Saturday, April 20, 2024

Public Libraries Take Censorship Battles to the Ballot Box

Polls show 71% of voters across party lines oppose book bans and challenges at their local library. From Jan. 2023 to Aug. 2023, 1,915 unique book titles were subject to challenges. (Adobe Stock)

RICHMOND — Libraries across Virginia and the nation are fighting back on censorship issues.

So far this year, 100 bills are pending at the state and federal levels to limit school library database access, criminalize librarians or defund libraries altogether. Virginia is no exception.

A bill restricting the purchase, distribution, or exhibition of so-called “obscene material” was brought before the General Assembly, though it failed to pass.

Peter Bromberg, associate director of the advocacy group EveryLibrary, noted unclear language is not uncommon in these bills.

“If a bill is passed with vague terms saying, ‘If you put books on the shelf that have sensitive material, you might go to jail.’ You know, what the heck is sensitive material?” Bromberg asked. “And you have librarians as well as principals and school administrators, and superintendents and board members who are all, like, ‘Just don’t buy it.'”

In 2023, Hanover County school administrators banned 75 titles from school library shelves, including Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale,” and “Wicked” by Gregory Maguire. Last year, Virginians challenged more than 350 different book titles between January and August; twice the amount in 2022.

Most books being targeted in these bans address complex themes like race or rape, or are by LGBTQ+ authors or authors of color. Book challenges are not always granted, but some titles are not as safe on shelves as they once were. Bromberg feels book bans rob readers of a chance to pick their own books.

“When you think about this kind of individualistic, Libertarian streak of American philosophy, this idea that the library is the place you walk in the door, nobody tells you what to think, nobody tells you what to read,” Bromberg stressed.

His view is libraries should be places of exploration for people to learn about new ideas, cultures, or concepts. Or, they can be mirrors to help people know there are others like them in literature. But he noted censorship legislation prevents libraries from being unfettered places of learning.

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