By: Lisa Rand
Book displays are a way to be in conversation with patrons, albeit silently. Sometimes the display simply indicates, “New books are over here” or highlights seasonal books (Looking for autumn titles?) Other times the display prompts an interaction or comment, as when a patron said, “The new picture books have such diverse illustration styles. I appreciate your choices.”
This year during Banned Books Week the children’s display opened the door to rich conversations. This was a very pleasant surprise, and a counterbalance to the first day of the display when a patron removed Heather Has Two Mommies by Lesléa Newman and hid it on a high shelf. The display was very simple, featuring a Censorship Leaves Us in the Dark: Keep the Light On poster. There were bookmarks tucked in each title that included a quote to pique curiosity about the story inside. For the Newman title I included, “The most important thing about a family is that all the people in it love each other.”
“Where does censorship happen?”
A parent selected The Librarian of Basra by Jeanette Winter from the display, commenting that it looked like an interesting story and a good way to teach cultural geography. “But why is it on a censorship display? Where does that happen? Not here?” she asked. I explained that sadly, yes, challenges to our freedom to read take place all around the country.
In 2015, a group of Florida parents tried to have the book removed on the basis that it promoted a religion other than Christianity. Parents in New York had challenged the title in 2013. However, this is not a religious book. It is inspired by the true story of Alia Muhammad Baker, who risked her own life to save books while her city was being bombed (the nationality of the bombers — American and British — is not mentioned in the story). The book describes the confusion experienced by residents when their city was under attack, and opens a door to a conversation about the impact of war. Noted as excellent for discussions, it was selected as a title for the One Book, One Philadelphia program in 2014.
Books on difficult topics can help to begin a conversation and open a door to understanding. When we remove or silence those materials, we eliminate important learning opportunities.
“But this is a public library!”
The patron and I had a conversation about a parent’s right to choose books only for their own child. She was very upset at the idea that someone would try to remove books from a collection, restricting access for interested readers, declaring, “But this is a public library!” She was genuinely shocked that this happens in the United States in the 21st century. We had a great conversation about the Library Bill of Rights and access for minors.
Overall this conversation reminded me that I should never assume that patrons know about challenges to freedom of expression in our communities. Library professionals might be hyper aware of infringements on access, but this does not mean the larger community is aware. We have a tremendous education task to execute as advocates for the freedom to read, and Banned Books Week is one awareness tool to assist in that effort.
Many patrons strongly believe in protecting First Amendment Rights. They might not be aware of the challenges faced by public and school libraries. Parents want to protect their right to choose reading material for their own children, without censors interfering and removing materials. Sometimes this means an ordinary conversation can result in a patron becoming an advocate for intellectual freedom and for libraries.
Do not underestimated the power of a book display on an important topic. People will notice, wonder, reflect, and possibly engage you in conversation. Displays can be the most ordinary, powerful tool in our programming librarian box.
Lisa M. Rand is the youth services coordinator at Boyertown Community Library in southeastern Pennsylvania, a role that carries a special interest in protecting youth access to diverse programs and materials. She exercises her commitment to equity and access for everyone by serving on the Intellectual Freedom Committee of the Pennsylvania Library Association. Lisa developed a passion for Constitutional Law and First Amendment issues while at Simmons College, and continued her studies at the New School in New York City. Whenever possible she travels, visiting libraries and walking in the footsteps of favorite fictional characters. Find her on Twitter @lisa_m_rand.