Confronting Book Challenges and Censorship in Libraries

Across the United States, there are growing challenges to libraries in their efforts to educate, inform, and provide resources free from censorship. As individuals, organized groups, and local and state legislators push personal agendas and changes in laws, we see books being banned from public and school libraries, a rise in intellectual censorship, and threats to intellectual freedom.

Intellectual freedom is the right of every individual to both seek and receive information, from all points of view without restriction. Intellectual freedom provides for free access to all expressions of ideas, through which any side on all sides of a question, cause, or movement may be explored. Censorship is the opposite: suppressing ideas and information that certain persons, individuals, groups, or government officials find dangerous or objectionable. It has no place in libraries.

Noticing “a significant uptick to challenges and outright removal of books from libraries,” ALA and its divisions issued a statement opposing widespread efforts to censor books in November 2021. In 2022, book challenges nearly doubled according to ALA’s Unite Against Book Bans initiative. ALA recently issued a statement about ongoing threats and violence against library workers. As an example, the Missouri state legislature voted last week to defund public libraries. ACRL remains committed to supporting our colleagues in school and public libraries during these increasingly difficult times.

There is a tendency to assume that higher education is immune to book challenges; that censorship is solely a K–12 school or public library issue. But what happens in our local schools, libraries, and communities has a lasting impact on our colleges and universities, along with the wellbeing and intellectual curiosity of our future students. While we may not yet have personally encountered situations where books in our libraries are directly challenged, that may change as the landscape of American politics continues to shift.   

Recent articles in The Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Ed have highlighted situations in Idaho, North Dakota, Iowa, Texas, Oklahoma, Virginia, and Florida where public universities face increased pressure to censor faculty, adjust programming and curricula, and navigate new state laws that hinder intellectual freedom and free speech. Nell Gluckman, writing in the Chronicle in February, notes several examples of state legislatures around the United States passing laws that seek to interfere with the intellectual and business operations of colleges and universities. These vague laws create repressive climates on campuses, often leading to censorship. 

Dr. Emily Knox of the University of Illinois, author of Book Banning In 21st Century America and Foundations of Intellectual Freedom, spoke recently at Western Michigan University on this very subject. In her presentation, Dr. Knox suggested some practical things that all library workers can do to support intellectual freedom:  

  1. Read a banned book. Read something outside your comfort zone and ask yourself:  Why does it make you uncomfortable? What do you think about it? Why might someone be upset about it, and what does that mean for other people who want to think through the book’s ideas? 
  2. Be prepared, but not paranoid. All library collections, at any level, may eventually become scrutinized for the information they provide, especially if supported by taxpayers. 
  3. Make sure your organization regularly reviews its intellectual freedom policies and updates them if necessary. 
  4. Know who’s in charge of your library at the highest level and if they stand in support of intellectual freedom.
  5. Proactively identify allies who will support our libraries in the event of a book challenge. 
  6. On your own time, organize and get involved in local politics to enact change before information challenges reach our schools and communities. 
  7. Look to the Freedom To Read Foundation, PEN America, their partners, and others for ways to respond. 

We also suggest joining your state library association if you are not already a member. Talk with library leaders from public and school libraries in your local community. Grow your understanding of your local situation. Unite Against Book Bans provides a toolkit and other terrific resources on the website, and if you join (it’s a free ALA initiative) you can receive email alerts about issues arising in your community or state. You can also follow the initiative on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Book bans and censorship are increasing, and not just in public and school libraries. They are coming for us, too!  Let’s rise to the challenge and support our colleagues in all libraries. 

– Erin L. Ellis, ACRL President
– Beth McNeil, ACRL Vice-President/President-Elect
– Julie Garrison, ACRL Past-President