On April 21—day two of its virtual conference, followed later this week by an in-person conference in Orlando—IBPA conducted a panel on “The Battle for Free Expression: Indie Publishers and Libraries in the Fight Against Censorship.” Organized by PW editor and IBPA board member John Maher, the discussion offered insights from digital media, public libraries, academic research, and online education.

Moderator John Chrastka, founder and executive director at EveryLibrary, he opened the conversation by acknowledging that with every generation comes an effort to limit access to information: “What we’re seeing is an incredible number of book challenges at the local level,” he said, amounting to around 1,500 attempted bans in schools alone, across 26 states.

Emily Knox, an associate professor of library and information science at the University of Illinois iSchool, believes the current animosity toward literary content was fueled by Covid isolation. “School came home during the pandemic,” said Knox. Usually, school is “a black box—kids go to school and they come back later—but in the pandemic, that wasn’t true anymore.” Caregivers listened in on lessons, and what they heard surprised them.

“Education has changed a lot,” Knox said. “There’s much more about emotional intelligence, much more about teaching different histories instead of one history that was ‘agreed upon,’ but not really.” Parents and others sensed a loss of control over what children were learning, particularly in communities where residents experienced small but significant demographic changes, and in places where adults ran into their own “difficult knowledge” around sex-ed and racism. Knox finds that “book challenges are reactionary” and “most challenges are not in large cities. I want to dig into this, because this smaller shift has made a big difference.”

“What we’re seeing is a coordinated effort to remove access to resources … in essence, removing access to knowledge,” said Beth Thomas, immediate past president of the New Jersey Association of School Librarians and currently a library media specialist at Lawton C. Johnson Summit Middle School. Her mission is “maximizing access to resources like e-books and print books and databases” along with helping students develop empathy and critical thinking: “we want them to be discerning users of the massive amount of information that they encounter every day.” She worries about so-called “soft censorship” by school librarians who fear purchasing books with controversial content or who surreptitiously remove books blacklisted by politicians and activists.

Rivkah Sass, director of strategic partnerships at Smart Horizons online school district and former director/CEO of Sacramento Public Library Authority, remembers, “There would be weeks when I would be called a communist by some outraged person, and I would be called a fascist by another outraged patron, because of something that was on the shelves.” She expressed a concern that, under pressure, libraries might remove challenged titles, “using weeding as a tool, as a weapon.” Echoing Sass’s point, Knox cited Lester Asheim’s influential 1953 “Not Censorship but Selection,” an essay on how librarians’ shelf selections and omissions can amount to censorship. “Libraries should have fully vetted and constantly reviewed and updated policies for collection development that match their mission,” Knox said, and she encourages independent presses to recommend titles for collection development too, in the manner of the Alternative Press Index.

Mitchell Davis, founder/CEO of digital community engagement and e-book platform BiblioLabs and founder of the Indie Author Project, believes, “There has never been a more democratized environment in terms of publishing books about any topic.” Yet he does receive emails and calls “telling me to take books down, and a lot of times I don’t know what processes [led to it]. It can be that someone who’s influential saw a cover they didn’t like.” Davis thinks there is a flip side to soft censorship and “political theater”: “My guess is, there are also thousands of acts of soft anti-censorship happening as well, knowing what I know about librarians’ mission orientation.”

Thomas added, “If a book is challenged, we’ll go back to the review journals” to establish connections between the book in question and student needs in the district. A challenge is not a done deal, and publishers and review journals support libraries’ missions through the information they provide."

Says Chrastka: “I’m nervous about the chilling effect [of censorship], but I’m also confident that there’s a lot of brave publishers on this call today.”