If there was any instance this year in which you asked yourself, “Is this censorship?” then you should report it to the ALA Office of Intellectual Freedom by New Years Eve. If it made your library spidey senses tingle, it is probably worth a report. Not all cases end up in the news, in fact most of them do not. Reporting censorship does not mean you will be in the news. The reports can be anonymous and you do not even have to include your library’s information on it. We care about you and your privacy!
I don’t just mean books either. Challenges to other library services were on the rise way before the coronavirus pandemic. With shelter in place orders and library closures sweeping the nation, I am curious about what challenges to library programs or displays look like in 2020. Are there still challenges to Virtual Drag Queen Story Hours? Do people still protest virtual library program speakers? I know you are curious too, which is why you should report it.
What Does Censorship Look Like in 2020?
Outside of the LIS profession, issues surrounding both intellectual freedom and social justice have been on everyone’s minds and in many cases, also out in the streets. What we wish to censor says a lot about our culture at any given moment. Libraries cannot be completely neutral spaces and in 2020, many of us took a stand.
At the dawn of the year, in those few pre-pandemic weeks, we were highly concerned with “American Dirt” by Jeanine Cummings. This was the topic to have a professional opinion about at ALA Midwinter 2020 in Philadelphia. Was it correct of Oprah Winfrey to choose it for her January Book Club? Do people have the right to write about cultures outside of their own or should that be limited to Own Voices authors? Maybe the problem is the hiring practices of the wider publishing industry.
Moving on, did your library post online about Black Lives Matter over the summer? Douglas County Library in Nevada really took one for the team this year. The Library Director was investigated by the Board of Trustees for posting a diversity statement on the library’s social media page that sparked a public conflict with the County Sheriff. Their investigation found that she did not violate any library policy, but this required a $30,000 price tag to the library and its own community members.
In the fall, debate began at the Burbank Unified School District in California over which books should be included in the curriculum. These book challenges came from a group of majority Black parents who are concerned about the potential harm to the school district’s Black student population. The specific books in question are “Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry” by Mildred D. Taylor, “To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee, “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” by Mark Twain, “Of Mice and Men” by John Steinbeck, and “The Cay” by Theodore Taylor. This is so interesting to me because while I see their point, Mildred D. Taylor is a Black woman herself and reading her book in 6th grade English class changed my entire life and view on race in America.
Earlier this month, a book burning case involving a library worker popped up at the Chattanooga Public Library in Tennessee. The employee had been placed on paid administrative leave after posting a video of himself burning “How to Talk to a Liberal” by Ann Coulter and “Crippled America” by Donald Trump on Instagram. The Library conducted an investigation during his leave, though it is not entirely clear if the burned books were in fact library books. This case brings up the important topic of the free speech rights of library employees, especially on social media. ALA addresses this topic in their Speech in the Workplace Q&A, though I am interested to hear more from Chattanooga.
Before we part ways, let’s not forget about the more traditional censorship cases. The Lincoln Parish Public Library in Louisiana has an ongoing case stemming from the existence of LGBTQIA+ materials in the library, specifically the children’s section. Unfortunately, the Library has removed the books from the public browsing shelves as of this writing. It is being alleged that the election had something to do with that decision.
This has been an unprecedented year and I wholeheartedly understand how the stress of the pandemic can affect our brains. With that in mind, please remember to report censorship from 2020. It is so very important to the work that we all do!
Holly Eberle is the Teen Programming and Outreach Librarian at the Algonquin Area Public Library District in Illinois. She received her MLIS from the University of Illinois in December 2015. In addition to intellectual freedom, she is also passionate about the opioid epidemic and getting Narcan inside every public library.