Libraries and Politics: A Dangerous Mix

Books that have been banned over the years by state and local governments

I was lucky, growing up, and I know it. We lived in the corn-and-beans country of rural Illinois, but my father was a reader and took me with him to the local Carnegie library every Saturday. Nobody ever told me I couldn’t read something that interested me. I had all the freedom I needed to explore all the ideas I could handle, and my life has been immeasurably  enriched by that early reading. Unfortunately, others aren’t so lucky. Illustration: a disturbing situation here in the Texas Hill Country.

The first amendment of our constitution guarantees us the freedom to choose what we and our children may read. That freedom is being challenged by those who want to restrict books they don’t approve of. In next-door Llano County, that challenge has resulted in

  • books being banned from the public library on the demand of some patrons;
  • county commissioners dissolving the library advisory board and reappointing it;
  • the new board holding closed meetings (under an escape clause in the Texas Open Meetings Act), librarians told not to attend;
  • county commissioners removing OverDrive from the library system (over patron objections), to be possibly replaced with the less-accessible Bibliotheca;
  • a librarian refusing to remove the banned books and fired; and
  • a group of residents pushing back, seeking legal advice to address the issues.

This summary is based on reporting in local media. The links below will fill in the details; I’ll update it as the story develops.

You’re probably thinking something like “Well, yes. Gotta agree that this is bad. In fact, it’s downright appalling–especially the secret meetings and the librarian getting fired. But that’s Texas for you. I’m up here in St. Louis [or Cleveland or rural Idaho]. Not much I can do from this distance.”

I hear you. But if you’re thinking this is another Texas culture-war battle (“After all, look at what your legislature did about abortion”), think again. The Coalition Against Censorship says that there are more challenges than at any time in the past four decades. Publishers are being urged to represent more diverse authors and issues. Social media amplifies special interests on all sides. Politics are pervasive and heated. Libraries at all levels end up in the middle.  If your community hasn’t faced this yet, it will.

And there is something you can do when it does. Find out what is happening, why, and who is involved. Learn your library’s policy for reviewing challenged materials and support your librarians’ efforts to ensure that diverse materials are readily available to those who want them. Stay on top of the story as it appears in local media. If it doesn’t appear, make that happen. (Yes, you can.) Share the information with other interested people. Make sure that the challenge is reported to the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom.  (The OIF estimates that it learns of fewer than 20% of book challenges.)

I’m not suggesting here that parents shouldn’t control what their young children read (and watch and listen to), or that libraries shouldn’t be asked to review what’s on their shelves. There are procedures for that and some communities have been able to handle such requests fairly and professionally. Witness what happened recently in Bedford County, Virginia, for instance. You’re welcome to share your community’s experiences with this issue in the comments below (with civility, please).

Books contain ideas. Ideas are dangerous. But the most dangerous of all is the idea that some people have the right to limit other people’s ideas.

Reading note (posted recently by a Facebook friend): Just remember, there’s a right way and a wrong way to do everything and the wrong way is to keep trying to make everybody else do it the right way. M*A*S*H, Colonel Potter
Links to the Llano County Library challenge:
Strong, detailed coverage from Axios: How a group of residents has won control of the local library system and pushed for a purge of books touching on gender and race.
Feature article in the Washington Post. “A library for all, curated by a few.”
GoFundMe page for fired librarianan Thank you for helping!
Recent think pieces on censorship in a democracy

26 comments on “Libraries and Politics: A Dangerous Mix

  1. Susan,
    I have read your books since the first China.
    My mother was a first grade teacher (and a minister’s daughter, born in Japan). We had bushel baskets of books in our home. She used them at school and I read them all, even “Little Black Sambo,” which I still have. She ordered many books for me: great children’s history books, biographies and always “Nancy Drew” for special gifts.
    I got a library card in first grade and was very miffed when I couldn’t take out more than four books a day during a summer reading program. Loved the library.
    She also had “Reader’s Digest Condensed Books” coming regularly. When I was 13, I was entranced by an excerpt from “Hawaii.” Trotted up to the library (4 blocks) to check out the book. The Librarian, Mrs. Matthews (who went to our church) told me I couldn’t check it out as it wasn’t age appropriate. Trotted home. Trotted back with a note from my mother which said, “Let Sara read Hawaii.” Mrs. Matthews and I had several similar incidents. The final note said, “Let Sara read what she wants.”
    Now we live in Virginia, home of book banning and hot lines to complain about teachers. Most appalling.

  2. Thank you for your post, Susan. It’s wonderful, and important, for non-librarians to raise their voices and protest these attempts to restrict access and availability.

    • Books introduced me to Jorge Agustín Nicolás Ruiz de Santayana y Borrás, known in English as George Santayana. Philosopher, poet, essayist, and novelist. popularly known for the aphorism, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Does anyone see this first step of banning books will eventually lead to burning them? Probably by the current flock of goose stepping morons reminiscent of events 90 years past. Books provide us with the memories of history. Let us not forget!

    • Next up: The Darling Dahlias and the Red Hot Poker, in June. Don’t have a China on the schedule yet.

  3. As an assistant in a high school library for twenty-five years, followed by another eight years in a community college library, I can’t say how disturbing this is to me. We were so cautious to follow ALA suggestions and guidelines and to listen to teachers as to what they would need for the various classes. Nothing was ever done haphazardly. I loved the selection process and offering those books to the student body and faculty. No one, no matter who they are, should ban a book. The choice of books to be read should be left to the parents of the little ones. But, the high school students? Good grief, these are young people who are probably more worldly than I, because of social media, TV, etc. They are old enough to chose and should be allowed to do so.

  4. I was a library assistant for many years. My suggestion to parents who do not want their children to read “certain” books is to accompany your children to the library. It is not the job of librarians or any one else to make choices for your child. If you can’t trust your children, especially young adult children to make choices for themselves, you better not let them out of your sight ever. All you are doing is making “certain” books more tantalizing for them.

  5. I am a retired Librarian and have dealt with censorship issues in many of the libraries where I worked. Almost always, the people complaining had not read the book. They said, ” My neighbor said,” or “My friend said.” We told them to send in their neighbor or friend and have them make the complaint. This almost never happened. When any random person can ban a book, it is a step towards lack of personal freedom of information, which can move on to laws that ban information. This can also affect what the library is “allowed” to order if taken too far. This is scary. During National Library Week, we used to do displays of Banned Books through History. They were checked out all the time once they went on display. People need to be able to make their own choices. Jo Janet Dean Koblack

  6. We moved to Texas in 1970, and have lived here off and on since then. I can’t believe how it’s being made into a police state to satisfy the governor and his henchmen. School boards, libraries, women’s medical concerns—crushed. Book burnings, death threats against school board members…what’s next? Witch trials and hangings?

  7. Most libraries control the circulation of certain books, in their catalog but never available for you, even if your put a hold on them. try to find odd witchcraft, correct information on political problems,etc

  8. Susan, WTG. You are one of the most aware citizens of Texas, and probably of a good part of this country. Censorship is one step closer to tyranny, plain and simple. If people can control what you can or can’t read, they begin to control what you are told, by whom you are told, and finally what to think. This is not what humans are meant to be. Ray Bradbury addressed this horror in Farenheit 451, which is more relevant today than ever. Citizens in Russia are being told lies about that country’s attacks on Ukraine, and those who openly disagree are arrested or even attacked. To paraphrase the great Patrick Henry, “I know not what course others may take, but as for me, GIVE ME LIBERTY, AND I’LL FIGHT HELL AND HIGH WATER TO KEEP IT.”

  9. First, I would like to thank you Susan. Thank you for the books you write (I believe I have read them all, even Robins). Thank you for your blog and thank you for keeping us informed.

    The idea of banning books is a subject I would never have expected to hear of in the “free world”. Now, I am a person with poor communication skills, so the proper way to express my thoughts does not come easily. So please forgive me if I make a muddle of this. Human kind is supposed to be an intelligent life-form. We can think, reason and make choices. Certainly there must be laws of society. However, in my opinion, what one can or can not read should never be decided by law. As the comment made by AJ Norton, and others say, if I personally object to the subject matter of a particular book and there are lots that I do, then I do not to read it. However, if I do decide to read something controversial that should also be my choice. Censorship is absolutely wrong. Censorship shackles the mind. A shackled mind can not grow. We would become a puppet to those who seek to control us.

    I am 70 plus years old. The older I get and the less active I am able be, the more I rely upon books. They keep me company, show me the world, entertain me, teach me, and give me spiritual guidance. Do not tell me what I can and can not read. That is my decision and mine alone.

  10. I too agree that banning books is wrong and a tool of censorship. I grew up in Fort Worth where I and my 2 brothers and 1 sister were encouraged to read whatever we chose to in books from our school library, city libraries, home library, and even Book of the Month Club which I joined at age 16 with my Mother’s permission. Books open doors to a world other than our own and allowed us to travel via book when other forms of travel were too expensive. After living in Texas with my late husband and our 2 sons for 77 years I moved to Santa Fe where a different attitude exists for those who to read anything the choose. Yes New Mexico is a poor state and schools are not as good as Texas, but no one decides that what someone else can allow their children may read. Good by Texas. Sad to leave friends behind. But very happy to live in a state that isn’t trying to turn into a part of this insane censorship tribe.

  11. Way to go, sis!

    Yes, I’m Susan’s brother and very much support her views. We both remember with fondness our library time, even how the old building smelled. In those days, we read everything we could get into our grubby hands. That freedom and the knowledge we gained was to shape our lives. After we left home, we diverged into remarkably different circumstances and directions. But as adults, living in opposite ends of the country, we discovered ourselves both making our living with words. We still read voraciously and compare notes on our reading. Neither of us can imagine depriving today’s kids (or adults) of that freedom.

    As another commenter noted, we’re facing similar censorship issues in Florida today. Sadly, this trend is growing across the country, championed by tiny, closed minds pushing their own agendas. Libraries are one of the few refuges we have left. Leave them alone.

  12. II don’t understand why a small group of people can decide what my child can or cannot read. If a person doesn’t want his/her child to read a certain book, then don’t let them read it. But don’t decide what MY child can do.

  13. The way I see things, I’ve been damaged by what I don’t know rather than from the knowledge I’ve acquired. I used to be proud of Texas for its friendliness and generosity, hearts the size of our state. But now it’s known for its pettiness, its disregard for anybody else except the narrow-minded and mean-spirited.

  14. I donated yesterday when I read the story online. Our Carnegie library here in Eureka in Northern California was where our mother took us pretty much every week. I don’t think I was ever stopped from reading anything. The garbage in Llano County is indeed what happens in dictatorships. I don’t know if I’m woke or not. I hope so. Thank you for covering this.

    • On my drive home to and from work I usually try to listen to NPR.. so much to learn. Today on All Things Considered they discussed this very issue. You can read or listen by going to Segment titled ‘Book bans and the threat of censorship rev up political activism in the suburbs.’ I highly recommend everyone check it out. Reading has been my FAVORITE pasttime my entire life (65 years)!! To me a library is a candy store.. except this candy is FREE. I guess we must get our noses out of books long enough to fight this crime. Thanks Susan for your comments and your books. I lived in TX from 2006-13. It was a beautiful place and I miss many things about it. But I am appalled at what has been going on the last few years and have no desire to go back. Hang tough!!

  15. We have been protected by our Constitution for over 200 years. Now is not the time to easily abuse it. Guidelines of libraries have also been carefully put into place. I feel no one has the right to take these away without due process.

  16. Just donated. Thanks for your wisdom and leadership in support of TX librarians, particularly of Suzette Baker.

  17. I am an old-fashioned, conservative Christian, born & raised in Texas, who is NOT “woke” and doesn’t want to be … but I absolutely hate and despise the very idea of censorship. Yes, parents should be able to make choices on behalf of their young children. Yes, every librarian or library board must choose which books to purchase. But removing books from the shelves because someone doesn’t like the content is totally wrong. Those who don’t want to read that book should pass it by and choose differently. For instance, there are books I choose not to read, because I am not interested in horror stories, witches, the criminal underworld, the “drug scene,” or the LGBT lifestyle. I don’t condemn those books, writers or publishers, I just don’t read them, review them, or speak about them. There are many more books available to me, which I thoroughly enjoy. What others enjoy reading is their choice.

    Uncensored public libraries are vital to a free society. Please continue to speak out for “freedom to read!”

      • I am totally in line with what Mr. Norton wrote. I too am a Conservative but I do not believe in censorship. I do not think any book should be banned. I do think age appropriate books should be in place in areas such as schools but it is up to parents to set the guidelines as to what their children can read. My parents never set limits on what I read. I read books from the school library, the public library, and the books shelves of my Mother. Historically, books have been banned by societies in which a small group wants total control. Books should never be banned in a free society.

  18. Thank you for your post and helping us know what we can do in our neck of the woods. I also know how fortunate I was growing up with a reading Mom who was the town librarian. She never restricted what I wanted to read. And I’m glad I read some of the books on the banned list as a teenager as required reading for school. It is unfathomable to me that some Jane Doe down the street can tell me what I can and cannot read just because they don’t approve of it for some reason or other. Thanks again, Susan.

  19. I totally agree with you. The GOP ,is listening to a select few and its WRONG! This sounds like Fahrenheit 451 and Big Brother mixed into one. This is ridiculous!!! and needs to STOP ASAP! This is what a dictatorship does. I live in Fl and wish ,I did not move here .This state is so backwards thinking. The Governor is listening again to a select few and they are spreading so many lies and people are believing them. So very sad. We need to open our mouths against these lies. If you do not want your child to read something, that’s your prerogative not everyone should live by your rules. This is a free country!

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