- Oct 26, 2021
Culture war in the stacks: Librarians marshal against rising book bans
Facing smear campaigns and death threats, librarians are on the front lines of what they call an urgent battle for intellectual freedom
By Hannah Allam
Updated March 4, 2023 at 4:46 p.m. EST|Published March 2, 2023 at 5:04 p.m. EST
St. Tammany Parish library director Kelly LaRocca on Feb. 13 shows off books that were removed from the shelves at the Peter L. “Pete” Gitz Library in Madisonville, La., because of objections by people in the area. (Joshua Lott/The Washington Post)
NEW ORLEANS — Cheers erupted as Jamie Gregory strode onstage to receive an award, the “Oscar for librarians,” as it is known to the hundreds of library workers who gathered at a convention center here recently to discuss the future of their beleaguered profession.
Gregory is a school librarian in South Carolina, where she faces a backlash for opposing censorship campaigns. In her acceptance speech at the American Library Association’s winter conference, she recalled a character in the movie “Field of Dreams” who speaks out against book banning at a meeting where townspeople rant about “smut and pornography.”
“Sound familiar?” Gregory asked, drawing laughter.
“The book censors are resorting to various underhanded and illegal tactics to force their own narrow interpretation of the freedom to read on everyone else,” Gregory said. “They will eventually run out of tactics. But we will still be here.”
Gregory’s speech landed as a badly needed pep talk for a workforce facing what the American Library Association, or ALA, calls an unprecedented threat of censorship, fueled by a blend of hard-right politics and Christian nationalism that, in some areas, is backed by intimidation from local armed groups. Librarians who reject book banning have been threatened, harassed, sued, fired and labeled “groomers” and “pedophiles” on social media.
The conference in New Orleans was equal parts group therapy and war room, as nearly 2,000 librarians from throughout the country strategized on how to protect their patrons and themselves, and how to get the public to wake up to the urgency of the threat.
“It’s time to understand that they’re serious about suppressing information and taking away people’s civil liberties based on their identity and race. They want to go back to 1952,” Deborah Caldwell-Stone, the director of the library association’s intellectual freedom office, said of the groups that are behind censorship efforts. “We’re being confronted with the potential for another McCarthy era where people’s lives are ruined simply because of what they believe or who they are.”
Books at the Burton Barr Central Library in Phoenix in 2019. (Anita Snow/AP)
In the past two years, the number of book challenges has skyrocketed, going from sporadic individual complaints to organized campaigns that dispatch parents to confront their local libraries with lists of dozens of titles they demand be restricted or removed from circulation. In 2021, at least 729 censorship attempts targeted 1,597 books, the most recordedin 20 years of record-keeping by the ALA, the oldest and largest trade group for library workers. The numbers for 2022 are expected to be even higher, according to a partial tally that recorded 681 attempts involving more than 1,650 titles in the first eight months of last year; full results will be released during National Library Week in April.
Schools nationwide are quietly removing books from their libraries
Activists behind the campaigns insist they’re protecting children from age-inappropriate content and “woke” indoctrination, their catchall term for content that addresses racial diversity and sexual identities.They point to depictions of homosexuality, transgender characters or sexual scenarios. Librarians say the complaints are often based on cherry-picked passages taken out of context or about titles that are not even shelved in areas for young readers. Titles about women, reproductive health and non-Christian faiths also frequently make the lists. One list of challenged materials included the popular “Girls Who Code” series, sparking a backlash.
The goal, extremism monitoring groups say, is to spread the ideology at the grass-roots level by taking on — or taking over — school boards, city councils, sheriff’s departments and other local institutions. In the case of libraries, they say, book bans are only a first step, followed now by legislation to weaken librarian control over collections, moves to strip libraries of legal protections and, in some examples, efforts to defund libraries altogether.
The toll of banning books in America
The effects on librarians are personal, and often terrifying.
In Idaho, a librarian resigned last fall after a bullying campaign that included armed men standing in the back of board meetings. At a public library in East Texas, according to news reports and the state library association, an alarmed patron recorded video of a uniformed officer behind the circulation desk sorting through frequently challenged books. A librarian in Louisiana who received a death threat after opposing censorship said she installed a home-security system, bought a Taser and sleeps “with a shotgun under my bed.”
“You would never think that something like that would happen in the United States, but it is, it has, and it’s here,” said Shirley Robinson, the executive director of the Texas Library Association. Texas leads the country in the number of book bans, according to PEN America, which defines a ban as action taken against a book on the basis of its content.
Amanda Wallace watches her son Atlas Wallace play a game on a computer in the children’s section at the Gitz Library on Feb. 13. Librarians around the country are facing backlash from right-wing groups and parents who want books dealing with race and sexuality removed from libraries. (Joshua Lott/The Washington Post)
Gregory, the South Carolina librarian, said her problems began in 2021 when she received a “librarian of the year” award from a state association for school librarians. A Republican state lawmaker, later joined by another, dug up tweets in which Gregory had voiced support for Maia Kobabe’s “Gender Queer,” the most banned book in the country, and whipped up public outrage by saying she was “putting pornography in schools.”
After receiving threats, Gregory said, she wrote directly to the two legislators to let them know the toll of their actions.
“I said, ‘Look, you don’t even know me. You don’t know anything about this. What you’re putting on your social media is lies,” Gregory recalled, speaking over a New Orleans brass band on the sidelines of the conference. “I’m getting people threatening me. This is my life. I have children.”
To Gregory’s surprise, the lawmakers took down their Facebook posts about her, a rare outcome at a time when librarians are being hounded out of their jobs by similar campaigns.
The relief didn’t last. A new round of bashing has arrived in recent weeks, Gregory said, along with a new South Carolina legislative session that promises more attempts to restrict library freedoms. She said the book banners’ end goal is now clear: “They are trying to criminalize teachers and librarians.”
A mom wrongly said the book showed pedophilia. School libraries banned it.
One of the main organizing engines in the new wave of book bans is Moms For Liberty, a conservative nonprofit group that was founded in Florida in 2021 and now claims around 200 chapters in dozens of states. Hours of footage from school and library board meetings show members, often in matching shirts, going up one after another to detail the “pornography” they say is available to young readers.
In an interview, co-founder Tiffany Justice rejected the idea that Moms For Liberty’s work contributes to harassment campaigns against library workers, saying the group has a “joyful warriors” code of conduct and would not “take responsibility for bad actors.”
“I do not endorse any type of harassment tactics,” Justice said. “But the truth of the matter is, if you have activist teachers or you have librarians that are acting in defiance of state law, or federal obscenity law, and they are keeping books in libraries, I do hope they get fired.”
A warning from LouisianaAmanda Jones overrode family concerns to make it to the conference, an hour from her hometown in Livingston Parish, a deeply conservative community outside of Baton Rouge where she has worked in public education for 22 years as a teacher and, now, middle-school librarian.
Family members wanted Jones to take a break from the onslaught of vitriol that began last April when she spoke against book banning at a public library meeting. Jones insisted on making it to the conference, where she was a featured speaker.
“They want me to be silent, and I’m going to do the opposite of what they want,” she said of her opponents.
The state has become a hotbed of book challenges. Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry made national headlines in December when he announced the “Protecting Minors” tip line — Jones calls it the “snitch line” — for complaints from the public about library workers and educators.
This month, Landry, who is running for governor, said Louisiana needs a law to restrict what materials minors can check out of libraries, prompting an editorial from a local paper, the Advocate, warning that putting “Big Brother” in charge of library cards risks giving the state “an enhanced reputation as a bigot’s paradise.”
Jones is one of Louisiana’s most outspoken voices against such pressures on libraries, and, therefore, among the most demonized. Parents who target her hawk mugs labeled “Librarian Tears” and spread memes suggesting that she teaches children about anal sex. One of the main groups going after Jones says on its website that the goal is to combat “library infiltration” at a time when “the very culture and traditions of Western Civilization are the targets of a global Marxist egalitarian agenda.”
Jones filed a defamation suit against some of her opponents, but a judge dismissed the case, ruling that Jones’s detractors were expressing opinions, not facts. “My mother and father didn’t raise a wimp,” she said, noting she plans to appeal.
Still, Jones, who also is the president of the Louisiana Association of School Librarians, has paid a steep price. The relentless harassment, she said, has caused hair loss, panic attacks and hives. She is now on medical leave but still worries that someone will violently act on portrayals of her as a pedophile and “groomer.”
The fear, she said, is compounded by a stinging social isolation in the close-knit town where she has spent all of her 44 years.
“I have supporters. They’re just quiet because they don’t want to become targets of these people,” Jones said. “Essentially, these people, by singling me out, did what they wanted: They got everybody silent. It worked.”
Throughout the conference, Louisiana librarians were praised for taking stances against censorship. Behind the brave front, however, they remain vulnerable.
Cara Chance, a public library manager in Lafayette Parish, repeatedly has fought ban attempts since 2021, when the parish Library Board of Control considered removing Juno Dawson’s “This Book Is Gay” at the request of activists.
The board voted 4-2 against banning the title, although the book was moved from the teen section to an adult section of the library. The next year, in June 2022, Chance again stood up to library administrators after she was informed that branches were not allowed to put up LGBTQ displays for Pride month. Chance created a teen romance display thatincluded LGBTQ love stories.
A month later, in a special meeting, the board director moved to fire Chance for insubordination, but she wasn’t given proper notice of the move and the issue was tabled, according to minutes from the meeting. Although Chance remains in place, library officials have told local news outlets that the matter remains “pending.” Chance declined to comment, citing rules barring civil servants from speaking to journalists.
“We aren’t just a cautionary tale — we’re a guidebook,” Lafayette-based writer Lynette Mejia, co-founder of Louisiana Citizens Against Censorship, told the audience at one event. “Pay close attention, listen to our story. Because forewarned is forearmed.”
St. Tammany Parish library director Kelly LaRocca, at the Gitz Library, said local library administrators are juggling 187 challenges to 150 titles. (Joshua Lott/The Washington Post)
In St. Tammany Parish, in the southeastern part of the state, library director Kelly LaRocca is in the throes of a backlash that began last year with complaints about Pride displays at three branches. In normal times, she said, local library administrators receive a couple of book challenges a year. These days, they’re juggling 187 challenges to 150 titles.
LaRocca said the rapid spread of book challenges, which library advocates call a manufactured “moral panic,” could be curtailed if concerned parents stopped to get the facts about how libraries curate their collections.
“If you just came into your local public library and just asked, ‘Where is this? Is this in the children’s section?,’ you’d get an answer that this is not as big a concern as you thought it was.”
Lately, LaRocca also has taken flak from fellow library advocates who disagree with deals she made with the board to restrict access to some material pending reviews. She said the moves are intended to keep books on the shelves and to prevent the disputes from worsening. Some library advocates see it as capitulation, and even LaRocca said she was not fully comfortable with her decision.
“When you’re accused of doing something illegal and your district attorney won’t stop to say yes or no, what do you do?” LaRocca said, describing her dilemma as she tried to balance her commitment to intellectual freedom with a duty to protect 150 staff members.
LaRocca said she still thinks there is a good-faith discussion to be had about where to place sensitive materials in libraries and about the role of parents in overseeing their children’s reading. But any chance for real dialogue, she said, diminishes with each round of mudslinging.
“Maybe they’ve forgotten that we were their neighbors and their fellow churchgoers,” LaRocca said. “When you forget that and you don’t recognize that, it is easier to say something on a Facebook page or to blindly believe something that you’re told.”
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‘100 percent defiant, and 100 percent terrified’Traces of the tensions were visible among the colorful publishers’ stalls and pop-up shops that dotted the sprawling convention center in New Orleans.
Librarians at one booth gathered signatures for the “FReadom Fighters,” an anti-censorship drive. Security guards checked badges to make sure only registered attendees could enter events. Rumors swirled all weekend about right-wing groups hinting at “a surprise” for the librarians, although no protests materialized.
At the conference, librarians said that even if they’re able to beat back the most aggressive efforts, the campaigns already have caused lasting damage to how books are ordered, displayed and talked about in communities.
“I am 100 percent defiant, and 100 percent terrified,” said Gina Kromhout, a public librarian in Brooklyn who said she moved to New York last year from Ohio, where she repeatedly clashed with library administrators over books with swearing or sexual themes.
Dozens of attendees filed into a large meeting hall for one of the conference’s busiest sessions, “No More Neutral,” which offered lessons on how to move beyond the baseless smears to reframe their work as guarding intellectual freedom.
But first, Angela Hursh, a library marketing consultant serving as moderator, was asked to read aloud a conference statement reminding participants not to post photos or otherwise publicly identify those in the room because of “growing concerns related to the safety and security of library workers across the nation.”
“That’s a very downer way to start the session,” Hursh said with a sigh.
In no time, Hursh was back on message, rattling off examples from across the country of librarians addressing censorship in ways that take into account local sensibilities.
In a conservative, religious pocket of Oregon, Hursh said, one library put up a big American flag and keeps challenged books at the front desk, reminding patrons that “the First Amendment right to read is just as important as the First Amendment right to religion.”
Public library workers in West Virginia called on patrons to act after city council members tried to censure them for having “Gender Queer” in their collection, Hursh said. The council withdrew the censure proposal once supporters who rallied via Facebook started showing up to public meetings. The message: it’s time for book defenders to get as organized as the book censors.
“It’s not you. It’s not personal,” Hursh reassured the audience. “This is something that these groups are working to do across the nation.”
The literary advocacy group PEN America counts at least 50 groups, many with ties to conservative causes, advocating book bans; 73 percent of them formed since 2021. PEN America identified nearly 40 other unaffiliated state, regional or community groups calling for restrictions.
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Justice, of Moms for Liberty, said the group has never distributed a national list of books of concern, although she acknowledged that individual chapters sometimes share such lists. She said the focus is on building long-term relationships and influence, not in poking through library shelves.
“Our moms aren’t there to play ‘gotcha’ — they really want to make sure that these schools are safe places for kids with appropriate content and curriculum, and they want to build relationships with administrators and school board members to make that happen,” Justice said. “Many of them are now serving [in these roles].”
Back in the chilly conference room, Hursh wrapped up her “No More Neutral” session by calling for questions from the audience. One librarian asked, “What happens if your board is working against you?”
Hursh shook her head sadly. There was no easy answer, she said, beyond cultivating candidates who defend intellectual freedom to run against the hard-liners expanding their influence on boards and councils.
“Otherwise, the monster is in the room,” Hursh said, “and there’s no amount of marketing that’s going to help you with that.”