Political polarization in the United States has had a lot of toxic spillover into public spaces that should be sacred—namely, schools and libraries. In 2022, the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom reported almost 1,300 attempts to restrict library books and resources—the highest number since recording such statistics began over 20 years ago.
But as the fight against books may seem to be growing, the fight for books is alive and well, including here in Boston. Last week, the Boston Public Library became the third in the nation to join the Books Unbanned Initiative.
This week is Banned Books Week, an annual event that brings book lovers and leaders together in support of free expression. This week’s edition of the Joy Beat is in celebration of those leading the effort against censorship in libraries.
Deborah Caldwell-Stone, head of the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, joined All Things Considered host Arun Rath to discuss the fight against censorship. What follows is a lightly edited transcript.
Arun Rath: First off, just for some context for where we are now, I mentioned it felt particularly toxic, and it seems like every generation has had its sort of obscenity battle in the past. At one point, it was "Ulysses", then it was maybe rock lyrics, but this feels different. Is it?
Deborah Caldwell-Stone: I believe it is different. I believe that we're seeing a targeted effort to silence the voices of LGBTQ persons, Black persons and persons of color under false claims that books that deal with gender identity, sexual orientation, or our fraught history with race and racism here in the United States, that don't meet the group's agendas, are illegitimate or even illegal or obscene. We've heard that as well.
I think that the effort to silence particular voices and to remove their stories from the shelves of libraries really is different from the past. This isn't a conversation necessarily about obscenity, but trying to redefine what is obscene and set a baseline for acceptable conversation that should not be occurring in a democracy like ours.
Rath: It feels like it makes it super complicated that we're not going after people or going after words. They're going after concepts or, as you said, identities of individuals.
Caldwell-Stone: That's absolutely correct. Sadly, I've actually seen written demands to remove books simply because they have a gay character or they deal with the impact of police violence on Black lives in a way that the person doesn't approve of. Those are the most illegitimate reasons for removing a book from a public library or even a public school library. Those are voices we need to hear, stories we need to hear, and we need to fiercely defend everyone's liberty to make that choice to read those books.
Rath: The argument against these sorts of things in schools might be easier to understand, in a way. But can you explain the argument against taking these books out of public circulation? Out of the public library?
Caldwell-Stone: Well, public libraries are community institutions and institutions for the people. They are not intended to be closed-circuit conduits of information for the states to indoctrinate people. They have long been institutions that are intended for individuals to discover for themselves all kinds of ideas and make their own choices about what they believe and use that in their lives for participating in the political process or improving their education or just simply enriching their lives.
We're very privileged to have public libraries as those kinds of institutions in our community. We're one of the few countries in the world that have it, and we should fiercely protect that public resource as a public good that serves everyone equally and serves everyone's information needs equally without discrimination.
Rath: Tell us about how that is working—the fight back, the fight to un-ban books.
Caldwell-Stone: We're certainly hoping that everyone will get involved in this fight because it is a local issue. We don't have a federated library system or federated education system here in the United States, so it falls to each of us as individuals in our communities to defend the freedom to read, to uphold and uplift the librarians and educators who are running our schools and libraries and make sure that they're supported.
We have a particular initiative right now called Unite Against Book Bans that is intended to empower individuals and community organizations to speak up against censorship and organize to defend the freedom to read—to make it clear to elected officials that having the government tell us what to read and think is unacceptable in a democracy and that we want to preserve that very important liberty.
October 7th is Let Freedom Read Day, and we're asking everyone to just take one action in defense of our First Amendment freedom to read. Whether it's simply going to the library and letting the librarian know you support them to even thinking about running for office. We need good people on library boards and school boards who want to serve the public and make sure that everyone's information needs are served equally.
Rath: As mentioned, this joy beat of ours is about celebrating the joy of people coming together and, in this instance, coming together to fight book banning and to support freedom of expression. It's odd because it's one of those areas where a journalistic bias can just be out there because it's a journalistic value to be against censorship. Share with us the sense of joy that you find in doing this kind of work.
Caldwell-Stone: I find joy in doing this work because I so fiercely believe in the ability of libraries to uplift people, improve lives and provide an ability to discover a wider world. To open all kinds of doors for everyone to understand how other people live, the experiences of other people that you may not know—whether it's in this country or another country—different religions, all kinds of things like that.
But I also firmly believe in the right of every individual to have the ability to think for themselves, make choices for themselves, to have the resources available that make that a possibility. Public libraries level the field in that regard.
It's long been our mission at the American Library Association to make sure that every community has a really great library service so that everyone has what they need to prosper in their lives, to enrich their lives and to enjoy their lives. I want to make sure that that's available to everyone and that everyone can even find the unorthodox or the controversial because it's through understanding different ideas and finding new ideas that the world evolves and we improve our lives and improve the lives of everyone.
If you’d like to nominate someone or something for the Joy Beat, leave us a voicemail at 617-380-BEAT (2328).