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Three Facts and a Fiction: Challenging Books

AU librarian Kathryn Ray explains why we haven’t turned the page on censorship.

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Banning books has reached a all-time high in America.

Three Facts and a Fiction is a new This Week at AU feature.  

The long history of book banning in America predates the nation itself. 

Community leaders in the 1600s banned books and literature that challenged the principles of Puritan beliefs. Frequent targets in the first 100 years of America’s founding included books challenging religion and slavery. The act of censorship, however, has seen ebbs and flows. 

“Banning books goes back to colonial times, but it has always had an uneven trajectory,” said AU reference librarian Kathryn Ray. 

She said the practice changed in the past 30 years, with religious and social groups protesting LGBTQ materials in public libraries. Bans peaked in the mid-1990s before regaining steam over the past few years. Now, politicians and organizations in Texas and Florida have made their states the epicenter of the controversy.  

Here, Ray discusses the practice of banning books and why it has recently spread. 

Fact: The American Library Association reported a record number of attempted bans or removals—1,597—in 2021. By October 2022, that record had already been eclipsed.  

A difference from the past: it’s not just nonprofit groups leading the charge. Now, it’s politicians in Texas and Florida. I don’t know if it’s because they have the stature and access to the media, but it all stems from the politics of anger. And that principle has unfortunately gone mainstream with the explosion of social media. 

Fact: According to PEN America’s Banned Book Index, 41 percent of banned books include LGBTQ+ themes. Forty percent feature protagonists or secondary characters of color and 21 percent address issues of race or racism. 

Removing these books harms students who no longer see themselves in literature. There is a chilling effect on authors and publishers who are reluctant to write on subjects that will keep their books off the shelves. Challenges almost always support the status quo, trying to erase works that offer a different way of thinking. Fighting book bans and challenges redirects focus and funds from libraries’ core mission, weakening one of our most egalitarian public services.   

Fact: Librarians have faced backlash for opposing censorship initiatives and book bans. 

A teacher in Oklahoma [Summer Boismier] refused to censor her library in the way the state wanted, and she got fired. People say terrible things to these teachers and librarians trying to do their jobs, whether they are school board members or public librarians. We’ve seen stories about school librarians called before the school board and community members opposing them are openly carrying [firearms] in the room. The political climate in the country has encouraged citizens, and they’ve taken their rage out on those trying to maintain open access to information. Democracy is predicated on an educated, thinking electorate. Free people read freely. 

Fiction: A library opting not to carry a book is akin to a ban. 

Librarians typically hold master’s degrees in library and information science. Their academic program prepares them to curate appropriate collections for their libraries. They read and discuss potential purchases for their readers, putting them in the best position to determine which materials should be selected for their collections.  

It is vital to make the distinction between banning books and book selection. No library has sufficient space and money to purchase everything they want. Librarians select materials based on budgets and the needs of their users. A school librarian would likely not buy a book on how to make bombs, even if it were requested. The decision is selection, not censorship. There is an appropriate repository for almost any book published. There is no need to ban books. 

Have an idea for Three Facts and a Fiction? Email editor Jonathan Heeter.