American Libraries Are Taking a Stand Against Book Bans
The president of the American Library Association discusses the future of libraries
Some of the best moments of my life have been spent in libraries, first as a patron, later as a librarian, and I have witnessed firsthand how hard the past few decades have been on libraries. As America has continued to dismantle its social safety net, libraries have been forced to pivot from being a resource for all things books to also functioning as community centers for those in need. Today’s librarians don’t just lead storytimes or maintain collections, they’re also first responders on the front lines with their own personal safety at risk. The demands of the job necessitate that library staff, particularly those serving in high-poverty communities, serve as combination mental health counselors, social workers, security guards, first responders, and babysitters while putting their personal safety at risk.
The American Library Association (ALA) is a non-profit organization that advocates for and supports libraries, library workers, and the right to read. Their mission is “to provide leadership for the development, promotion and improvement of library and information services and the profession of librarianship in order to enhance learning and ensure access to information for all.”
According to the ALA, American libraries are facing an unprecedented wave of censorship, with 2022 having the highest demands of book bans on record. The vast majority of the challenged books were written by or about individuals whose voices have been traditionally excluded from the national conversation, members of the LGBTQIA+ community and people of color.
I spoke recently with the president of the ALA, Lessa Kanani’opua Pelayo-Lozada, about how to take a stand against book bans, how the ALA is working to support all patrons and library staff, and how the American public can support our libraries.
Deirdre Sugiuchi: I was a school librarian for many years. In 2019, before I left the profession, I had my first challenge. It was a precursor to the mass challenges brought forth by parents’ rights group Moms for Liberty (which officially formed in 2021), but it was very much part of a coordinated effort to ban books, in my case specifically targeting a book featuring a trans protagonist. Can you discuss the recent unprecedented rise in censorship and how ALA is working to address these book bans?
Lessa Kanani’opua Pelayo-Lozada: These are organized efforts. These groups are issuing templates of letters to write to libraries. They’re issuing lists of books to ban. Our response is to get as organized as they are, to make sure that our libraries and library workers are prepared for book challenges, with strong collection development policies, as well as knowing what resources are available to them, such as ALA’s office of intellectual freedom, which can provide one on one advice and support, whether it’s legal, financial, or political.
We also have our Unite Against Book Bans campaign, which we are asking everyone who believes in the freedom to read to sign, because we cannot, as library workers, do it alone. We have to have the public who is against book challenges to sign on with us and write letters to their editors, to their board of library trustees, to their school boards, emphasizing the positive impact that access to the books that are being challenged provide to their communities, to their personal lives, to their children’s lives, and to continue speaking out and educating their friends and family to the value of having access to ideas that we may not even agree with.
We know also that it is a vocal minority that is pro-book challenges. In March 2022, ALA did a survey of folks across party lines— Republican, Democrat, Independent, red, blue, everywhere in between— and found that 71% of voters opposed book bans. We again know that these are organized attempts. There’s lots of different groups— you mentioned Moms for Liberty. There’s Americans for Prosperity, No Left Turn in Education, these folks have chapters popping up everywhere. Sometimes they’re not even actual parents concerned for their children’s wellbeing who are putting forth these challenges. They are just people who are caught up in this morality and this notion that they want to have power and control over how other families live their lives and raise their children.
DS: Last night I read about a library in Texas whose board would rather close the library and fire the library staff instead of including works reflecting the lives and experiences of LGBTQIA+ and BIPOC persons. I’m on the board of a literacy organization here in Georgia, Books for Keeps, which distributes twelve free books to kids every year. The children choose their own books. One county told us not to come if we wouldn’t censor our distribution list. I was raised Christian nationalist, I’m very familiar with the mindset, and I don’t think the public at large is taking these efforts to ban books seriously.
LP: I also think that people don’t understand the power of their voice. If we write letters, if we make these calls to our legislators, if we demand that we have access to these books— these are elected officials, these people technically have to listen to us. We can speak out with our votes, which we should also do. But we can speak out in a myriad of different ways. And we have to, because it’s fine for a family to determine what their family reads, but it is not okay for them to determine what another family reads or has access to.
The Texas defunding that you’re referring to is just one example. The state of Missouri is trying to get rid of all state funding towards public libraries right now, because of the public backlash, and so we just have to remain vigilant in this fight and we have to all be in it together.
DS: Related to this, several states, including in Georgia, where I live, and Montana, have proposed bills which would fine and jail librarians for distributing books which people find obscene. Can you discuss the role of this proposed legislation and how it weakens libraries?
LP: The goal is to dismantle public institutions that promote education and access to information. Because they know that libraries are trusted institutions, that we work with parents to find the right books for their families, and that we don’t force upon any particular ideals or opinions, because we are trained to not do that—that is not our job, that is not our position—but this is the way that they will continue to have power over individuals, to erase the individuals that they don’t want to be members of their society, who have ideas that they don’t want their children to have access to, despite the research. We know that just because children read something or have access to something does not mean that they will start believing that or go to do that particular thing. I read a lot of murder mysteries— I’m not going to commit any murders.
I think that it’s really important for us to understand the political game that they are trying to play. It is a very dangerous one, because people’s lives are at stake. We know that LGBTQIA+ youth who can see themselves reflected in books and movies will have a lower chance of self-harm, so when they restrict access to these materials, they are erasing identities and people and that becomes harmful to those individuals as well as harmful to their own children, because they are not able to develop skills of empathy. They are not able to understand why someone else may love a different type of lifestyle, and ultimately they are not able to be good community members and productive members of the larger society that we all live in, no matter how hard they try to deny that.
DS: In 2021, former librarian Amanda Oliver published Overdue: Reckoning With the Public Library, which in part addresses America’s public libraries reflect the systematic failures and social inequities of our country, and places undue burdens on library staff working in high poverty environments, forcing them to serve as mediators and mental health crisis support personnel. Have you read Overdue, and do you have any insight on how to support librarians working in challenging environments?
LP: I have not read Overdue. Our library workers are working very often in underfunded and sometimes unsafe conditions. They don’t have the resources that they need to be able to do their jobs effectively.
In the ALA-Allied Professional Association, what we’re really trying to look at is how, at the national level, we can support library workers in their home institutions. We can’t take the place of their administrations, but we can help to empower library workers, whether it’s that they need to organize, whether they need an advocacy plan for funding their library, and promoting that funding, whether they need advice and help on working in unsafe situations, and what their options are for that, like what training looks like for the library worker to be able to handle that, but also what setting boundaries looks like, and what we are and are not allowed to do within our institutions. Just because we’re a public space doesn’t mean that we’re a free-for-all for every type of behavior, right? It has to be behavior focused. We have to make sure that we are consistent in enforcing our policies and our procedures, and consistent in making sure that our library workers work in safe spaces, and that if they are not, that they have the resources that they need.
It’s something that is very close to my heart, having worked in a number of different communities. I worked in a community where we were on lockdown once a week, where we would just have to shut the whole library down and be inside.
It’s on all of us to make sure that our libraries are funded and to advocate for them as well. It’s a community effort. Also, because libraries now are often a replacement for so many social services, it also speaks to the dismantling of our social safety nets, and of our mental health resources. We are now the catch all for all of that. We need to speak out to stop having those cuts at all of those different levels and make sure that every part of our social fabric is fully funded.
DS: You were the first chair of the Office for Diversity, Literacy, and Outreach Services. Can you discuss the function of the library in marginalized communities? Are there specific ways that ALA wants to address the needs of marginalized patrons?
LP: We have moved from a model of equal library services and we are trying to get one of equitable library services and inclusive library services, to recognize that people are coming from different places and backgrounds and that we really have to be able to develop one on one relationships with our patrons to understand their needs. We know we can guess their needs based on some demographic information as well as the communities that they live in, but we really have to make sure that we are looking at the full intersectionality of our patrons and our communities to be able to best serve them.
Some of the ways that we are supporting that work is by putting out things like a DEI scorecard for libraries to be able to understand where they are in their equity, diversity, and inclusion journey and to understand how they support their staff, but also how they support their communities and what types of programming is available. We also provide grants. There’s one called Great Stories Club and it focuses on book clubs for teens and adults with a variety of different topics and backgrounds.
Through programming and through professional development, we are making sure that our library workers today understand that equity, diversity, and inclusion is a core value to our work and our profession. We are no longer the segregated classist libraries that were essentially founded by a misogynistic, anti-semitic man, Melvil Dewey. Recognizing, to be quite frank, how far we have come from that, but also recognizing how far we still have to go.
DS: When I was a school librarian I worked in a Title I school. Most of my kids were Black and brown. In my district, only two of the librarians did not identify as white, a trend that is reflected nationally— in 2020, 83% of librarians identified as white, as did 76% of library workers. Do you have any initiatives in ALA to diversify the library staff?
LP: The primary initiative that we have is called the Spectrum Scholarship Program. It provides library school students with tuition support, as well as leadership development. They have a cohort every year of folks who are working in libraries already and going through library school, folks who are one or two years into their program, with tools and education on how to survive, to be quite frank, in a predominantly white institution, but also how to be proactive with diversifying the field and sharing that. It is a small program. The number of individuals (with) a 50-60% acceptance ratio.
I was not a spectrum scholar. I was not accepted into the program. But there are also other supporting factors to help diversify and to help support librarians of color through ALA affiliates like the National Association of Librarians of Color, which I came up through, and the Asian-Pacific American Librarians Association, which also have mentoring programs and support for individuals who are going to library school and through every stage of their career.
Through ALA’s programming and offerings in our professional development, there are a lot of programs and classes on how individuals can be allies, how they can assess their libraries to make sure that they are inclusive environments, not just to the community but also to staff. Because there’s also a retention issue, right? There may be an increase in folks who are going through library school, but who are we having stay? The retention issue is across the board right now in libraries, regardless of race, ethnicity, and class background for the variety of factors that we have talked about today. But also, it’s exceptionally difficult sometimes for people of color when they are the only ones in their library. They may not be able to be seen and heard and to give feedback. We’re continuing to work and look at different ways to support library workers of color and to continue diversifying the institution, but a lot of it is on the local level. It’s all very cultural. It has to start from day one and it has to start from administrations.
DS: What do you envision as the future of libraries? Where do you see us headed?
LP: We are going to continue being responsive to our communities. We’re going to continue working our best to be proactive. The core thing that we need to really focus on is preparation for ourselves, right? It’s really difficult to predict the future, as we saw, when the pandemic hit us, but what we can do is prepare for many different outcomes and prepare ourselves for change management, and prepare ourselves to know that nothing is going to stay the same forever, and to get our institutions ready for that change, whatever it is, or whatever it may look like.
We are going to continue thriving, we’re going to continue being trusted community centers, and places for our most vulnerable to go to and to feel safe in, regardless of book challenges—we know that the majority of people still trust us and love us. We just have to mobilize those voices to speak as loud and clear as those who oppose us.