Librarian gathering in Chicago includes training to battle book bans

Authors, scholars and librarians have gathered as several states push to restrict access to books in schools and libraries, overwhelmingly those about race, ethnicity and LGBTQ+ topics

Librarian gathering in Chicago
Heather Hutto, executive director of Bristow Public Library, center, along with former President of United for Libraries Skip Dye, left, and Executive Director of the Digital Public Library of America John Bracken, right, speaks during a panel discussion about understanding and combating book bans at the American Library Association's annual conference and exhibition on Friday, June 23, 2023, at McCormick Place in Chicago.Erin Hooley (AP)

Book bans and how to fight them will be a major focus of the American Library Association’s annual meeting this weekend in Chicago.

Librarians may attend sessions aimed at helping them confidently counter book challenges, fight legislative censorship and ensure “access to information and the freedom to read.” All day Saturday, attendees are invited to climb atop a giant chair to read their favorite banned book.

“With an unparalleled rise in challenges and bans and legislation suppressing access to books and learning materials in libraries, schools, and universities, it is more important than ever to join forces in the fight against banning books!” the event description reads.

The conference brings together authors, educators and librarians as several states push to restrict access to books in schools and libraries, overwhelmingly those about race, ethnicity and LGBTQ+ topics. The association in March released data showing a record 1,269 demands to censor library books in the U.S. in 2022, a 20-year high.

“Addressing book censorship and protecting library users’ intellectual freedom, protecting librarians’ ability to provide for information in their communities, is at the forefront of this year’s meeting,” said Deborah Caldwell-Stone, director of ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom and executive director of the Freedom to Read Foundation.

“We have almost two dozen programs addressing intellectual freedom, advocacy ... attacks on public education and public libraries, all intended to equip our members with the knowledge they need to go out and advocate and defend the right to read in their libraries,” she said.

Parents always have the right to choose what their children read, but they don’t have the right to restrict access for the whole community, said Christine Emeran, director of the Youth Free Expression Program of the National Coalition Against Censorship, a First Amendment advocacy organization.

“You can’t just concede to demands of a particular group of parents and to censor libraries,” she said.

Emeran, who is scheduled to be featured in a panel discussion called “Help! They’re coming for our books!” at the conference Sunday, began to notice an increase in book bans starting in 2021, at the beginning of President Joe Biden’s term. She attributed the shift to “a cultural backlash” against changing views on LGBTQ+ issues, women’s rights and the Black Lives Matter movement.

Local libraries are calling in the National Coalition Against Censorship for help now more than ever. In the past, the organization assisted on a few book ban cases per year. “Now we’re getting two or three a week,” Emeran said.

“Librarians are under pressure and they’re feeling frustrated, discouraged,” said Emeran, who encouraged readers to support local libraries, attend school board meetings and get involved in their communities to protect the right to read.

Groups such as Moms for Liberty, No Left Turn in Education and Citizens Defending Freedom have had an outsized effect on what is allowed to be read, she said.

“The majority may oppose censorship as a whole. But the problem is that the majority are silent,” Emeran said.

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