Library Workers Who Saved the Day from Censorship

ALA Top Ten Most Frequently Challenged Books, Banned and Challenged Books, Censorship, General Interest, National Library Week

By: Ellie Diaz

Happy National Library Week! Today is National Library Workers Day, a day for library staff, users, administrators and Friends groups to recognize the valuable contributions made by all library workers.

One way to celebrate is by using the hashtag #NLWD21 to share words of gratitude for all library workers. You can also nominate a stellar library worker! Nominations may come from library users, students, children, colleagues, faculty, or management. 

Library workers are crucial in defending everyone’s right to access information. Below are five stories of librarians standing against censorship, collected in the Field Report 2020: Banned & Challenged Books (available in print and a digital download). 

I Stand with the “Band” 

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Catch-22, The Great Gatsby, The Things They Carried, Invisible Man, The New York Times

The Matanuska-Susitna (Mat-Su) Borough School District School Board in Palmer, Alaska, voted 5–2 to remove five books identified as controversial from the school curriculum: The Things They Carried, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Catch-22, Invisible Man, and The Great Gatsby. The board also voted to remove the New York Times Learning Network as a teacher resource. The concern cited by the board members was sexual content that could cause controversy. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings was also challenged for “anti-white messaging”; one board member claimed that it could generate an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission lawsuit. After the decision, the band Portugal. The Man helped provide thousands of banned books to students through their charitable nonprofit, PTM Foundation.

Alaska librarians, the Office for Intellectual Freedom, the Freedom to Read Foundation, the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, and the American Booksellers for Free Expression sent a letter to the Mat-Su school board urging them to return the books to the curriculum. After the community protested the board’s vote, it rescinded its decision and the books remain available in the schools.

Standing up for Educators & Books

After a new teacher received approval to teach Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You to 8th grade students in the Berlin (NJ) Borough School District, a group of parents sought its removal from the school. Parents harassed the teacher by email and phone, which led to the teacher resigning. The New Jersey Library Association and New Jersey Association of School Librarians wrote a letter in defense of the book and the teacher. According to the school board of education president, there has been no discussion of pulling the book from the school’s curriculum, and an additional text is currently being reviewed by the board for possible inclusion. The book was retained.

#2 Most Challenged Book of 2020. "Stamped" by Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi. For author's public statements, content alleged to be inaccurate. American Library Association.

Reading Time with the Queens: A Space for Everyone

A patron of the Marshall Public Library in Pocatello, Idaho, organized a reading program, “Reading Time with the Queens,” in 2017, using the library’s community room for each event. The program typically pulls crowds of 5 to 20 children and their families. Eventually, some community residents protested the events, arguing that because the library is a publicly funded city department, groups with political affiliations or associations should be prohibited from using the library; in their view, the “Reading with Queens” program promotes LGBTQIA+ ideals, which they associate with a liberal political agenda. The library continued to provide space to the program. Library staff emphasized they were not affiliated with the event and that the library offers meeting space to groups of any and all perspectives. “We definitely haven’t heard any complaints from the public from people who have actually attended,” said the associate director of the library.

Making Room for Protesters

Following the cancellation of the Drag Queen Story Hour in Rye, New York, protesters attempted to shut down another Drag Queen Story Hour scheduled to take place at the Putnam (NY) Valley Public Library. A Catholic priest in the community sent a letter to his congregation encouraging them to contact the library to oppose the event, writing that the event would “promote gender confusion in innocent children and spread immoral disordered ideas among children and adults.” The library held the event despite the protests, simply making room for the protesters. After the event sold out, the director remarked, “I wish all my library programs had such a good response from the community.” 

Diverse, Inclusive, Equitable Materials for All

During a Fairfax County (VA) Library Board of Trustees meeting, a board member made controversial comments about diverse resources highlighted on the library’s website. The Northern Virginia Equity Coalition sent a letter to the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors and the board of trustees of Fairfax County’s libraries asking for the board member’s resignation or removal. The Virginia Library Association Executive Committee sent a letter to the members of the Board of Trustees with the reminder, “A library’s mission is that diverse, inclusive, and equitable materials are available to all.” The online resources were retained.

Share your stories about the incredible work of library workers in the comments!

Ellie Diaz

Ellie Diaz is the Program Officer at the ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom. With her journalism background and fierce devotion to the freedom to read, Ellie collaborates with experts on organizing ALA’s Banned Books Week and several other projects within OIF. As a biblio-writer, she enjoys exploring the intersection of advocacy and literature. 

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