The U.S. Book Show kicked off on May 22 with a focus on libraries and the challenges facing them in the late pandemic era. Even as librarians update collections and fine-tune their services to meet communities’ changing demands, a vocal minority tries to restrict people’s freedom to read.

“In the aftermath of the pandemic, librarians were eager to envision what might come next,” declared PW senior writer Andrew Albanese, who introduced the day’s programming. “With all the cracks and gaps exposed by the pandemic, many in the profession were hopeful that we might finally address critical issues that have long been simmering.” Instead, librarians must contend with “a dystopian new normal” of individuals, organizations, and even elected officials using intimidating tactics and attempting to prevent them from making books accessible to all.

Albanese moderated two panel discussions: “Book Banning in America: What’s Driving the Nationwide Surge in Book Bans—and how Freedom-to-Read Advocates Can Win” and “Digital Trends: Three Years After the Pandemic Shutdowns Began, What Does the New Normal Look Like for Public Libraries?”

Fighting Book Bans

At the outset of the panel on “Book Banning in America,” Emily Knox, the author of Book Banning in 21st Century America, provided the cultural context for the recent spike in censorship. Noting that books have been challenged for decades, Knox emphasized that the recent wave of suppression “is unprecedented” in scope. Knox ascribed this to three primary factors: the pandemic, when “school came home”; the protests following the murder of George Floyd that shook up white supremacists; and changes in social media that make it easier for individuals to find allies and wreak havoc upon social institutions.

Describing books as “a catalyst to talk about these larger issues,” such as race and racism, sexuality, and “what does it mean to be a human being?,” Knox maintained that book banning is “more about power and control than it is about the books.”

Following Knox's contextualization, four panelists dove deeper into the matter, relating their own experiences in the culture war over books. The speakers included John Chrastka, founder and executive director of EveryLibrary, a political action organization; Kelly Jensen, a former Wisconsin librarian who writes for Book Riot; Amanda Jones, a school librarian targeted by right-wing extremists for speaking out against book bans in her Louisiana parish; and Raegan Miller, the director of development and finance for the grassroots Florida Freedom to Read Project. All four provided perspectives on who and what is behind the current wave of book bans, and suggested how to defend the freedom to read.

Individuals can act behind the scenes, Jones said, by offering moral support to those speaking up against book bans; they can also write letters to teachers and librarians, standing up for children’s right to read. Jensen, who believes the national media legitimizes the censorship tactics of groups including Moms for Liberty, condemned news coverage of book bans and urged people to write letters to editors, exposing the bigotry at the heart of book banning.

Miller urged people to attend school board meetings. She noted that when Florida Freedom to Read Project members show up at local school board meetings, Moms for Liberty representatives “tend not to be as loud,” adding, “when we start speaking, they walk out.”

All the speakers emphasized individual engagement and coalition-building among like-minded people and local groups. Advocates of the freedom to read often find allies in reproductive rights and trans rights organizations. Chrastka also advocated appealing to reasonable people who might not share one’s political views and building alliances with them against the small minority of extremists who “have gone too far."

“[Have] very frank conversations with people in power, whether it's politicians, leaders of different civic and social groups, [or] the business community," Chrastka said. "We do not want to live in a society where the marketplace of ideas is impinged, but truly the marketplace itself is being impinged.”

Inviting Publishers to the Librarians’ Table

Sometimes the threat to library resources need not come from insidious book bans. Instead, the costs of digital content can strain budgets, limiting the flow of information. Libraries allocate funds to license and relicense materials, and they pay for platforms beyond the library’s physical space. These expenses leave libraries unable to collect broadly or circulate materials widely, said the “Digital Trends” panelists.

“Publishers know that the public library is about open access to information,” said Edward Melton, executive director of the Harris County Public Library in Texas. “The more people read, the more they're going to use [publishers’] products,” he said. “Publishers need to come to the table with us” and strategize workable models.

Lisa Rosenblum, director of Washington state’s King County Library System, finds it “problematic” that “we’re still spending way more than what the consumer does to get the same product.” She called for more contractual flexibility, better options for concurrent borrowing of a top title (to limit wait times), and manageable price points.

Most libraries shifted their budgets toward digital during the pandemic, said Ellen Paul, executive director of the nonprofit Connecticut Library Consortium. “Is it actually that demand for digital borrows increased, or was it because of the influx of funds that libraries were able to meet the demand that has been there all along?” she asked. Either way, she said, the current system of metered licensing on digital content doesn’t work in libraries’ favor.

The panelists agreed on a need for effective legislation to address oversight of taxpayer dollars and help libraries bargain with publishers. “I liken it to the Department of Transportation being forced to pay six times more for asphalt than your neighborhood driveway contractor, and then having all of our roads disappear every two years,” Paul said. “I don't think anybody is happy that we have to resort to legislation. But the future of e-book lending is in jeopardy if publishers and libraries can't find a sustainable path forward. The truth is, we share similar values.”

Mobilizing Antiracists of All Ages

A message of shared values animated an afternoon keynote, too, in which Ibram X. Kendi (How to Be an Antiracist) and Nic Stone (Dear Martin) sat down with moderator Nicole Cooke of the University of South Carolina School of Information Science. Cooke asked Kendi and Stone about their recent project, an adaptation for readers ages 12 and up called How to Be a (Young) Antiracist.

When Stone read Stamped, Jason Reynolds’s young readers’ edition of Kendi’s Stamped from the Beginning, she reached out to Kendi about adapting How to Be an Antiracist. A young readers’ edition felt “necessary, because if you look at social movements throughout history that have managed to bring about significant change, a lot are driven by young people,” Stone said.

Kendi welcomed the opportunity to provide a new resource. “When I think of my own developing consciousness about racism, it took dozens and dozens of books” to feel informed, he explained. He liked working with Stone, a fiction writer, because “those of us who write nonfiction need to learn how to pay attention to development of stories, to characters,” to make history “more accessible to young readers.”

Cooke raised what she called “the inevitable question” of book bans that stand in the way of antiracist action. Pointing out that book burning fueled the Holocaust, Stone encouraged librarians and teachers to teach young people about the dangers of censorship and the importance of reading. Kendi urged library workers to mobilize “in a proactive as opposed to reactive fashion,” to “guard against” bans before they’re initiated.