“The right to make my own choice is fundamental to life, and intellectual freedom with the right to choose what to read is necessary to maintain what I believe is inherent to all of us,” says Salt Lake County librarian Wanda Mae Huffaker, who has spent more than a decade advocating for the freedom to read. In anticipation of National Library Week 2020 — which begins Sunday, April 19th and also starts off Monday, April 20th with the State of America’s Libraries report announcing the Top 10 Most Challenged Books of 2019 — library workers and advocates share their passion for freedom to read with the Intellectual Freedom Blog.
Cynthia Dudenhoffer, president of the Missouri Library Association and a leading opponent to Missouri’s Parental Oversight of Public Libraries Act, calls the freedom to read a “founding principle of library science”: “It’s important for libraries to provide diverse perspectives that reflect their communities so each person can find what they need. Representation is important.”
Richard Price, censorship scholar and associate professor of political science at Weber State University, affirms the life-sustaining importance of representation and access to diverse voices through library materials:
“I sometimes work with queer teens. Having books that reflect their lives in realistic terms is a life-saver … But it isn’t just a mirror for people to see their own lives, it is also about being able to see through a window into the experiences of others. This builds empathy in readers that they will carry for the rest of their lives.”
Price shared that they decided to study book banning “because the act of hiding stories is fundamentally about controlling what stories are considered legitimate in our society and, in part, which people deserve to exist within that society.”
In addition to building identity, empathy, and tolerance, library workers uphold the freedom to read as central to learning, challenging and strengthening one’s values, and thriving in a democratic society. Intellectual freedom advocates view the freedom to read as a human right that begins in childhood. An anonymous retired librarian observes, “Reading is how we learn who we are and children are on a journey of self discovery. It is important to support that right for young readers because they do not have the power to protest for their rights.”
Holly Eberle, public youth technology librarian and Intellectual Freedom Blog 2020 writer, points to a childhood experience that ignited her freedom to read advocacy: “I have valued the freedom to read personally since kindergarten, when my elementary school library pulled the Goosebumps series by R.L. Stine off the shelves … A few decades later, those parents are essentially why I am a librarian on the Intellectual Freedom Committee.”
Responding to book challenges remains a persistent reality for many library workers, who share their creative strategies for responding constructively, and even transforming challenges into teachable moments and opportunities for community engagement. Sometimes, a book challenge can open a conversation about collection development policies and library holdings. Library workers can invite a concerned community member to browse the collection for topics of interest, or to suggest or donate titles that the patron would like for the library to make available. Eberle explained that in one instance, a book challenge went viral on social media, so a fellow library worker checked out the book until the virtual controversy subsided.
Recalling a time when a college student questioned the library’s copy of Mein Kampf, ESD, an academic reference and instruction librarian, notes the challenge turned into a meaningful discussion:
“I explained to him that although I did not agree with the contents of the book,.. as a librarian I believed it should remain on the shelves. It remained part of the historical record and also a potential tool for researchers … I was actually happy a student noticed what titles we had in our collection and had the intellectual curiosity to come discuss this issue with me.”
ESD, whose favorite banned book is Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, advised that patrons should not interfere with others’ freedom to read: “That is also what an open, democratic society is all about and why I am happy that ALA continues to champion the freedom to read cause.” ESD also observed that challenges and bans impact materials other than books, such as access to news sources, plays and musicals, and more; as a result, ESD suggests that ALA expand its focus from Banned and Challenged Books to Challenged Library Resources.
Kristin Pekoll from the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom agrees. “We saw a significant increase in challenges to Drag Queen Story Hours and other library programs that specifically included LGBTQIA+ content or people,” such as author visits, she observes via email. Pekoll, author of Beyond Banned Books: Defending Intellectual Freedom Throughout Your Library, encourages library workers to report all challenges and bans. There is a 10-question online form available, and Pekoll welcomes any library worker with questions, concerns, or support needs to contact her directly.
Pekoll’s observations about challenges to LGBTQIA+ library resources are consistent with library workers’ predictions for the Top 10 Most Challenged Books of 2019 list. Price suspects Prince & Knight by Daniel Haack and Stevie Lewis will debut on the list: “As a gay fairy tale for kids it is almost designed to draw challenges from a certain crowd of folks.” Dudenhoffer suggests P.S. I Still Love You by Jenny Han and Feminist Baby by Loryn Brantz could make the 2019 list. Eberle also predicts challenges to materials representing the LGBTQIA+ community, including on the basis of an author’s personal biography, rather than the book content itself. In addition to YA materials with LGBTQIA+ characters or themes, ESD predicts that other controversial titles like American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins, or politically charged titles like Michael Wolff’s Fire and the Fury or The Mueller Report in book form, could make the list.
Library workers and other freedom to read advocates use the ALA’s Banned and Challenged Books lists to develop intellectual freedom programming, engage in advocacy, and even to inform their own leisure reading. Teacher librarian Molly Dettmann writes by email:
“I think ALA’s Frequently Challenged Books list is a valuable resource to show librarians what titles are at risk for being silenced, which lately has featured several LGBTQ+ titles. I use the list to highlight in my school library that though the Freedom to Read is often challenged, I will fight for my students to have access to titles they can see themselves in.”
ESD refers to the list when designing the library’s Banned Books Week display, and commits to reading at least one frequently challenged book a year. Dudenhoffer refers to the list to help raise public awareness about censorship. Price likewise sees value in the list for intellectual freedom advocacy, and acknowledges the need for confidentiality in reporting, but as a censorship scholar, they say the list would be more useful for researchers if the methods for compiling it were more transparent.
Library workers demonstrate resilience in the face of ongoing and evolving challenges to materials, programming, and other resources. For better or worse, Eberle does not see these library challenges going away anytime soon, because she views them as symptomatic of the profession’s broader intellectual freedom work: the freedom to read means “that there should be a book in every library that offends someone.”
On Monday during #NationalLibraryWeek, the Top 10 Most Challenged Books of 2019 will be published in the State of America’s Libraries Report. What books do you think are on the list? #BannedBooksList pic.twitter.com/NfCpAp7vfM
— ALA OIF (@OIF) April 14, 2020