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.