Libraries across the country are under threat, with a significant rise in censorship and book banning. Library directors, individual librarians, and community leaders have all been under attack, including calls for resignation, and even bomb threats and other acts of violence.
Two of the principal reasons for banning books are titles with LGBTQI content, or books deemed to include sexual content, especially those written for children and youth. Books written by women of color are also a frequent target. During the school year 2022-23, 3,300 books were banned in schools, according to PEN America. Over forty percent of these bans occurred in the state of Florida.
The American Library Association (ALA), a national member-based organization, is a staunch defender of intellectual freedom. It has long tracked censorship and book banning and provides kits to help librarians deal with controversial subjects. The ALA has seen State Libraries in four states, Missouri, Montana, South Carolina, and Texas, withdraw their membership over issues of censorship (American Libraries, Jan/Feb 2024).
Patty Hector, former director of the Aline County Library Association in Benton, Arkansas, is one of those individuals fighting back. She was fired after the library board authority was replaced by a judge representing the Saline County Quorum Court, a 13-member elected body. Supported by the library board, she was terminated by the Quorum Court for her refusal to move certain books into non-public areas not available to patrons under the age of 18. These books included titles about racism, sexuality, and LGBTQI interest.
Although the Saline County Quorum Court got the last word about Hector’s employment, she is convinced that its conservative members don’t really care about the books or their effect on children. To be a thorn in the side of her opposition, if nothing else, she is running for one of the contested seats on the Saline County Quorum Court.
Librarians are often fighters for intellectual freedom, but the divisive politics of our time are having an effect. Another hot button issue is story hours for children. Specifically, stories told by drag queen entertainers, a type of storytelling performance originating in San Francisco.
This is not surprising, given that San Francisco is also home of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence. Founded in 1979, the Sisters are devoted to community service, diversity, and human rights. Dressed in colorful and sly, outrageous costumes, these “nuns” can often be found at community events. Activities can range from walking tours of the AIDS Memorial Grove in Golden Gate Park to collecting socks for homeless individuals. The mission statement of the Sisters includes the following statement:
“We use humor and irreverent wit to expose the forces of bigotry, complacency and guilt that chain the human spirit.” The Sisters have often supported library sponsored events.
In September 2023, the Rockwell Falls Public Library in upstate New York was forced to close due to a scheduled one-time event, a Drag Queen Story Hour. Following death threats, doxing, name calling, and more, staff and trustees resigned, leaving library doors shuttered up to the present. According to the New York Times, this is not an isolated incident. The Proud Boys have disrupted drag queen story hours in Brooklyn, New York, California, Maryland, Ohio, and elsewhere.
“A truly great library contains something in it to offend everyone.” This quote, found on the Brooklyn Public Library website, is attributed to librarian Jo Godwin on a BPL podcast in 2019. The origins of this quote go back decades and it is in wide use.
It is not surprising that intellectual freedom is one of the victims of the broader culture wars sweeping the country. Censorship and book banning undoubtedly will continue. While it remains to be seen whether intolerance of divergent points of view will continue to grow, one thing is certain: libraries will continue to be on the front lines.