Freedom to read tops the list of librarians’ priorities, and the American Library Association’s 2024 conference emphasized the existential threats posed by book bans and the populist undermining of public institutions and trust. A Rally for the Right to Read, panels to counteract the censorship of diverse voices, and featured speakers including MSNBC journalist Ali Velshi (Small Acts of Courage), Newbery Medalist Kwame Alexander (The Crossover), and Golden Globe-winning actor and picture book author Taraji P. Henson (You Can Be a Good Friend [No Matter What]) reinforced a message of solidarity and diversity.

A Rally for the Right to Read, a showcase for the Intellectual Freedom Awards headlined by keynote speaker Hanif Abdurraqib (There’s Always This Year: On Basketball and Ascension), took place June 28. After a reception where attendees geared up with T-shirts, stickers, and pins, and visited booths to learn about organizations including Unite Against Book Bans, ALA president Emily Drabinski opened the program with a call to “recharge, reenergize, and recommit to this fight” for First Amendment rights, and to “do so as readers, as voters, and as heroes of our own stories.”

Drabinski was seconded by the Rev. Paul Rashenbush, a Baptist minister representing the Interfaith Alliance. In a fiery speech, Rashenbush asserted that “at the root of all faith traditions are words” and warned against censors who want to “coerce the soul into cages of their own theocratic design.” He announced that the ALA, UABB, and Interfaith Alliance were partnering to create a resource called Banned Books, Banned Beliefs.

This year’s Intellectual Freedom Awards honored attorneys Thomas Allen Jr., Ryan Goellner, Kevin Shook, and Ben West of Frost Brown Todd LLP, for their pro bono service to the Freedom to Read Foundation in support of First Amendment rights. “Our role started from a simple but increasingly familiar story”—the removal of library books in Llano County, Tex., Allen said. “They wanted to make that decision for everybody else. We got involved because that’s not the America we grew up in,” and “it was our privilege to explain to the court the role libraries play in our civic and public life.”

The FTRF board of trustees gave a special commendation to recent high school graduate Kate Lindley of Hanover County, Va., whose Girl Scout Gold Award project on banned books came under attack by conservative adults in her community. In her remarks at ALA, Lindley recalled the librarians and curriculum specialists whose events, like middle school Reading Olympics, “were a highlight of my public school education. Beyond simply providing access to books, these people made reading fun.”

Thanks to her project, Lindley said, the Hanover County school board has amended their guidelines to make censorship more difficult. “Be encouraged that what you are doing matters, and that each generation you guide benefits greatly from what you do,” she told the crowd.

Three annual awards from ALA’s Intellectual Freedom Roundtable went to the Pennsylvania School Librarians Association, which launched a rapid-response team to take on book challenges; to Washington Post reporter Hannah Natanson for her coverage of the right to read in K–12 education; and to instructional technology librarian Matthew Good of Ursinus College in Pennsylvania, for his defense of the freedom of expression.

Hanif Abdurraqib Speaks Against Censorship

Intellectual Freedom Committee chair Lesliediana Jones introduced MacArthur fellow and National Book Award finalist Abdurraqib, who gave an urgent and sobering presentation on preserving the right to read.

Abdurraqib anchored his talk in his hometown of Columbus, Ohio, and his experience as a 10-year-old picking up a copy of Toni Morrison’s Jazz at the Livingston branch of the Columbus Metropolitan Library. Although younger than the average Morrison reader, he felt transported by the author’s intimate description of New York. Sense of place later became “vital to my creative practice,” he said, because he learned from Morrison that “writing about my home as if it could be your home” sparks a reader’s empathy.

He also noted that his mother and Columbus librarians allowed him to satisfy his youthful reading curiosity with Jazz and Bebe Moore Campbell’s Your Blues Ain’t Like Mine, teaching him that “there’s nothing you don’t deserve to witness and understand.” He compared their “relentless permission” to today’s reading restrictions, which imply that race, gender, sexuality, and other elements of identity are shameful or dangerous.

When “the language of censorship is pressed into someone,” Abdurraqib said, they internalize that shame and can grow up unable to tell their own stories. “I know for sure, the world is becoming more cruel,” he warned, citing oppressive structures such as censorship and the criminalization of poverty. Without inclusive policies and efforts to connect, he said, the world “will be less survivable not just for people at its margins, but for all of us.”