In 2015, PW first interviewed Emily Knox for her then-new Book Banning in 21st-Century America, a fascinating exploration of how and why people challenge books and what those challenges tell us about the immense power of reading. An associate professor in the School of Information Sciences at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and board president of the National Coalition Against Censorship, Knox’s work studying book bans and censorship is perhaps more important today than ever.

PW caught up with Knox for the 2023 Libraries Are Essential program at the U.S. Book Show to discuss how book banning has changed in just a few short years—and, perhaps most importantly, why it’s changed.

As someone who studies book bans, did you ever imagine we’d be talking about book bans in America like we are today?

I didn’t expect that we would have this huge surge in book bans. There’s always been a sort of low level of book challenges. It’s an ongoing phenomenon and has been for many, many years. But what we’re seeing right now is unprecedented.

Virtually every library and school has well-established processes for challenging books, and in the past challenges tended to be pretty personal. But now we’re seeing organized efforts to go around these challenge processes. What’s changed?

It’s true, book challenges are usually quite individual. Usually someone will say, like, “My kid brought this book home, they looked like they were embarrassed or upset while they were reading it,” and a parent would maybe challenge the book with the school or the library.

I think what we’re really seeing now, across the country, is a broader phenomenon where people are mistrustful of democratic policies and processes. Some people believe they can’t get the outcome they want if something actually has to come through a consensus or a majority process. We saw this with January 6, right? So rather than follow book challenge processes, some people have decided to just remove books—or worse, show up to school and library board meetings and call people “groomers” or engage in really horrible rhetoric in an effort to force the outcome they want.

I think what we’re really seeing now, across the country, is a broader phenomenon where people are mistrustful of democratic policies and processes.

So this surge in book bans is part of an overall movement that we’re going through in the country. And libraries and schools are caught up in this because this is where people have the most power over their lives. It’s a way more direct power than, say, what’s going on in Washington or even in your state legislature. And social media has made it easy for people to find and share lists. It takes just one person to find the Moms for Liberty Facebook group, get their friends to join, and then show up.

In recent years, challenges have become very focused on the LGBTQ and BIPOC communities. Has there always been such a pronounced political component to book challenges, or is that part of this new political moment?

Last year, 2022, was the 40th anniversary of Island Trees School District v. Pico [the first Supreme Court case to consider the First Amendment rights of users vs. the power of local school boards to remove library books from schools]. And I went back and looked at the list of books that they were considering, and they were all books about what we would call diverse topics now. So, yes, book challenges have always had a political valence to them.

But we are in a new moment. And I see a few things that have really led us to where we are now.

The first, of course, is the pandemic. One of the major things that happened with the pandemic, and I really want to emphasize this, is that school came home. It used to be you sent your kid off to school and they may or may not tell you what’s going on. But during the pandemic, school was at the dining room table and I think a lot of parents discovered how much pedagogy has changed. And that has made some parents very nervous.

Another major thing that happened was George Floyd’s murder and the protests that followed. Many of these protests happened in very small, very white communities across the country. And they were often led by kids, by teenagers, who showed up and said, “I am going to speak up about this horrible murder that happened in my country and why this is wrong.” I think a lot of parents thought “Where is my kid hearing about this?” or “Why does my kid think it’s okay to protest?”

And I would also point to the demographic shift happening in the United States. What does it mean that we are moving to a majority minority country? How do we make sure that kids understand our history? How do we talk about our history of slavery and genocide and taking people’s land? What does it mean to be an American? What does it mean to live in a democracy that does not always live up to its ideals? This has always been contentious in the United States, and many of the books being challenged today are being singled out because they do not center a white, heterosexual, cis male understanding of our world.

I have to point out the obvious here: people are going after books in libraries for being inappropriate when we all have these powerful computers in our pockets and access to the internet. This surge in book bans isn’t really about books, is it?

One of my favorite things about my work is studying what I call the discourse of censorship—how do people argue for removing books? And what I’ve found is that, in so many of these arguments for banning books, the books themselves usually take up just a little time before the discussion moves on to larger issues, like what it means to be a human being, to have gender, or to reconcile with the Civil War.

Books are important. Books are symbols. Books represent truth. Books have outsize influence. But when you look at what book banners talk about, the book is almost always just a catalyst to talk about these other issues. We’re figuring out what we are going to be as we get out of the pandemic, through this time of racial reckoning and into this nonwhite-majority world that we are going to be living in very, very soon. So it really is much more about power and control than it is about books.

I know this a huge, complicated question, but how do we effectively defend the freedom to read against this kind of politically organized threat?

There are many things that people can do. First, support the authors who have been targeted by these bans. Read a banned book. It’s very, very important that their words get out there.

More than anything—organize, and show up. Even if your community has not yet been touched by this wave of book bans, are you prepared for when it does happen? Talk to the people who work in your libraries and schools so you know who to turn to. There’s also the American Library Association, there’s the National Coalition against Censorship, and there’s your state library and education associations. Know who these people are and how to get in touch with them.

And bring your kids to the school or public library meeting. There’s nothing more powerful than when kids and students speak up in public to support books and authors. It makes such a difference when you actually hear the kids say, “This is why this book matters to me."

This interview has been edited and condensed.