It was a big week for free speech advocates. As we reported in Publishers Weekly, PEN America filed a major lawsuit (with Penguin Random House, a group of authors, and a group of parents) alleging that school administrators in Escambia County, Florida, are illegally banning and restricting access to books in school libraries. Supporters say it is an important escalation in the defense of the freedom to read, especially in that it includes a major publisher.
Meanwhile, at their annual gala on May 18, PEN America had a surprise guest: author Salman Rushdie. The Associated Press reports that the award-winning author and free speech advocate, who was brutally attacked and nearly killed onstage just nine months ago, gave a brief speech in which he warned of the unprecedented threat to freedom of expression in the U.S.
"We live in a moment, I think, at which freedom of expression, the freedom to publish has not in my lifetime been under such threat in the countries of the West," Rushdie said, according to the AP report. "Sitting here in the U.S., I have to look at the extraordinary attack on libraries, and books for children in schools.... The attack on the idea of libraries themselves. It is quite remarkably alarming, and we need to be very aware of it, and to fight against it very hard.”
The New York Times also covered the gala. "During the dinner under the museum’s 94-foot blue whale, the mood was festive but pointed," the Times reports. "Satire—and the right of comedians to offend—has become an increasingly charged issue in the United States. But the moral center of the evening was the struggle against government repression."
From Hong Kong, a reminder of just how vital the freedom to read and the freedom to publish are. NBC News reports that officials are under fire for pulling books from relating to the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests. "Hong Kong is a former British colony that returned to China’s rule in 1997, promising to retain its Western-style freedoms. But the city’s cultural and creative sectors said the city’s freedoms have shrunk since Beijing imposed a tough national security law following massive pro-democracy protests in 2019," the report notes. According to the report, Hong Kong chief executive John Lee defended pulling the books and explained to reporters that "the books we offer for residents to borrow are those that we recommend," and that Hong Kong libraries "would never recommend books that we deem to be featuring bad ideologies."
The fight against book bans will be a big part of the conversation at the third annual Libraries Are Essential virtual program at the U.S. Book Show, which is set for Monday, May 22 from10:30 a.m.-2 p.m. The program again features a great lineup of speakers, and it's always a privilege to be able to host these conversations and highlight for the publishing community the central role libraries and librarians play in society, as well as some of the challenges they face. This year's program will focus on some of the key issues librarians are grappling with as we come of out the pandemic, including the unprecedented surge in book bans and how the post-pandemic digital library market is evolving.
Immediately following the 2023 Libraries Are Essential Program, the U.S. Book Show is excited to host the first AAPI Communities in Conversation online program (Monday May 22, 2-4:15 p.m.). This lively series of panels will center on Asian American and Pacific Islander voices, books, cultures, and experiences, and features authors, creators, and librarians. The program is a collaborative effort from the University of South Carolina’s Augusta Baker endowed chair, Penguin Random House Library Marketing, and PW. We hope you can join us!
The Los Angeles Times this week has a feature on the Florida Freedom to Freedom to Read Project. "[Jen] Cousins and Stephana Ferrell founded the Florida Freedom to Read Project after meeting at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic to support mask-wearing in schools. They confronted conservative parental rights groups, including Moms for Liberty, that opposed COVID-19 restrictions and would later challenge 'liberal indoctrination' on the teaching of racial equality and gender," writes staff writer Jeffrey Fleishman. "'I didn’t know it would lead to any of this when I was sitting in a school board meeting two years ago,' said Ferrell, a mother of two elementary students who shut down her photography business to concentrate on fighting censorship. 'We chose public schools because of diversity. But diversity is under attack. They’re targeting minority communities whose stories are only just getting out there on the shelves.'" We're happy to say that Florida Freedom to Read Project's Raegan Miller is part of our Libraries Are Essential morning program on book bans.
In the Washington Post, Hannah Natanson writes about the surge in legislation threatening librarians with jail time for providing allegedly harmful books. "At least seven states have passed such laws in the last two years, according to a Washington Post analysis, six of them in the past two months—although governors of Idaho and North Dakota vetoed the legislation. Another dozen states considered more than 20 similar bills this year, half of which are likely to come up again in 2024," the Post reports. "Some of the laws impose severe penalties on librarians, who until now were exempted in almost every state from prosecution over obscene material—a carve-out meant to permit accurate lessons in topics such as sex education. All but one of the new laws target schools, while some also target the staff of public libraries and one affects book vendors."
In Michigan, MLive has a story (based on a documentary short film) on the effort to censor Maia Kobabe's graphic memoir Gender Queer in Michigan libraries, including the Patmos Library in Jamestown, which garnered national media attention after voters defunded the library for refusing to pull the book. "Cierra Bakovka, a former adult services librarian for the Patmos Library, said the book was kept on the shelves out of a need for patrons 'to have all the choices they could ever need,'" the article notes. "To see Patmos at risk of closing over it was heartbreaking—especially considering that, to Bakovka, there was never a real question over whether to pull the book. 'A lot of people like to read books that they relate to, that are about them, but it’s super important to know that not every community is made up of the same people,' she said... You do your best to make sure everyone is represented. Not just who’s the loudest.'"
At Book Riot, Kelly Jensen leads her must-read weekly censorship news column with a look at Senate Bill 2 in Connecticut, which would offer grant funds to public libraries in support of the freedom to read. "Such bills will not end the onslaught of book bans," Jensen warns. "What they do, though, is offer opportunities for libraries to protect themselves one step at a time and ensure that the majority of people—who time and time again emphasize seeing book bans as inappropriate and unpopular—will have their libraries represent them. Moreover, these bills aid in rallying for more legislative action in other states and municipalities to protect the right to read." We're also happy to say that Kelly Jensen is part of the U.S. Book Show's Libraries Are Essential morning program on book bans.
In Iowa, the Gazette reports that Juno Dawson's This Book is Gay has been returned to Iowa City school libraries two months after it was temporarily removed following bomb threats were called in to a local junior high school. "The bomb threats—which investigators determined were not credible—were part of a nationwide effort to cause disruption and panic in schools and draw attention to the availability of This Book is Gay in school libraries," the article notes, adding that "Iowa City school administrators decided to send the book through the reconsideration process because of the 'unique events' of the bomb threats." The three member committee voted to return the book to the library and the district superintendent "supported the recommendation of the committee."
The Colorado Times Recorder has an eye-opening report on some recent book bans in the community involving a school administrator. "Academy School District 20 in Colorado Springs has removed three books from school libraries after receiving a letter from members of a conservative activist group that claims the books meet the legal definition of obscenity, according to emails obtained by a Colorado Open Records Act Request," the article states. In response, the report reveals, the district superintendent sent an email to principals "authorizing" them to pull the books without due process.
"'I am writing to let you know that this email authorizes you to remove the books identified in the letter you received earlier this week prior to waiting for a formal challenge to be filed. A principal has the authority to determine the materials that reside in the library of the school and I want you to know you have my support in making that decision.'" the superintendent wrote to school principals, according the report. The books reportedly include Push by Sapphire, Identical by Ellen Hopkins, and Lucky by Rachel Vail.
The Daily Beast weighs in on how two candidates won library board seats in Idaho this week. "Right-wing culture warriors wielded slanderous campaign literature and a fear-mongering video in Tuesday’s election to unseat two moderates and secure a majority on a library board in rural northern Idaho," the article notes.
The Christian Science Monitor has a look at a day in the life of a Missouri library in Jefferson City, a half-mile from the state capitol, where conservative lawmakers in the House recently attempted (and failed) to defund the state's public libraries. "Educational tablets, fishing poles, and tackle boxes are available for checkout here in the children’s section. And last year, the library started working with local agencies to connect community members with help for energy bills, health care, food, and financial matters," the article notes.
From Gothamist, protests continued this week in New York City as potential budget cuts to city libraries loom. "Libraries across the five boroughs still face a budget shortfall of more than $36 million for the upcoming fiscal year based on Mayor Eric Adams’ budget proposal," the article notes. "Library leaders said this would hamper weekend operations and eliminate Sunday service altogether, as well as threaten other operations, including mobile libraries and services for newly arrived migrants."
This is going to be good: ALA has announced that the great Judy Blume will open the upcoming ALA Annual Conference in Chicago, in conversation with Simon & Schsuter's Justin Chanda. "Blume’s books have been mainstays on ALA’s Most Challenged Books lists over the years. Yet despite facing censorship challenges, she has fearlessly advocated for intellectual freedom," an ALA release notes. "It's not only the books currently under fire that concern me. It's the books that will never see the light of day. The unwritten stories. The unread treasures. All silenced by the specter of censorship," Blume says. "Ultimately, it is the young readers who suffer the most." The ALA Annual Conference is set to run from June 22-27.
EveryLibrary hosted a webinar this week with U.K.-based library advocate Tim Coates, author of the Freckle Report, which, now in its fourth year, uses a mix of proprietary survey data and government data to assess the state of libraries. Coates has generated controversy in the past for his views that U.S. library leaders are not doing enough to counter a steep decline in gate counts and circulation over the last decade-plus. But whether you agree with his conclusions or not, the data is worth discussion, especially coming out of the pandemic.
"The April 2023 survey shows that public libraries supply about 25% of all reading materials, now in equal portion of print to digital," notes EveryLibrary's John Chrastka, who hosted the webinar. In addition, the April 2023 survey showed a 70% jump in library visits over September 2022. We're also happy to have John as part of the Libraries Are Essential morning program on book bans. (Though he could easily have joined the afternoon panel on digital trends as well!)
U.C. Berkeley has announced that University Librarian Jeffrey Mackie-Mason will retire in 2024. Among his many accomplishments, Mackie-Mason was part of the negotiating team that got a transformative open access deal done with Elsevier in 2021. In a 2021 Q&A, Mackie-Mason spoke of that agreement's importance: "Open access publishing is fundamental to what we do and to our mission. We’re a public research university, and our research is largely funded by public dollars, from residents of California and the U.S. So, we feel an obligation to make the results of our research available to those worldwide who will benefit from our advances, without having to pay to read them. We’re trying to help the world; that’s why we do research. The Elsevier effort is so important because we accomplished 100% open access and did so with the largest publisher of our research."
And finally this week, some good news from Minneapolis, where the Star Tribune reports that local school administrators are "aiming to bring licensed librarians back, bucking a national trend of slashing the positions from payrolls" during tight budget times. "District leaders have earmarked more than $4 million in their proposed budget to ensure that next fall, each city school has at least one half-time librarian, now called library media specialists. It would mean a big increase from the 28 now employed in the district's 60-some schools—half the number the district had in 2010," the article states. "'Equity means ensuring every student has equal access to age-appropriate materials and the chance to learn crucial research skills,' said Aimee Fearing, the district's senior officer of academics. 'We can't just leave that to chance.'"
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.