As book bans soar, a more subtle form of censorship has begun ravaging U.S. libraries

Chicago, IL, USA - May 10 2023: A stack of books found on frequently banned book lists wrapped in caution tape
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Libraries, by their nature, are democratic spaces, cultural shelters where everyone is welcome. As Article V of the American Library Association’s Library Bill of Rights states: “A person’s right to use a library should not be denied or abridged because of origin, age, background, or views.” The selection of recommended books should reflect this. However, United States libraries are under attack.

That an increasing number of US schools are challenging or banning LGBTQ+ books is widely reported, but there is a lesser-known emerging phenomenon in public libraries, what journalist Kelly Jensen has called “quiet censorship,” whereby books focusing on LGBTQ+ issues are not explicitly banned but are effectively no longer accessible.

In Book Riot, Jensen describes how materials covering LGBTQ+ themes have increasingly been deliberately omitted or restricted from public view, despite their intrinsic value as a resource for the community and despite the fact that no official bans are in place. Part of this is due to a desire to stop controversy before it starts. As Jensen wrote, “They’re asking ‘who’s going to complain,’ not ‘who needs this?'”

This worrying practice is spreading across the United States, sparked by the more-publicized mass bans. 

The American Library Association (ALA) reports that the Office for Intellectual Freedom documented 1,269 demands to censor library books and resources in 2022, the highest number of attempted book bans in over 20 years of data collection on library censorship. This nearly doubled the 729 book challenges reported in 2021. The most insidious effect of this movement to ban or hide titles from libraries is its impact on collections. It’s not just about removing books; in some cases, books may never get purchased and become available to library users in the first place.

Kate Reynolds, a queer children’s librarian who runs The Lavender Librarian Facebook page and is the creator of Storytime Solidarity, tells LGBTQ Nation that when people challenge books, they often ask for mass bans – hundreds of titles in a single request. Thus, to consider removing or banning books, librarians need to deal with a lot of paperwork. 

“Our hands are tied in ways that are hard to articulate,” says Reynolds. “Libraries are understaffed due to budget cuts, so a huge percentage of libraries use something called an ‘automatic release plan’ rather than having librarians order the books. Vendors send lists, and we say we need X books on Y topics. While it is a tremendous savings in terms of staff time and salaries, it makes us more vulnerable to soft bans, as something outside an individual library can impact more libraries.” 

She continued, “Requests for books to be banned (removed from library shelves or curricula) require a lot of paperwork. Because of lack of time, often librarians don’t have the resources to manage this extra work and may prefer not to have commonly challenged books. While this can impact top-tier writers, the most significant effect is the exclusion of several lesser-known writers of color from libraries who do not have the same opportunities or platform.” 

Soft censorship has also become a consequence of the efforts of well-organized book challenges by religious groups and conservative political organizations like anti-LGBTQ+ hate group Moms for Liberty.

Moms for Liberty more or less advocates against school curricula that refer to LGBTQ+ people at all, and many who are challenging books or requesting book suppression often parrot the talking points of groups like this one, citing religious reasons and claiming to be protecting children from sexual content as their main justifications. The publicity around these debates has no doubt empowered more folks to justify their anti-LGBTQ+ beliefs.

Sara, a former shelving aide in an Ohio public library, explains why she consciously decided to avoid displaying LGBTQ+ books. She believes they violate her personal morals and taste, but does not advocate for banning materials from libraries.

She tells LGBTQ Nation, “My religion teaches, and therefore I accept, that sexual activity is acceptable only in one specific circumstance: between partners of opposite sexes, who are married. Sex in other circumstances is a sin, usually not my business anyway. I say usually not my business, because I can become complicit in a sin by promoting it. If I reasonably think a book is in favor of something – that it’s intended to make people approve of it or feel good about doing it – then I’m sullying myself by encouraging people to read that book in the way its author intends.”

“Most LGBTQ+ books, regardless of whether they’re explicit or not, are in favor of problematic sexual activity. Displaying a book as opposed to just having it on the shelf does imply an encouragement to read it in an uncritical way.”

When asked why, as a public employee, she imposed her religious beliefs on others, she does not fully answer: “We live in a free society. But freedom cuts both ways; my freedom to exercise my religion includes the freedom not to participate in practices that conflict with that religion”.

How can we take action against such insidious forms of book censorship? The American Library Association offers legal and financial support, as well as guidance for library workers facing censorship attempts. They also provide a list of the most frequently challenged books, and answers to frequently asked questions about book bans. 

PEN America provides an Index of School Book Bans, while Unite Against Book Bans offers a downloadable toolkit with resources to petition lawmakers, work with the media, and raise awareness. There are several associations that advocate for freedom of expression, such as the aforementioned ALA, the National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC), and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

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