and GenZ digital habits.
A final panel focused on the challenges facing library leadership as libraries head toward a post-pandemic world, and face down some fundamental threats. "I truly believe that libraries are one of several pillars of democracy," said Austin Public LIbrary director Roosevelt Weeks, "that democracy is being attacked, and that we have to stand together to make sure we can stand not only for the people that we serve in our communities, but for democracy as a whole in this country."
Though Covid-19 remains a concern, this June will mark the first time since 2019 that the annual ALA conference will be held in person, set for Washington DC in June. “We’ve been told repeatedly that people missed the opportunities to come back together as a body,” said Patty Wong, a city librarian with Santa Clara Public Library in California.
This year’s conference will maintain safety protocols including masks and proof of vaccination. The conference acts as chance for librarians to discuss many of the issues mentioned throughout the Libraries Are Essential program in person among their peers, and, most of all, to regain some of the passion and energy that the last few years have sapped from so many.
“It’s an opportunity for librarians to show up [in Washington, D.C.,] en masse,” Wong explained. “It gives us the opportunity to show how libraries are changing, and what we can do to institute change.”