1. Attacks on the Freedom to Read Escalate
In 2022, a pernicious wave of politically motivated book bans continued to surge in local library and school districts across the nation, with the overwhelming majority of book challenges involving LGBTQ authors and themes or issues of race and social justice. And as a new year approaches, observers say the attacks on libraries and schools are only intensifying.
The numbers tell a disturbing story. In April, the ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom released its annual report on banned and challenged books, announcing that it had tracked some 729 challenges involving 1,597 individual titles in 2021—the highest number of challenges since ALA began compiling its most-challenged-books lists 20 years ago. And during Banned Books Week in September, the ALA reported that the number of challenges through the first eight months of 2022 was on pace to shatter the already-record-breaking numbers from 2021.
Free speech defender PEN America also released some alarming numbers in 2022. In an April report titled “Banned in the USA: Rising School Book Bans Threaten Free Expression and Students’ First Amendment Rights,” it tallied 1,586 attempted book bans and restrictions in 86 school districts across 26 states. By September, PEN said that number had swelled to more than 2,500.
But the headlines and stories behind the rising numbers of attempted book bans really speak to where things stand. In 2022, a number of communities reported that far-right protesters had begun showing up at children’s events, intimidating staff. In Louisiana, a local school librarian Amanda Jones sued two men for defamation after being harassed online over her brief defense of the library’s collection policies at a public meeting. In Llano County, Tex., local library supporters are suing county officials in federal court for sweeping new policies they say violate their First Amendment rights. And in a story that has generated national headlines, the Patmos Library in Michigan was defunded by voters after librarians declined to pull a handful of books involving LGBTQ themes from shelves.
Library advocates say the pressure on libraries from right-wing groups is poised to enter a dangerous new phase in 2023. “Library supporters and freedom-to-read advocates will have to work hard to avoid a situation where ‘defund the library’ campaigns become the new endgame for book banners,” said EveryLibrary executive director John Chrastka, after the November elections. “If they can’t ban the books, will they instead try to shut the library down?”
2. State Legislators Take Aim at Libraries and Schools
In 2022, threats to the freedom to read escalated at the state level as well as the local level, with a host of new state measures targeting the work of libraries.
In March, Florida governor Ron DeSantis signed HB 1467, which mandates a public review of all public school instructional material, including library books, part of suite of laws signed under the guise of parental rights. In Tennessee, legislators passed HB 2666, which, among its provisions, vests the state’s textbook commission (rather than local decision makers) with final authority over whether challenged works can remain in school libraries. In Kentucky, lawmakers passed SB 167, which critics say will politicize library boards by giving local elected judges broad control to appoint members and veto power over large expenditures.
In Missouri, Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft proposed a vague new “Protection of Minors” rule for libraries that would prohibit state funds from being used for materials deemed to “appeal to the prurient interests of any minor.” The new rule follows the passage of SB 775, a recently enacted state law that threatens criminal charges for Missouri librarians and teachers found to have provided “explicit sexual material” to students. In November, PEN America reported that fear of prosecution under the new law has already led librarians and educators to pull some 300 titles across 11 school districts.
And in a proposal sure to get publishers’ attention, Texas state representative Tom Oliverson proposed HB 338, a bill that would require publishers to create an “age appropriate” rating system for books sold to Texas school libraries, while also giving state officials the power to direct publishers to change ratings state officials disagree with, and to bar schools from doing business with publishers that do not comply.
3. Congress Holds Hearings on Book Bans, Introduces a Bill to Support School Librarians
The surge in book bans and legislative attacks on the freedom to read didn’t only register at the state and local levels in 2022—it captured the attention of Congress as well.
In April, the U.S. House of Representatives’ Subcommittee on Civil Rights and Civil Liberties held a hearing on the coordinated attacks on the freedom to read in libraries and schools, and in May held a second hearing focused on schools. At the second hearing, held on May 19, chairman Jamie Raskin, a Democrat from Maryland, forcefully condemned new state laws seeking to ban books and prohibit the discussion of certain allegedly divisive subjects, like critical race theory and the LGBTQ community, calling such efforts “the hallmark of authoritarian regimes.” The laws, Raskin concluded, “are being used to undermine public faith in public schools and destroy one of the key pillars of our democracy.”
Meanwhile, two lawmakers this fall introduced a bicameral bill designed to support school libraries and protect school librarians. Introduced on October 6 by Rhode Island senator Jack Reed and Arizona representative Raúl Grijalva, both Democrats, the Right to Read Act (S 5064 and HR 9056) would authorize $500 million in grants to states to support school libraries in underserved areas. And, crucially, it would also extend “liability protections” to teachers and school librarians, which supporters say is a direct response to the rise in state laws threatening them with civil actions and criminal charges simply for making books available to students.
The bill was welcome news for school librarians, even though with just days left before the end of the 117th Congress it is all but dead on arrival. Advocates say the legislation lays down an important marker for federal action and will be reintroduced in 2023.
4. Conservative Writer Comes for “Woke” Librarians; Library Educators Clap Back
In February, conservative commentator Stanley Kurtz published a New York Times opinion piece provocatively titled “The Battle for the Soul of the Library,” in which he derided the library community for promoting “progressive views on race, policing, sexuality and other issues.”
Libraries should seek to “recapture” their role as a “neutral sphere above the fray,” Kurtz argued, claiming that library neutrality is rooted in “the classically liberal presuppositions that informed America’s founding,” specifically that “human beings enjoy equal rights and free individuals can be trusted to make their own decisions about what to read and believe.”
Weeks later, in a PW essay, a group of five library educators led by Nicole A. Cooke, the Augusta Baker Chair at the University of South Carolina, offered a strong defense of the important diversity, equity, and inclusion work that is core to libraries, and refuted Kurtz’s faulty premise of library neutrality.
“In unironically grounding his idea of library neutrality in the values held at the founding of America and venerating the traditions that protected the ‘equal rights’ of ‘free individuals’ Kurtz conveniently ignores reality: most people at the time of our nation’s founding—and for much of our history—were not free,” the essay points out. In fact, the authors continue, for most of the 19th and 20th centuries Black people were not permitted to use libraries in many parts of the country, certainly not a neutral position.
"The history of the United States is the story of our hard-won growth toward a more inclusive and equitable society, slow and winding as that road may be," the essay reads. "Working toward a fairer and more equitable society for everyone should be a source of pride and motivation. Today, however, there is a growing movement that seeks to reduce our rich, diverse communities into opposing political sides. In mischaracterizing the work of librarians, Kurtz gives this movement cover."
Written by Cooke along with Renate Chancellor, Yasmeen Shorish, Sarah Park Dahlen, and Amelia Gibson, the essay was one of PW’s most-shared library stories of the year and helped rally librarians in the face of growing intimidation from would-be book banners.
“We cannot allow political actors to turn ‘woke librarian’ into some ill-defined bogeyman,” the piece concluded. “Let’s elevate the truth instead: America’s librarians are dedicated, trained, frontline professionals working to promote equity in our communities and to help preserve democracy and truth telling in our society.”
5. A Groundbreaking Report Details Trauma Among Library Workers
No question, the pandemic changed many things for librarians and library workers. And in 2022, a new report from advocacy group Urban Libraries Unite offered an eye-opening assessment of the state of the library workplace.
The group’s 2022 Urban Library Trauma Study described a range of violent or aggressive patron behavior toward library workers, including racist and sexist verbal abuse; physical assault, including the brandishing of guns and other weapons; and drug and alcohol issues, including overdoses. In addition, library workers reported significant instances of “secondary trauma” from constant interactions with community members (including children) struggling with poverty, homelessness, mental illness, or drug abuse.
Stress and trauma in the library workplace have been growing concerns for years as libraries expanded to take on a wider array of community services. In an influential 2018 article in the professional journal In the Library with the Lead Pipe titled “Vocational Awe and Librarianship,” Fobazi Ettargh explored how the veneration of libraries as heroic public institutions has led to many librarians and library workers to endure unhealthy working conditions—a trend that reached a breaking point with the arrival of Covid-19.
In brief remarks at a release event at the 2022 ALA Annual Conference, the “Urban Library Trauma Study” authors, Lauren Comito and Christian Zabriskie, cofounders of Urban Libraries Unite, spoke about the importance of the document—and its potential to spark meaningful change.
“We really wanted to hear the voices of the people who are experiencing these things,” Comito, a neighborhood library supervisor for the Brooklyn Public Library, told PW. “It was important to us that people be represented from all levels of frontline staff doing public-facing work—that we had security officers and support staff and librarians all together at the forum and in the survey, to bring these issues to the forefront so we can start solving them.”
6. A Federal Judge Blocks Maryland’s Library E-book Law
It was big news in 2021 when legislators in Maryland unanimously passed a law to protect libraries in the digital marketplace. But after the Association of American Publishers sued, a federal court struck the law down in February 2022.
Introduced in January 2021, the Maryland law emerged after more than a decade of tension in the library e-book market, with librarians complaining of non-negotiated, unsustainable prices for digital licenses. More specifically, the law came as a direct response to Macmillan’s controversial (and since-abandoned) 2019 embargo on frontlist e-book titles in libraries, which librarians rejected as fundamentally inequitable.
From the outset, however, the AAP insisted that Maryland’s law was preempted by the federal Copyright Act. And on February 16, federal judge Deborah Boardman agreed. “The State’s characterization of the Act as a regulation of unfair trade practices notwithstanding, the Act frustrates the objectives and purposes of the Copyright Act,” Boardman concluded in a 28-page opinion. In a subsequent June 13 opinion and order, Boardman issued a declaratory judgment deeming the Maryland law “unconstitutional and unenforceable.”
The decision, combined with an 11th-hour veto of a similar bill in New York in December 2021, has served the AAP’s aim, all but shutting down similar legislative efforts in at least six other states. But the library e-book market remains contentious, and as 2022 draws to a close, library advocates in several states tell PW they have not given up the fight and are working on revised legislative language that won’t run afoul of federal copyright law.
7. Lawsuit over Internet Archive’s Book Scanning and Lending Advances
After more than two years of legal wrangling, a federal judge in New York City is now ready to hear arguments for summary judgment in a contentious copyright case filed by four major publishers against the Internet Archive over its program that scans and lends digital scans of library books using a method known as controlled digital lending (CDL).
In a final round of briefs filed on October 7, attorneys for the publishers reiterated their contention that the IA’s program is blatant copyright infringement on a massive scale. “In the end, the Internet Archive asks this Court to adopt a radical proposition that would turn copyright law upside down by allowing IA to convert millions of physical books into e-book formats and distribute them worldwide without paying rights holders,” the publisher brief states.
Internet Archive lawyers counter that its scanning and lending of legally acquired books is legal, and that the evidence shows no market harm to the publishers. “All CDL does, and all it can ever do, is offer a limited, digital alternative to physically handing a book to a patron,” the IA brief states. “What the publishers who have coordinated to bring this lawsuit hope to obtain from this Court is not protection from harm to their existing rights. Instead, they seek a new right foreign to American copyright law: the right to control how libraries lend books.”
With the cross-motions for summary judgment now fully briefed, a hearing before Judge John G. Koeltl is likely the next step. But barring a settlement, the case will probably not be resolved anytime soon. If neither side prevails at the summary judgment stage, the case heads to a trial. And however the summary judgment ruling goes, an appeal is almost certain.
8. In-Person Library Conferences Return
After more than two years of virtual conferences, 2022 saw the return of major in-person library conferences—including the first ALA Annual Conference in three years. But while attendees were delighted to see their colleagues and friends in person once again, questions still swirl around the future of in-person conferences.
The good news: the ALA Annual Conference and the Public Library Association conference, both major events, exceeded expectations. PLA’s conference drew nearly 5,000 in-person attendees to Portland, Ore., March 23–26, surpassing the 4,000 expected to attend. And ALA reported that more than 13,000 in-person attendees were in Washington, D.C., June 23–28, for its conference. The event in D.C. was supercharged by protests after the Supreme Court announced its decision to overturn Roe v. Wade.
What comes next for library conferences? A major test looms just weeks away, with the ALA’s first in-person LibLearnX set for Jan. 27–31, 2023, in New Orleans. LibLearnX is the revamped library conference designed to replace the ALA’s defunct Midwinter Meeting. After years of planning, LibLearnX debuted in January 2022, but in a virtual format after the in-person portion of the event was canceled over concerns about safety protocols in the host city of San Antonio, Tex.
And mark your calendars: the next ALA Annual Conference is set for June 22–27, 2023, in ALA’s hometown of Chicago—a city that traditionally draws strong attendance. That event could offer a major clue as to the future of library conferences.
9. The White House Issues a Landmark Open Access Order
In a major win for open access advocates, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) issued a much-heralded order in August directing all federal departments and agencies to make the results of taxpayer-supported research available to the American public without delay or cost. The order is the culmination of a nearly 20-year push by advocates, including the library community, for open access. But with compliance not required for three years, observers say the policy could still change.
The issue of public access to taxpayer-funded research has been the subject of repeated administrative and legislative action over the years—most recently a 2019 proposal floated by the Trump administration that drew a sharp rebuke from the AAP. But in an August 25 memorandum, OSTP head Alondra Nelson gave a deadline of Dec. 31, 2025, for agency heads to implement policies that will ensure taxpayer-funded research be made “publicly accessible, without an embargo, or cost.” Current policy allows agencies to permit embargoes for journal articles for up to a year.
“When research is widely available to other researchers and the public, it can save lives, provide policymakers with the tools to make critical decisions, and drive more equitable outcomes across every sector of society,” Nelson explained in a statement accompanying her order.
Publishers, however, remain skeptical of the move. “In a no-embargo environment, in which private publications will be made immediately available by the government for free, our primary concerns are about business sustainability and quality,” said Shelley Husband, AAP senior v-p for government affairs.
10. Tracie D. Hall Receives the National Book Foundation’s Literarian Award
In November, the National Book Foundation made a strong statement about the importance of libraries by honoring ALA executive director Tracie D. Hall with the 2022 Literarian Award for Outstanding Service to the American Literary Community. It is the second year in a row (and the second time ever) the NBF has given the honor to a librarian, with Nancy Pearl becoming the first librarian to win the award in 2021.
In February 2020 Hall became the 10th executive director of the ALA, as well as the first Black woman to lead the association. It’s been an eventful first two years, with ALA undergoing a long-planned modernization effort, libraries nationwide grappling the with the impact of the pandemic, a long overdue social and racial justice awakening, and a wave of politically motivated attacks on the freedom to read.
Taking the stage to accept the honor, Hall hoisted the award overhead and dedicated the honor to “two groups of people” who “lit a lifelong fire” within her: people who long to read, and people who fight for the right to read.
“Inevitably, when you tell someone you are a librarian they comment that you must really love to read," Hall said. "Surely, loving reading is a prerequisite. But loving reading is not what makes you a librarian. What makes one a librarian is when you begin to truly understand that our democracy depends on people having the opportunity to think and write and read and share their stories openly. What makes one a librarian is that once you have witnessed the transformation that occurs when someone comes across a book or resource that truly flips on a switch in their lives and changes their lives, after that, you want everyone to have that same opportunity and you are willing to fight for it.”