One of the troubling aspects of the nationwide, politically motivated surge in book bans is that poll after poll shows that the bans are happening despite voters overwhelmingly supporting their local libraries and the freedom to read. This week, a recent poll commissioned by the Michigan Library Association reinforced that American voters are largely pro-library and against book banning.
The poll, conducted in March, found that Michigan residents trust their local librarians and are against book bans by a wide margin. "Groups and organizations that favor banning books in Michigan are clearly going against an overwhelming majority of public opinion that opposes book banning," reads the executive summary of the poll.
In its coverage of the poll, the Michigan Advance noted that "efforts to ban books from public libraries" have embroiled a number of communities across the state, including Grand Rapids, Ottawa County, Dearborn, Milan, and Lapeer County." The article also points out that "book banning was part of Republican gubernatorial nominee Tudor Dixon’s platform for the 2022 election, along with vowing to enact a Florida-style 'Don’t Say Gay' law. Dixon lost by almost 11 points to Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer."
Among the poll's findings:
- 70% of all respondents said that librarians are very capable (33%) or mostly capable (37%) and trustworthy to decide which books and reading materials should be included in local library collections
- 42% plurality of all respondents agreed that “there is absolutely no time when a book should be banned from local public libraries,” while 45% said “there are rare times when it may be appropriate to ban books"
- 90% of all respondents said that “descriptions and depictions of slavery” should never be banned, while 89% of all respondents said that “discussions about race” should never be banned.
- 87% of all respondents said that “political ideas you disagree with” should never be banned.
- 67% of all respondents said that “books with discussions about sex, gender identity or sexual orientation” should never be banned
- 83% of all respondents said they support (67% strongly) state legislation that would protect the right of the public to read what they wish to read in local public libraries and not have books banned
“We have always known that most voters and parents hold librarians in high regard, have confidence in their public libraries to make good decisions about what books to include in their collections, and agree that libraries in their communities do a good job offering books that represent a variety of viewpoints,” MLA board president Scott Duimstra told the Advance. "We now have specific Michigan data to back this up.”
The American Library Association has announced the theme for Banned Books Week 2023, set for October 1-7, 2023, will be “Let Freedom Read!” Launched in 1982 in response to a surge in the number of challenges to books in schools, bookstores, and libraries, Banned Books Week brings together the entire book community in support of the freedom to read.
“As we’ve seen throughout National Library Week, as long as there are libraries, Americans’ right to read will not be overcome by censorship,” said ALA president Lessa Kanani’opua Pelayo-Lozada in a statement. ALA offers a variety of “Let Freedom Read” downloads and materials, and grants are available for libraries, schools, and nonprofit groups planning Banned Books Week events in their communities.
In Illinois this week, Secretary of State Alexi Giannoulias celebrated the passage of “first-in-the-nation legislation to prevent book bans.” House Bill 2789 passed the Illinois Senate this week and now awaits Governor J.B. Pritzker's signature. “The concept of banning books contradicts the very essence of what our country stands for,” Giannoulias said in a statement. “This landmark legislation is a triumph for our democracy, a win for First Amendment Rights, and a great victory for future generations.” The bill conditions state grant funding for libraries on adhering to the American Library Association’s Library Bill of Rights or adopting a similar policy against banning books or resources based on "partisan or doctrinal disapproval.” In a tweet this week, Pritzker, who spoke about book bans in his state of the state address earlier this year, said he will sign the bill.
The Illinois bill is garnering national headlines. Politico reports on the genesis of the legislation. “Giannoulias proposed the idea of banning book bans during his campaign last year and then approached Democratic state Rep. Anne Stava-Murray about following through with legislation. She had a special interest because a group of parents at a high school in her district demanded a book about a nonbinary person coming out—Gender Queer: A Memoir, by Maia Kobabe—be banned from the school district’s shelves,” the article notes. “The parents called the book pornographic. Members of the Proud Boys attended a school board meeting on the issue. After much debate, the book stayed, but the concerns lingered for Stava-Murray.”
PEN America has an insightful interview with Maia Kobabe, whose graphic memoir, Gender Queer, has become the most challenged book in the country. The interview offers a great look at what's really at stake in this wave of books bans: people. “I spent my teen years searching for queer stories and I was a high schooler in the early 2000s. There was a lot less representation at that time, and I felt like what I found was crumbs, side characters, tiny little side plots, one-off episodes and TV shows,” Kobabe told PEN America's Jonathan Friedman. “But I think if I had been able to find a book like Gender Queer as a teenager, it would have meant the world to me.”
At Book Riot, Kelly Jensen starts her weekly censorship news column by highlighting a handful of bills (including the recently passed bill in Illinois, and, importantly, the recently introduced Prison Libraries Act in Congress) that would actually “protect the right to read and the ability for librarians and educators to provide a diverse array of materials to patrons of all ages.” Jensen also has a great Book Riot piece on the student activists occupying UC Berkeley's anthropology library, which has been targeted for closure. “America is still the richest country in the world, and yet to cut costs, at one of the wealthiest public institutions in the country with an estimated $6.8 billion endowment, it’s the library on the line,” she observes. “This isn’t about a $400,000 budget gap.”
The New York Times also has a good piece on what's going on at UC Berkeley. “For the student occupiers, the fight is as much a battle over a library as it is over humanities and social sciences in an age when the world is obsessed with technology and seems eager to replace the physical world with virtual experiences driven by A.I.,” the article states. “‘It’s about fundamentally writing a different story about what education is, what the university is for,’ said Jesús Gutiérrez, a graduate student who works at the library and is writing a dissertation about folk art forms of the African diaspora.”
From Boise Public Radio, a glimpse at how librarians in Idaho are feeling after a bruising campaign to pass a ‘harmful to minors’ library bill, which Governor Brad Little ultimately vetoed. "If you know a librarian, you should hug them," Erin Downey, the Boise School District’s liaison for school librarians, told the station. “We are really struggling right now. It was hard enough showing up for work every day and having to explain what it is that a library does and what you do and that you're more than just a room full of books, that, no, e-books are not making all of your books go away. That's tiring enough. But then when suddenly it feels like your community doesn’t believe in you or doesn't believe in what you do or thinks that you're actively trying to harm children, that's really, really disheartening.“
Ahead of upcoming library board elections set for later this month, the Idaho Statesman featured a report on where the candidates stand on book bans. “Amid a statewide and national push to restrict minors’ access to library books, conservative candidates are now eyeing seats on library boards across the Treasure Valley. Some support removing books from collections.”
From NPR, a report on how library funding could become ‘the nuclear option’ for book banners. Among the perspectives featured is Jonesboro, Ark., library director Vanessa Adams, whose funding was cut in half by a ballot measure organized by would-be censors. “When funding was on the ballot there, only 20% of voters showed up at the polls and the funding cut passed by just 48 votes," the report states. “‘If that doesn't tell you how important it is to get out and vote, I don't know what does, because 48 votes cost us $2 million,’ Adams says. Now, Adams is spending some of the limited money the library has left on a consultant to help with its public messaging. As she puts it, we need to remind people about the value of their local public library.”
OverDrive celebrated a notable milestone this week: 20 years of popular library e-book lending, which began in earnest for the company in 2003 when librarians at Cleveland Public Library first “directed an eager local e-book development team at OverDrive to build and launch what would become the first popular e-book and audiobook service from a library.” It hasn't always been easy, but there has certainly been a lot of progress. Just check out this 2003 NBC News clip for a little perspective.
In the Boston Globe, columnist Renée Graham opines on the challenges facing libraries. “For lovers of books and knowledge, these are increasingly desperate times as ideologues demonize, devalue, and banish parts of our cultural foundations,” Graham writes. “Nearly 40 years ago Barbara Tuchman, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author and historian, said, ‘Nothing sickens me more than the closed door of a library.’ Now there are few things as sickening as craven politicians trying to close those library doors even once a week—or permanently.”
From the Newark Post in Delaware comes news of a new $44 million library project. “While the exact design remains to be determined...county officials want the new building to reflect the reality that libraries are no longer just a place to check out books or attend a children’s story time hour. They’re also a place for people to access a computer, study with friends, host a community meeting, use a 3D printer, learn video editing, find resources to write a business plan and countless other uses.”
Chalkbeat reports on the lack of school librarians in New York City. “The nation’s largest school system has about 1,600 schools and roughly 260 certified school librarians, according to education department officials. And among the city’s schools, a larger share of high-poverty schools had no librarian on budget, according to a Chalkbeat analysis of school budget item lines for librarians,” the article states.
And finally, via EdSource, California Governor Gavin Newsom celebrated National Library Week last week by penning “a love letter” to librarians. “Idealogues and demagogues are attacking you for championing diversity, inclusion, and equity—for making sure our children and all people belong. You are facing censorship, battling record numbers of book bans and challenges, as you defend free access to literary works, especially those written by authors who are often targeted: LGBTQ+ writers, writers of color, and those daring to challenge the status quo,” Newsom writes. “It is more important than ever that we have your back and that we ensure and expand access to public libraries and defend your essential role in preserving freedom.”
The Week in Libraries is a weekly opinion and news column. News, tips, submissions, questions or comments are welcome, and can be submitted via email. Previous columns can be viewed here.