This editorial originally appeared in The Washington Post and was distributed by The Associated Press.
As if there were not enough challenges facing the United States right now, Americans have to be on alert for a resurgence of book-banning campaigns at their local libraries. Across the nation, groups of mostly white conservatives are demanding that books be locked up or taken off the shelves entirely. Their main targets? Books about Black and LGBTQ people.
The numbers are staggering. The American Library Association recorded 729 challenges to library, school and university materials in 2021 that targeted more than 1,500 different book titles. That’s a record for attempted book bans since the ALA started tracking them in 2000. A similar analysis by PEN America from July through March found 1,586 instances of books being banned.
Attempts to censor and ban books are not a new phenomenon. In 1650, Puritans in the Massachusetts Bay Colony tried to get what they thought were blasphemous books removed from their community. But what sets this latest wave of book banning apart is how much of it is being driven by politicians. PEN America found that more than 40% of the bans were “tied to directives from state officials or elected lawmakers to investigate or remove books in schools.” The Post’s Annie Gowen chronicled how a Texas county judge personally walked into a local library and took books off the shelves, ignoring the library’s procedures in which a person is supposed to fill out a challenge form to be reviewed by librarians.
The United States was founded on the principle of freedom of expression. We might not always like what our neighbors and fellow citizens have to say, but watching the severe restriction of news and information flow in Russia is the latest reminder of how quickly censorship can turn into something truly sinister. Librarian and editor Mary Jo Godwin once said that a truly great library contains something to offend everyone. But the reverse is also true: Great libraries have materials on their shelves (or in their e-circulation platforms) to support everyone trying to educate themselves, from home-schooling Christians to LGBTQ youths.
The ALA’s list of the most-challenged books lately is telling: At the top is “Gender Queer” by Maia Kobabe, a memoir about coming of age as nonbinary. The second is “Lawn Boy” by Jonathan Evison, about a young biracial man trying to understand race, class and sexual-identity issues in modern America. Both books are highly rated on websites such as Goodreads, where readers give feedback, yet the fact that a few people object to “sexually explicit” content in the books has been enough to get them taken off public library shelves.
Purging libraries of books without a proper process and input from librarians, teachers and a range of community members is wrong. And it won’t be long before this latest book-ban push will likely prove to be counterproductive. Consider how the Confederacy banned books such as Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” for portraying slavery in a negative way. Or recall that in the late 1990s and early 2000s, there was outcry that the Harry Potter books were dangerous for children. The series went on to sell half a billion books worldwide and inspire a love of reading among many young people.
These latest book bans are not about protecting youths. Librarians and concerned citizens are right to fight them.