On March 23, the American Library Association announced a 38% increase in book bans from 2021 to 2022. That equals 2,571 unique titles, compared to 377 titles in 2019. Publisher’s Weekly says, “Once again, the vast majority of works challenged were written by or about members of the LGBTQ community and people of color; 58% of reported challenges targeted works in schools and 41% targeted materials in public libraries.” These statistics should alarm all of us, but they hit me especially hard because of my job.
My work in high school libraries involves many tasks, including cataloging, reference help, marketing, and collection development. All of that matters, but what’s most important to me is putting the right book in front of the right person at the right time. A book can entertain or enlighten us, but literature’s greatest gift is when it shows us who we are and who we can become. There’s something powerful and life-giving about seeing your story reflected in a book because it’s a sign that you matter. That’s why intellectual freedom is so important.
I’ve been working in libraries for 18 years, and one of the first things I remember learning is that, as a library employee, you do not judge the books people are checking out. You do not criticize, question, or make it difficult for people to access library materials. In 2022, the American Library Association commissioned a poll that revealed 71% of voters–Democrats, Republicans, and Independents–reject book bans. Sometimes it seems like Americans can’t find common ground on anything, yet we see here that the freedom to read has bipartisan support. If that’s true, why are book bans rising? The yelling of a few is drowning out the silence of the majority, and silence is the ultimate goal of those who want to ban books.
As I’ve thought about these issues, I wondered what causes a person to become furious about a book, perhaps even a book they’ve not even bothered to read. I think the heart of the matter comes down to fear and power. A person might fear someone who doesn’t look like them, live like them, or believe like them because those people might take some of their power. When your story has been the predominant one, you might resent it when others finally become part of the narrative.
At the beginning of this piece, I said that all of the book-banning news has been hard because of my job, but it’s also been challenging to read because of my faith. Many of those trying to get books banned are doing so in the name of Jesus, and as a Christian, I find that abhorrent. Laypeople and scholars can debate many things regarding Scripture, but it’s abundantly clear that stories mattered to Jesus because he taught in parables. The company he kept included outcasts, thieves, sex workers, and liars. My faith matters to me because it’s a faith that flips everything on its head: the weak are made strong, the voiceless can speak, and the exiles get a seat at the table. When the Bible tells us about Jesus’s anger, it was directed toward religious elites who thought they had all the answers. The story of Jesus is scandalous because it includes those who had never been included before and takes back power from those who thought it belonged only to them.
Because of my job and my faith, I disagree with those banning books on almost everything but this: books are powerful. But instead of being threatened by that I rejoice in it. I want all the students I serve to see themselves reflected in stories because they deserve to feel seen and valued. The misfits, the loners, the bullied, and the silenced have a home at the library. If you agree and are looking for ways to get involved, start with one of these things:
- Support your local libraries and library staff: You can do that by using your library card, attending programs, or sending a note to staff members expressing your appreciation.
- Make some noise: If you live in a city or school district whose libraries are under attack, show up to public meetings. Help make sure that anger and bigotry don’t have the final word.
- Vote: Vote in favor of libraries and be informed about school board candidates. Support legislation and people who value intellectual freedom.
What other steps can you take in order to ensure your freedom to read? What other ways can you support your local libraries? I’d love to hear your ideas! Thanks for reading mine.