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Censorship wars: Why have several communities voted to defund their public libraries?

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Banned books are visible at the Central Library, a branch of the Brooklyn Public Library system, in New York City on Thursday, July 7, 2022. The books are banned in several public schools and libraries in the U.S., but young people can read digital versions from anywhere through the library. The Brooklyn Public Library offers free membership to anyone in the U.S. aged 13 to 21 who wants to check out and read books digitally in response to the nationwide wave of book censorship and restrictions. (AP Photo/Ted Shaffrey)
Banned books are visible at the Central Library, a branch of the Brooklyn Public Library system, in New York City on Thursday, July 7, 2022. The books are banned in several public schools and libraries in the U.S., but young people can read digital versions from anywhere through the library. The Brooklyn Public Library offers free membership to anyone in the U.S. aged 13 to 21 who wants to check out and read books digitally in response to the nationwide wave of book censorship and restrictions. (AP Photo/Ted Shaffrey)

Public libraries in the U.S. are under increasing scrutiny.

Last year, the American Library Association reported a record number of book challenges, topping nearly 1,600 books.

"How a book on a shelf could be a threat to anyone is beyond us. Libraries are for voluntary reading. Libraries are for choice. They're a resource we should fiercely protect and preserve."

Efforts are also more aggressive. Several communities have voted to stop funding their public libraries. In others:

"There's been a few instances where there have been physical threats or, for example, the library in Montana that found books in their book dropped that had been riddled with bullets."

Today, On Point: Protecting America's public libraries.

Guests

Deborah Caldwell-Stone, director of the American Library Association's Office for Intellectual Freedom. She works on projects "addressing censorship and privacy in the library."

Patrick Sweeney, political director of EveryLibrary, the first and only national political action committee for libraries. He is also the former Administrative Librarian of the Sunnyvale Public Library in California.

George M. Johnson, author of All Boys Aren’t Blue. The book is a young adult non-fiction memoir about Johnson's journey growing up as a queer Black man in America. It’s the third most challenged book of 2021 out of nearly 1,600 books. It has been targeted for removal in at least 14 states. (@IamGMJohnson)

Also Featured

Kimber Glidden, director of the Boundary County Library in Idaho.

Interview Highlights

On the climate in American libraries

Deborah Caldwell-Stone: "We're seeing the result of a divisive campaign intended to limit everyone's access to information, to really sanction one viewpoint, one political view, one approach to information, to prevent everyone from having the ability to make choices for themselves.

"We're observing organized advocacy groups try to impose an agenda on libraries to change policies, to ban books, to really limit the ability of the public library to serve as a community resource that meets the information needs of everyone in the community, but instead limits their offerings to what's approved by a few political groups in the community. And this has had very real consequences for libraries across the country.

"We're seeing contentious board meetings. We're seeing librarians actually charged in criminal court with pandering obscenity to minors. And we're also working with libraries, closely monitoring situations like you've described, where there's been an effort to either defund the library or take over the library board in order to impose a particular agenda."

In Jamestown Township, Michigan, voters voted to defund the Patmos Library.

The library has 67,000 books, videos and other items. There were only about 90 titles voters had a problem with. Why were they willing to risk the whole library over that tiny fraction number of titles?

Deborah Caldwell-Stone: "We're seeing the result of a lot of disinformation and misinformation about libraries, how librarians work and the content of the books. For example, I absolutely reject the idea that books that deal with puberty, human reproduction, sexual health, developing good relationships have anything to do with what's called grooming. That's a falsehood that's spread by a number of advocacy groups that really have an anti-pornography, anti-LGBTQIA agenda.

"And these talking points are picked up. People don't have any basis to question them. And as a result, they are encouraged to act on that false information when they participate in elections. You know, and it's also a fundamental misunderstanding of the purpose of public libraries as a whole. These are community institutions that are intended to serve everyone in the community. And we know that we live in a rapidly diversifying society, that there are all kinds of people in every community that have different information needs.

"And so the library, by its nature, is going to be acquiring works that represent a variety of ideas, viewpoints, including books you might not agree with. That you might not give to your own child, but another family, another parent would want their child to read. And there's this loss of civic engagement, community feeling where we share a resource. And we understand there's a book on the shelf that is there for me. But by its very nature, the library is also going to have books on the shelf that I don't agree with, but I tolerate that. I understand that, because that means that the library will be there for me, as well, to serve my information needs.

"And we're seeing a real loss of that community, of that understanding of the library as a community institution. And the loss can be so great. A public library is essential for not only for reading books, but, you know, many, many times it's the community's portal to the internet. It supports home schooling. It supports the ability to train for new jobs, to find new jobs. It supports small businesses in the community. It's a real resource. It can help seniors with applying for Social Security.

"You know, the public library has really turned into that place, that third place you go to. Not only to read a murder mystery, but also where you can find support and information to live your best life, to find work to support your family. ... If you're a young adult, it's the place you can go to prepare to go into college, to enter the military, to start a successful career."

On defunding libraries for political leverage 

Patrick Sweeney: "I think it is fundraising and getting elected. You know, we are seeing that the governors who we are seeing surfacing themselves to run for president are the ones that are beating the indoctrination and grooming drums the most. Speaking of Idaho, Heather Scott in Idaho had the Panhandle Patriots come to a meeting where she was talking about the grooming indoctrination of children who said that they weren't scared of librarians and they defend against librarians.

"Librarians are average age over 40 and 80% female. So these open carry highly militant organizations are going to shoot a 48 year old female librarian over some books. But what we're seeing is that talk was really about fundraising. It was really about riling her base. It was really about her getting the resources she need to move her personal agenda forward. You know, I think that's the most terrifying thing, how effective these lies have become in order to raise money. And so disconnect and divisiveness in our country simply for short term political gain."

On what we stand to lose when libraries are under threat

George M. Johnson: "We literally just go back to our origins, when we start to deny the ability of reading and writing. And that's what it really is, right? We're trying to literally deny an ability for people to read and people to write. And that is something that my ancestors know about very well, because we were denied that ability to read and write. It was illegal for people like me to be able to read and write in the 1800's and in the 1700's in this country. And so when we are specifically targeting books by Black people, books by queer people, we are going back to this country's origins, which is interesting.

"Because that's the whole tagline, right? Make America Great Again. And it's like, But at what point are you speaking of? Are you speaking before Black people had civil rights? Are you speaking of during slavery? Are you speaking of when the indigenous people? Like what point was it great for the people who you're literally targeting right now? And so even like when we hear those type of statements, we know exactly what the dog whistle is, too. And so when you start to say, Well, we're going to remove these specific books and we're going to start to remove these specific talking points.

"What you are really saying is that there is a second class and a third class of citizen that exists in this country, and we are going to remove the materials that make them powerful, that make other people want to know about these people, and that make other people build those bridges of empathy towards these people. Because the danger is if we lose our power as the majority, oh my God, there might actually be equity and equality. And that's not what we want. We don't want equity inequality. Like who would want that when we've been in power for so long? And so that's really the danger in removing that. It's like the onion and we just keep peeling away layers. First it's books. Then it's our rights. Then what's next?"

This program aired on September 8, 2022.

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