Attempts to ban books are accelerating across the country at a rate never seen since tracking began more than 20 years ago, according to a new report from the American Library Association.
So far in 2022, there have been attempts to ban or restrict access to 1,651 different titles, the group found, up from challenges to 1,597 books in 2021, the year with the highest number of complaints since the group began documenting book challenges decades ago.
Book banning efforts have grown rapidly in number and become much more organized, divisive and vitriolic over the past two years, splitting communities, causing bitter rifts on school and library boards, and spreading across the country through social media and political campaigns.
Public libraries have been threatened by politicians and community members with a loss of funding for their refusal to remove books. Members of the Proud Boys, an extremist right-wing group, showed up at a school board meeting in Illinois, where book access was on the agenda, and at a drag queen story hour in California. Librarians have been accused of promoting pedophilia. In its recent analysis, the library association cited 27 instances of police reports being filed against library staff over the content of their shelves.
“It represents an escalation, and we’re truly fearful that at some point we will see a librarian arrested for providing constitutionally protected books on disfavored topics,” said Deborah Caldwell-Stone, the director of the office of intellectual freedom at the library association. “They’re being threatened with prosecution, attacked on social media, harassed for simply doing their jobs by trying to meet the information needs of their communities.”
Book challenges, defined in the report as “willful attempts to remove or restrict access to library resources or programming,” can be a written objection, a complaint form submitted to a library, or a demand for removal issued on social media, the organization said. While in the past, complaints tended to focus on a single book, the majority of book challenges in 2021 targeted multiple titles, the library organization said.
The efforts have long come from both sides of the political spectrum. The report highlights challenges to “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian,” written by Sherman Alexie, including one made in a left-leaning New York City suburb over concerns about offensive racial language.
But the report emphasizes the role that conservative politics and politicians have played in the escalation of the issue. Conservative groups like Moms for Liberty, which is leading efforts to have books that they view as inappropriate removed from school libraries, describe book challenges as a matter of parental choice.
Parents should be able to select the books their children are exposed to, they argue, and evaluate whether something runs contrary to their values.
Free speech organizations and many librarians, however, say that by pushing to remove these books from libraries, those parents are trampling on the rights of others who want the books to be available. The removals can be especially detrimental for young people who see themselves reflected in the books, they argue.
“Young people are going through these experiences and they are hungry for information,” Caldwell-Stone said. “To remove those books denies that opportunity for education, and is also an act of erasure, a very stark message that you don’t belong here, your stories don’t belong here.”
The library group, a nonprofit that promotes libraries and library education, defines itself as nonpartisan.
Many of the challenges are directly linked to the talking points of the conservative movement, including how to teach children about racial inequality, James LaRue, the former director of the A.L.A.’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, wrote in the report.
Books that focus on L.G.B.T.Q. or Black characters have been targeted most often, the association said, with Maia Kobabe’s “Gender Queer” the most frequently challenged book in the country. A debut graphic novel, the book is about coming out as nonbinary. It includes depictions of sexual experiences, masturbation and menstrual blood.
The report also detailed how charged and extreme recent efforts to remove books have become.
In a Washington school district, a parent filed police reports against the school officials, accusing them of distributing “graphic pornography” because “Gender Queer” was available in the library.
At a public library in Gillette, Wyo., community members who wanted books about L.G.B.T.Q. themes and characters removed filed a criminal report with the sheriff’s office, accusing library staff of providing obscene material. (No charges were brought.)
In Tyler, Texas, Jonathan Evison’s novel “Lawn Boy” was banned after parents complained about graphic descriptions of sex in the book, and included it on a list of 120 “questionable books.”
Conservative politicians running for office and elected officials have seized on the topic. In Virginia and Texas, candidates have campaigned on the idea that parents should have more say over the books their children can access.
In a significant escalation, a Republican delegate in Virginia sued Barnes & Noble in an effort to stop it from selling two books to minors, “A Court of Mist and Fury,” by Sarah J. Maas, and “Gender Queer.” A circuit court judge dismissed that attempt last month.
With the approach of midterm elections, challenges to books and the conflicts that surround them are only likely to escalate.
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