With summer right around the corner, it was absolutely my intention to write a happy column. I thought maybe I could introduce readers to my new granddaughter, Claire, an eight-month old picture book fan, and maybe update my grandson Matt’s favorite toddler titles. But when I sat down to write, it was clear to me that happy days are still not quite here again when it comes to libraries.
Using “parental rights” as a fig leaf, schools and public libraries across the nation are dealing with an organized, politically motivated effort to pull books from library shelves—particularly titles that deal with antiracism and LGBTQ+ content. In Texas, for example, Governor Greg Abbott has proposed a “parental bill of rights” that would in some cases hold librarians and educators criminally liable for exposing young people to what he suggests is “pornographic” materials. Kentucky and Tennessee have also recently passed laws that give political appointees at the state level more control over the choices made by trained librarians and teachers.
In April, the American Library Association’s annual State of America’s Libraries report captured the extent of the threat—some 729 challenges to nearly 1,600 unique titles in libraries and schools, the highest total in the 20 years ALA has collected these statistics. “Young people need to have access to a variety of books from which they can learn about different perspectives,” said ALA president Patty Wong, in a statement announcing the numbers. “We support individual parents’ choices concerning their child's reading. We believe that parents should not have those choices dictated by others.”
In a January 29 New York Times op-ed, award-winning author Viet Thanh Nguyen perfectly captured the moment. “If our society isn’t strong enough to withstand the weight of difficult or challenging—and even hateful or problematic—ideas, then something must be fixed in our society.” But what must be fixed? And how?
Like most librarians, I’ve faced some book challenges in my career. In 1986, I was home on maternity leave when I received a frantic call from a colleague at the Onondaga County (N.Y.) Public Library. A complaint had been filed over Robert Cormier’s The Chocolate War and the library board was considering pulling the book from the shelves. My colleagues and I contacted the ALA, and ALA staff guided us in preparing a letter for the board. In the letter, we referred the board to its own policies that supported free access to information. And perhaps most significantly we had a library director, Robert Kinchen, who held a master’s degree in library science from Louisiana State University and was deeply grounded in the core values held by libraries. Kinchen worked with the board. The complaint was neutralized. The book stayed.
A few years later, a school media specialist at a local school district ask me to consult with her superintendent on a complaint challenging Anpao: An American Indian Odyssey, a YA novel by Jamake Highwater. In the 1980s, Highwater was a difficult author to defend. Many Native Americans were questioning Highwater’s background and authenticity. But his book had won a Newbery Honor and was popular. Once again, ALA helped guide our response. And recognizing the to need to support the freedom to read, the superintendent decided to keep title in the school media center.
What’s happening today, however, is something considerably more dangerous. In many states today, the ability to collect and make books freely available—the very foundation of our library system—is being systematically attacked. In Llano county, Texas, for example, county officials reportedly dissolved the existing library board and installed a new board more aligned with the county commissioners’ book banning efforts. Compounding matters, library supporters in Llano county (who are now suing county officials) say the new library board has ordered new book purchases be pre-approved by the board, and had even moved to close board meetings to the public. One librarian in the county alleges she was fired for refusing the board’s order to pull books from her library’s shelves.
I sympathize with all the teachers, librarians, and front line workers who are still dealing with challenges from the pandemic and now must face the stress of this frontal attack on the core of their work. Librarians make tough choices every day. Obviously, libraries can’t purchase every title, and some titles are harder to support than others. But librarians should never feel threatened simply for developing collections, something librarians are specifically educated and trained to do.
The MLIS factor
The need to defend the freedom to read and the core values behind collection development have left me thinking a lot about the value of the MLIS degree. Influencing my thinking on the subject is the trend in libraries in recent years to hire leadership without requiring an MLIS degree. In a thoughtful Public Libraries column last year, PLA President Melanie Huggins explained why non-MLIS managers and leaders are suitable for some libraries. MLIS graduates may not always bring great management skills, for example. And the MLIS requirement can hamper workforce diversity, a vital issue in the profession.
At the same time, Huggins also recognizes that library values need to be layered onto any non-MLIS hire’s education and experience from other fields. Is continuing education enough of a safeguard considering today’s attacks on intellectual freedom? Are there ways to ensure the right to read is wired in the DNA of non-MLIS professionals leading our school and public libraries? Some very smart people are trying to figure that out.
One of those people is my friend and former colleague Hallie Rich, Communications and External Relations Director at the Cuyahoga County Public Library (CCPL). Hallie joined the leadership at CCPL nearly ten years ago, with an MS in “positive organizational development and change” from the Weatherhead School of Management at Case Western Reserve University. And after working in fits and starts over the last decade, she received her MLIS degree last December.
Hallie has impressive credentials, has always been a passionate advocate for libraries, and even serves as an ALA Policy Fellow. But she says the MLIS program—with its emphasis on the principles of intellectual freedom, open access, and democracy—afforded her the opportunity to really “dig into library values and solidify her position.” And the foundational learning theories and concepts that inform the practical running of a library, she added, are crucial in responding to the kind of attacks we are now seeing on the freedom to read.
Hallie certainly had an excellent MLIS experience—she studied with R. David Lankes (first at Syracuse University and then finishing up with him at the University of South Carolina). Now at the University of Texas at Austin, David has spoken and written eloquently on the value of the MLIS degree and library education. In a recent conversation, he acknowledged there’s work to be done in MLIS education—including the need to bring more diverse perspectives and real world experiences to the classroom experience. In an increasingly divided country where book banning is ascendant, a library degree that truly reflects the diversity of our country, he says, has never been more essential.
Roosevelt Weeks, Director of the Austin Public Library, agrees. In 2005, Roosevelt joined the Houston Public Library as Deputy of Director of Library Administration without an MLIS degree. Libraries are “a people business” he says, and he has those skills. But Roosevelt also decided to pursue an MLIS, earning his degree from the University of North Texas in 2014. And the experience, he says, helped him learn how to “look past my known and unknown biases,” and prepared him to “speak out.”
And speak out he has. Last year, as school boards and policy makers in Texas began taking political aim at books deemed “critical race theory” and or featuring LGBTQ+ and other contemporary issues, the Austin Public Library was vocal in its resistance. “The freedom to read is a right that must be protected in our schools and public libraries,” Weeks said in a strong public statement. “We must not give in to the vocal few that want to speak for the many.”
Weeks says the trend to politicize libraries is a particularly troubling development, and says that all librarians, whether their libraries are currently being targeted by book banners or not, must stand up and speak out. He equates this moment to the civil rights movement. All people, not just those who were directly affected by racism, were compelled to take action for what was right. Because, when it comes to allowing a small, vocal minority to determine what we can read, “silence,” he says, “is acceptance.”
This coordinated assault on the freedom to read is a fundamental challenge for all of us, and it requires a united, unwavering response. I appreciate the work of ALA’s Office of Intellectual Freedom, which is coordinating efforts among various groups (including publishers, authors, and teachers) through its Unite Against Book Bans campaign. Librarians cannot stand alone in facing down these threats. We need a cadre of allies ready to fight censorship and stand for free access.
But I’d also like to see us work more closely with leaders in MLIS education. This organized assault on the freedom to read has highlighted core values taught in library school, values that we can lean on for strength. And one of the most important things we can do to safeguard the freedom to read is to create a surge of MLIS graduates who understand the importance of equity, diversity, and inclusion, and are ready to fight for diversity in our collections.