Deborah Caldwell-Stone from the American Library Association's Office for Intellectual Freedom joins Sara to talk about challenged and banned books, intellectual freedom, Banned Books Week, and more.
SARA MCNEIL, VOICEOVER: Hello and welcome to episode 5 of Read. Return. Repeat. : A ReadICT Podcast. I'm your host, Sara McNeil, adult programming librarian for the Wichita Public Library. In today's episode, titled Free to Read What I Want, we will explore category 9: a challenged book with Deborah Caldwell-Stone. Deborah is the director of the American Library Association's Office for Intellectual Freedom, which offers support to public and school libraries in the realm of censorship. Deborah is also the Executive Director and Secretary for the Freedom to Read Foundation that protects and defends the First Amendment to the Constitution and supports the rights of libraries to collect and individuals to access information. Deborah, thank you for joining us today and welcome to the show.
DEBORAH CALDWELL-STONE: Thank you for having me here, Sara. So happy to be here.
SARA: Thank you again for making time. I know you're a very busy lady so we do appreciate you making time to be on our podcast today.
We'll just start out with the first question. This category is so confusing for so many of our participants and even folks that work in the Library. They just aren't familiar with the terminology "challenged book." So can you clarify to our listeners the distinction between a challenged book and a banned book and then expound on those types of topics that often get challenged in libraries?
DEBORAH: I'll be happy to do that, Sara. We use the term "challenged" to describe any request to remove a book from a library's collection or from a school classroom. It's a demand that the books stop being used, stop being read. And we distinguish that from a ban. A ban is when the book is actually removed from the shelf or taken out of the hands of students in the classroom and actually censored. So a "banned" can be equated with actual censorship; a challenge is a request for censorship for whatever reason. And you know, we over the last few years, we've observed a wide range of reasons for challenging books. Some of them are what you might call traditional challenges: challenges because the book deals with sex or contains profanity. But what we've actually seen in the last few years is a rise in challenges to diverse resources in libraries and classrooms. For the last few years, there's been an incredible number of challenges to books that are both fiction and non-fiction that deal with LGBTQIA themes and characters, the concerns of the LGBTQ community as a whole. But in the last year and frankly since the murder of George Floyd, we've seen an incredible rise in the number of challenges brought to materials on the grounds that they deal with critical race theory or anti-racist... there's a view that these materials are somehow discriminatory or are offering Marxist interpretations of history or whatever, none of which is really true but it doesn't prevent individuals who hear these rumors and these ideas from coming to libraries, coming to classrooms and asking for these materials to be removed from the shelf or taken out of the hands of students.
SARA: Yeah, that's a... that's an extremely relevant topic in the last year especially like you mentioned in the wake of George... George Floyd. As a parent myself, you know, I often for lack of a better word censor what my daughter reads but not so much in the sense that I want to avoid those materials but I want her to have a better context of what those materials are and so I find myself using resources like Common Sense Media that's catered more toward parents who can do that investigative research and see. Because we've fallen into the trap of watching old movies with her and it there are those awkward scenes from the '80s or '90s where the rating system was quite different then and you know, so we're not throwing curveballs at her, we can have those thoughtful discussions so she can process that information because I don't necessarily want to shield her from things but I want her to have a more thoughtful discussion with us afterward.
DEBORAH: Well, I --
SARA: So you mentioned --
DEBORAH: Yeah, well let me... I do want to distinguish. We actually do believe that parents should guide their children's reading and exposure to ideas. I mean, a parent knows their child best, knows their developmental stage, knows what they know and don't know and frankly we support the idea that families should raise their kids in accordance with their values and beliefs. But where we say that a line has to be drawn is when one family, one individual, one group wants to dictate to other families, to other parents how their children should think and believe, we want to preserve that right for the parent alone. And so we often say that a parent has every right to censor their children's reading to choose the books they read, to guide their reading but they don't have a right to decide for the other families, for the rest of the community what's available to be read because everyone... every family is different, every family has different information needs, has different values and beliefs. So one family is very sensitive about LGBTQ issues materials. Another family has an Uncle Bobby and they want to explain to a young child about Uncle Bobby and Uncle Bobby's husband, you know. So those materials are absolutely needed and wanted by that family and they should always be available through the library for that family.
SARA: Yeah, that's... that's very well said. And you know, I didn't really understand that until library school where we started talking about the distinguished... distinguishing features between school libraries and public libraries and the burden that falls on school libraries when they're not acting in loco parentis. Can you explain a little bit about that because that wasn't a question that I had originally thought of asking but it bears mentioning that.
DEBORAH: Well, public libraries very definitely don't act in loco parentis which is "in the place of the parent." They are a community information resource and as such, they should put no limits on any user no matter what their age on what resources they access. You know, so... and and they have an obligation to serve the needs of everyone in the community and so that means a very diverse range of materials that are available there. School libraries are different because they have to support the curriculum, they have to support the mission and goals of the school. And so we'll see some differences. A parochial school may not choose to include some works in their collection that they feel are inconsistent with the teachings of that particular religious organization but a public school will have a wider range of materials available to the students and as such, may make some choices about books. But even in the context of a school library, students do have a right to access the materials that are available in the library. One of the leading law cases concerning the right to read in the school library is a case that involved Harry Potter of all things. Again, a single parent who was concerned about Harry Potter because she believed not only did it teach witchcraft to young children but also taught them to question authority persuaded her school board to put the books on a restricted shelf and require written parental permission to read the Harry Potter books. And the federal court actually struck that down as a restriction on the minor's First Amendment rights in the school library. Because even in the school library, especially government-run schools, that you have a right to read what's on the shelf and to put artificial restrictions on that ability to browse and read in the library is something that is simply not supported by the principles of intellectual freedom or the... you know, the First Amendment here in the United States.
SARA: Yeah, that's really fascinating. I remember one time I had worked at a small branch library and we were limited for space and so we had our children's graphic novels, our teen graphic novels, and our adult graphic novels kind of in the same vicinity and as a parent I wanted to, you know, lead a child to the children's graphic novel section but as a library professional I... there were... it was a very fine line to toe. I could not tell the child you can't pick up an adult graphic novel. I mean, that's not my place to say that but... but I felt conflicted, you know like you're saying, like... like I needed to move the children's graphic novels away and that... that wasn't necessarily the case that needed to happen.
DEBORAH: Well, actually I would argue that you could curate your collection. It's not that you... you know, by grouping materials that meet the the information and developmental needs of younger children in one area and the adult materials in another area, the problem comes when there is a young person who wants to read a particular graphic novel series that may be classified as adult but they're ready for it. And so you know, let's say it's a Superman series, you know, where the problem would come is if the library would artificially say because it's in the adult section you can't access it. No, it... the young person should be able to go and borrow that material and read it even though it's in the adult section. I actually feel this very personally because when I was young and growing up, the library I used actually did have children's stacks and adult stacks and at the time they had a rule that anybody under 12 couldn't access the adult stacks. But I was 10 or 11 and I was heavily invested in reading a mystery series, Nero Wolfe in fact, and I was just heartbroken that they wouldn't let me into the adult section to read the Nero Wolfe mysteries. You know, and... and that's... you know, and everybody... you know, every child is different, has different reading abilities and things and so the public library should be prepared to serve those needs and... and to have policies in place that are flexible. But on the other hand, as I said, it's perfectly appropriate to have a children's room, a children's section. And then when the child is ready, when the parents are ready for the child to do more exploring, the rest of the library should be open to them.
SARA: No, definitely. And I think in that particular case we were just... it was space constraints, you know?
SARA: That was the area where the tables were, where people could take off material and put them and read them.
SARA: It just is what it is but... but yeah. Now, that's that's an important distinction because I remember as a teenager accessing my mother's romance books and obviously adult books and I was 14, maybe 15. And there's nothing wrong with that but it... it definitely, there's a taboo about children or pre-teens, teenagers reaching for those adult stories because they may or may not be appropriate.
Well, thank you, Deborah. I really appreciate you getting into that.
So what has been the most challenged book of last year if you could discern based off of everything that was going on?
DEBORAH: Yeah. Well, as you know, some of the work that our office does is to compile statistics and data on what is challenged in libraries and schools across the country. And for the last three years, the most challenged book has been a middle grade book, George, which is the story of a transgender child and their adventures and experiences going to school and working out their identity. And as I think everybody's aware that, you know, being a transgender identity is controversial in many communities and things and so the idea that children in middle school can read about a transgender child and that's in a book that's affirming of that experience and that child's identity and choices about their gender identity has raised a lot of controversy in the communities. But I will say that in the last year we... you know, the most right right behind it has been the book Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You which is the young person's edition of Ibram Kendi's book Stamped written in conjunction with Jason Reynolds, the young adult author. Both reflect the... some of the tensions we're seeing in communities across the country across political divides and and as a... you know, I always say that our banned books list is kind of a reflection of current culture and current politics and that... and both books really demonstrate that.
SARA: No, that's... that's fascinating. We had the author Alex Gino come to Wichita a few years ago. He spoke at the university of... or excuse me, Wichita State University.
And he -- or they, they... there was some pushback because the school system here was not necessarily advocating that the school librarians purchase the book with their material funds. They weren't necessarily denied purchasing the book but it had to come from a different source and so the author finding this information out rallied on Twitter and raised half the money to purchase books for all of the schools and then asked for contributions to meet the other half and was able to do that, which I thought was really telling of the community wanting to support that but then also the fine line that we toe when we say we don't want to exclude it but we won't necessarily facilitate it either. So that's kind of created a rift amongst those groups. I had... at the time my daughter was eight and I had my husband read the book because he wasn't really familiar with that... that type of storyline and I was in library school and so I kind of wanted to not pose an experiment but have him, someone who's not familiar with the material read it and see what his take was on it and he thoroughly enjoyed the book and had nothing but positive things to say about it. So I was convinced just having an outsider read the story who has no affiliation or no agenda enjoy the story and... and that gave me a big peace of mind wanting to advocate or share that story with my own child.
DEBORAH: Absolutely. We find that if people... I mean, many times challenges are brought by persons who only know the book by reputation or they only know the topic of the book. It's really disheartening. We will receive a challenge report in the office and when the person is asked have they read the book, more often than not they never got past the first three pages or "no, I didn't read the book but no one needs to read about a transgender child," you know, for example. "No one needs to read about this kind of book on racism" because it... you know, one of the reasons for challenging Stamped was "it doesn't discuss racism against all people and all races," which kind of misses the entire point of the book for example. But when people do sit down and read the book, they often find that, you know, they may not choose it for their own child but it's a perfectly wonderful resource to be available to the wider community of readers. And that's really, you know, our whole argument is that it may not be a book for you. In fact, there used to be an aphorism around the office: every good library should have something on the shelf to offend everybody in the community.
But you know... yeah but you know... but that... you know, the real thing is to make sure that everyone is being served no matter, you know, including those in the community who might be in the minority or who might be marginalized and historically or, you know, are holding unorthodox ideas. You know, the public library in particular as this democratic institution, a source of information, you know, ought to reflect all of those ideas and make them available for everyone. And you never know why somebody's exploring ideas: maybe for self-education, maybe that they disagree with an idea and they want to be more thoroughly acquainted with it so they can make better arguments against it. But you know, it's the responsibility I think of the public library to make sure that those information resources, those books are available for the community for whatever reason somebody wants to read them.
SARA: Most certainly. So your office is obviously called Office for Intellectual Freedom. Can you explain that concept and then expound on the dangers of banning books?
DEBORAH: Absolutely. You know, intellectual freedom... you know, ALA has actually never settled on a, you know, a complete definition of intellectual freedom but we broadly define it as the freedom to think, to hold opinions, to read, to hold beliefs on one's own, to... you know, to read without interference, to hold ideas without interference by the government or by society as a whole. It's closely tied to the freedoms associated with the First Amendment: the freedom of belief, the freedom of press, freedom of association, freedom of belief. And you know, as a whole the library profession has always supported the idea that as information, as a... you know, a profession dedicated to providing access to information, ideas that there should be no limits on the individual's right to do that. And you know, we define this really as an inherent human right. And you know, what is more important than the ability to read and discover for yourself, to form your own beliefs, to form your own identity using those resources and to be able to express that through writing or otherwise?
The harms of censorship we think are very evident. You know, it closes off that whole process of being able to determine for yourself what you think or believe, to find out what you need to know to participate in both society and in politics and the governance of the country. You need to be an informed citizen to be able to exercise the ability to vote, to express an opinion, to write. And censorship forecloses all of that. Censorship is nothing more than a power to enforce the status quo, to prevent change, to restrict the ability of anyone to think different thoughts, to engage in what is unorthodox. And you know, sometimes what is unorthodox gives rise to to positive change or to new ideas that really advance us. You know, we can think about the fact that Galileo's ideas were suppressed but it led to a great blossoming in science and scientific method in the end. And so you know, just as a general principle, we oppose censorship but it... and particularly when it comes from the government. The government should never be involved in the business of dictating what anyone thinks, what anyone reads. That should be preserved for the individual's own choice and... and really that's why we have the First Amendment. The individuals involved in drawing up our founding documents really believed that in order to be a free person, you had to have the ability to think and read and believe for oneself and to give expression to that... to that through your religion and publishing in the press and... and who you associated with.
SARA: Right and you know you touched on that: it's okay to explore ideas that you might not necessarily want to follow or dogma that isn't necessarily part of your culture and that's just part of a natural exploration for informational freedom.
SARA: I try and encourage my family because we all come from different backgrounds and we have different varying degrees of religion or spirituality but I try and encourage them to not necessarily isolate or alienate others from that view. And in the case of my daughter who wants to go to church with some of her family members, even though we may not attend a regular church, I encourage her to do that to explore that with an open mind because the people that you love subscribe to this and that's something important to them and so you can honor them by being present. You don't have to adopt all of those beliefs but it's good for you to experience that. I know not everybody feels that way. Some people, especially when it comes to religion or spaces of that nature, it's white or black. You know, there's no gray area. But the more that we can explore on our own and formulate those opinions or those morals for ourselves, the more open-minded it feels like we'll be toward other people who have differing beliefs.
DEBORAH: Yeah, absolutely. I mean when you think about it, you know, supporting intellectual freedom is supporting tolerance and respect for the individual. And you know, you might not agree with their politics, their religious beliefs, their values but you can respect those beliefs and values and... and work for a system that protects the ability to hold those beliefs and values because it also protects your right to do the same. And you know, ultimately we tie intellectual freedom to the inherent dignity of the individual and... and their agency as individuals in society. And so in protecting intellectual freedom and facilitating intellectual freedom, you know, we really do express the best of what is about what's... I'm sorry to be searching for words here but you know... I think that, you know, we're... we're making sure that everyone can reach their full potential... you know, has... you know, what... what was... you know, determine for themselves what their happiness is and what fulfills their life.
That's a little fuzzy around the edges, I'm sorry but you know... but it... it really... you know, but I think libraries as community institutions are vehicles for self-discovery and education and self-fulfillment, whether it's for the very practical purposes of getting job skills or learning who you are as an individual or exploring beliefs and ideas that are different from your own. And libraries are at their best when they make sure that they, you know, make that they create the conditions for that in their community.
SARA: Most certainly. Well hey, we're going to take a quick break. When we come back, we'll be talking about the Library Bill of Rights and how the Office for Intellectual Freedom offers support to libraries who do face censorship. We'll be right back.
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SARA: Welcome back to the show. We're here with Deborah Caldwell-Stone and we've been talking about intellectual freedom and the dangers of banning books.
So in 1939, ALA or the American Library Association adopted a separate bill of rights and how does this affect libraries and the patrons they serve from our traditional bill of rights that we find in the Constitution?
DEBORAH: Well, you have to understand the Library Bill of Rights is not law in the same way that the Bill of Rights and the Constitution is. It's really a guide to best practices for libraries. And I really should go back and talk a little bit about the history of the Library Bill of Rights. It was originally devised in 1938 by Forrest Spaulding who was then director of the Des Moines Public Library. He had been observing the suppression of ideas, you know, the burning of books in Nazi Germany. The deportation of Jews to the... you know, for the beginnings of the concentration camps at that time. And he really felt that a strong democracy would be supported by free access to ideas and taking government out of the... out of the business of dictating what political belief should be and that libraries had a role to play in that. So he devised the original Library Bill of Rights in 1938 and persuaded his board of trustees to adopt it as library policy.
And it began circulating and a year later the American Library Association also adopted the Library Bill of Rights. And since then, it's been part of the policy documents of the American Library Association and what it really is in... in seven little articles it defines really what libraries should expect from library workers in the terms of access to information, their privacy and the ability to use the library. You know, and it ranges all over the place. It addresses the ability to access information; the responsibility of the library to make sure that all kinds of authors... you know, a diverse range of resources are available to the reader: meeting rooms, exhibits, spaces, displays; privacy rights and... and so you know... so it's a very simple document but it really represents what we believe is the best kind of library service a library can offer with an emphasis on preserving the individual rights of the library user.
SARA: Yeah, that... as a library worker, I've had to, you know, reference it in cases where things have been brought to reconsideration. So that's our process, when a customer wants to challenge an item there's a reconsideration process and we do encourage them to view or read the entire... entirety of the material. But it makes... it takes the burden off of us when we can refer back to those bill of rights and say is this... you know, are we creating equity here by making this available to all... all people versus just do I subscribe to what this is about? So yeah, it's... it's definitely something that we on the front lines have to use a lot so we... we value it.
Well, and there... you know, of course there's the interpretations that go along with it. And these are longer documents that examine... a simple article, for example there is a simple article that asserts that library users have a right to privacy but what does that mean in practice? And so members of the ALA who serve on the intellectual freedom committee, you know, have helped devise a longer document that explicate how it should be applied in providing library service and what it means and and discuss in more in depth what the right to privacy means in the library. We also have interpretations that address meeting rooms and minors' rights to access information, displays again. So you know, we really hope that with the Library Bill of Rights and the interpretations that there is a deep resource for library workers to use, you know, and library administrations to use when they're making decisions about what books to acquire, what... how to administer their meeting rooms, how to, you know, generally provide information services to their community as a whole.
And you know, you talked about equity and... and that's deeply embedded -- equity, diversity, and inclusion is deeply embedded in the Library Bill of Rights because if you look at some of the articles, it says no one should be denied access to the library or its books on the basis of their background, ethnicity, race, beliefs, their age.
And the same thing: no author should be excluded from the library on any of those grounds. And so there's deeply embedded in the Library Bill of Rights is the idea that everyone in the community should find themselves reflected in the library's resources, find the library to be a welcoming, inclusive place and... and so we really strive to make sure that everyone understand that that's part of the Library Bill of Rights. It's not just about book censorship but access to the library and the ability to enjoy and use the library to its fullest. And so you know, it's... it's very... you know, it's an important document even as we say, you know, there's a little confusion. It's, as I said, it's not law but it's best practice and a firm foundation for library practice in America's public libraries.
SARA: Yeah, I keep hearing this over and over again but it reiterates that, that the library is one of the few places if not one of the only places that a person can go to and just be in the space without having to purchase something. So making that accessible to all different folks in the community is important because we don't often realize that if you're just loitering in a business that they can ask you to leave. But at the library we won't unless you're, you know, sleeping and we might ask you to wake up.
DEBORAH: Absolutely. I mean, you know, that's one of the... you know, as we were talking about before, the library is one of those places for -- we were talking about self-improvement, self-education and... but it's also a place where people can simply be themselves and learn for their own enjoyment or you know, frankly, you know it could be a place to warm up in the wintertime if you you're unhoused for example. You know, it's one of the few institutions in our society that removes economic barriers to access rather than imposes them and it makes it very important as a democratic community institution.
SARA: Well, can you tell our listeners about your role at the Office for Intellectual Freedom and how you support libraries who face censorship?
DEBORAH: Certainly, Sara.
In addition to continuing ed, we sponsor books. Probably the most prominent is the Intellectual Freedom Manual, but more recently for example Pat Scales, a renowned school librarian, published the second edition of Books under Fire which is a guide for both school library workers and educators to use in teaching about banned books and teaching banned books themselves in the classroom. And so we have this comprehensive program and supportive intellectual freedom that both assists library workers and libraries in upholding intellectual freedom but also educating broadly about intellectual freedom.
And a small part of my job is the Freedom to Read Foundation which is a separate 501(c)3 nonprofit whose whole mission is supporting First Amendment rights for libraries, library workers, and library users. We not only defend the right to read as is implied by the title of the foundation, but we'll go to court to defend the right of libraries and librarians to provide the information they believe their community needs to that community. And so we engage in direct litigation in support of intellectual freedom and First Amendment rights. And we also... the Freedom to Read Foundation also supports intellectual freedom education and graduate school for... and L.I.S. schools so it has a distinct but very important part of the mission of intellectual freedom in the library community.
But all that is available, any library... librarian, teacher, anyone, member of the public can pick up the phone and call our office and say, "I need help with a censorship issue, someone's trying to remove a book, someone's trying to cancel a program," and we are there to assist and give information advice materials and support.
SARA: That's wonderful. When I was in grad school, I did a pathfinder on graphic novels for young adults and I came across this group called the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund and I was so surprised that there was this advocacy group that was, like you said, supporting folks that were experiencing censorship but then also creating lesson plans for these materials to support educators and I just thought that was so inspiring because yeah, it's one thing if you're faced with this burden of censorship but then here are the tools or the toolbox that you need to circumvent that. That was just really, really enlightening for me.
DEBORAH: Yeah and actually Comic Book Legal Defense Fund is part of our Banned Books Week Coalition and also our free expression -- we, you know, we can't do it all. You know, and so our focus is on libraries but we work and we make allies across the the range of free expression groups in this country. So we worked with the American Booksellers Foundation for Free expression, we worked with the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, we work with the National Coalition Against Censorship, we work with the ACLU. We all bring different knowledge and different strengths to the table but we find that working together within the Banned Books Week Coalition or the Free Expression Network that we can advance First Amendment rights, intellectual freedom, and privacy in our society as a whole.
SARA: That's fascinating.
DEBORAH: Yeah. Well, and CBLDF is a particular friend of ALA and its members and not only is this -- works with the office for intellectual freedom, but also works with the Graphic Novels Roundtable which as you know is the member group that is particularly interested in graphic novels within ALA.
Well, we're going to take another quick break. When we come back, we'll be talking about how challenging books has encompassed challenging non-traditional library offerings and how the Office for Intellectual Freedom initiatives bring awareness to censorship and libraries. Stay tuned.
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SARA: Welcome back to the show. We're here with Deborah Caldwell-Stone and we've been talking about how the Office for Intellectual Freedom supports libraries who face censorship. So books are obviously something we've been talking about that are challenged in libraries, both public and schools. But can you tell us a little bit about current trends that suggest that other items or offerings are being challenged such as programming or exhibits?
DEBORAH: Absolutely. I mean, because they're community institutions, libraries will face challenges to all their services. We are seeing challenges to book displays. In one small Iowa town, there was a challenge to the Pride Month display because a group of ministers felt it was offensive to their religious beliefs and that they shouldn't be -- or neither they nor their children should be confronted with LGBTQ materials as they walked into the library. We're also seeing challenges to programming, both programming that challenges beliefs or... you know, for example there have been challenges to Black Lives Matter presentations in libraries recently but also challenges to persons who advance anti-trans beliefs. You know, as you know, meeting rooms are available to anyone who wants to use them regardless of their belief. This is really a legal obligation of the library no matter what its own mission or statements on equity, diversity, inclusion is true and so there's been controversy over who gets to use those meeting rooms. And so we're just seeing a growing emphasis on seeing the library as just "my institution that should only reflect my beliefs" or if it's a community institution, there's this belief that the majority should dictate what's in the library and that minority views, unorthodox views should be excluded. And so we're seeing challenges to displays, programmings, the use of the meeting room and and so our mission has expanded to provide support to libraries dealing with these controversies as well. We call it censorship beyond the books but it just reflects the... the growing trend of trying to suppress ideas with what... no matter how they're expressed in the library and supporting libraries so that they do continue to provide a diversity of ideas and programming and resources to their users.
One of the more interesting phenomenons we're observing is this effort to censor research databases. You know, research databases like EBSCO and ProQuest provide easy and quick access to a range of journal articles, magazine articles and they cover the waterfront in their topics and and there's been some objections to the fact that you might be able to access Psychology Today which might include an article on sexual activity as part of its coverage of psychology for example. And because of that, there are a number of groups that are actually challenging the availability of these research... of research databases in libraries as a whole. And there's been a number of controversies over whether or not ProQuest or EBSCO should remain in the library. And when you think about how that... what a great resource those are and how they're utilized, it's just mind-boggling. But those are some of the things we're seeing these days as far as challenges beyond books.
SARA: Yeah, that's... that's really unfortunate because we use EBSCO a lot and refer especially, you know, high school students who are working on research papers who might not have access through their school libraries come to the public library and gain access and so to limit that based off of, you know, your personal feelings is really unfortunate because you could be stamping out someone else's opportunity to, you know, further their education.
DEBORAH: Absolutely. It's a limit on learning, it's a limit on the ability to explore new ideas. You know, all the harms -- you know, again encapsulating all the harms of censorship right in one little case. But it's, you know, there again it's a reflection of the belief that the library should narrowly reflect one set of views or actually act as an institution to advance this... to maintain the status quo rather than exploring, you know, opening up a range of possibilities for individuals to explore.
SARA: That's interesting. You've said that a few times about how censorship, by challenging materials, we're disrupting the status quo or we're trying to maintain the status quo depending. I've looked at some of the lists of the books that have been banned and, you know, a lot of them are the classic books that you read in junior high school english class.
SARA: So I can see where at some point it's like books that are pushing against the status quo and then others, it's like these are classics that have been in schools or public libraries for decades and they're still controversial but maybe for different reasons, I'm not sure.
DEBORAH: Sure. I mean, to be fair, challenges come from both -- from all parts of the political spectrum. And so more recently we've seen challenges to books like Huckleberry Finn and To Kill a Mockingbird. You know, To Kill a Mockingbird's been continually challenged for years. And in the past it was challenged because it alludes to rape and... and uses profanity at some points. But more recently the challenges are coming because it uses racial epithets. And same thing with Huckleberry Finn. And so you know, there has to be a reconsideration, you know, about whether... when is it appropriate for students to read that? I think that's a fair question. We don't believe it should be excluded from the curriculum. We... you know, we don't want to contract the range of ideas available. We think it's valuable to look at historic literature to understand what was going on in the past, understand attitudes from the past and why the books reflect those attitudes especially when it comes to issues like racism or sexism or ethnic prejudice. But on the other hand, we need to expand the availability of books that are written by Black, indigenous persons and so that there's a better understanding of the view... you know, what their... their experiences and their views on topics like their experience in society and things because we... you know, certainly you'd have to say Harper Lee never experienced racism and her... she provides one perspective on it but we need to understand the perspective of Black individuals themselves and so let's expand the curriculum, let's expand what books are available to young people so they can understand all that and become better people with better critical thinking skills for all of that.
And by the way, when we're talking about censorship beyond the books, summer reading lists are also being challenged these days believe it or not. And then we see challenges brought to books written for young people that deal with topics that some believe are controversial but we very seldom see... the government is out of the business of censoring books by and large. But when it does occur, it occurs at the local level with library boards or school boards making decisions that are not always supported by the First Amendment, that are inconsistent with intellectual freedom and... and that's where sometimes the Freedom to Read Foundation will get involved. For example, they restricted access to Heather Has Two Mommies and Daddy's Roommate, two books written for children that are about parents engaged in same-sex relationships and they were put on a restricted shelf in Wichita Falls, Texas by order of the city council. And the Freedom to Read Foundation supported the litigation brought by library patrons in that community that sought to make the books freely available both to... you know, young people and adults in the community and that lawsuit was successful in finding that there was a First Amendment violation, that kind of policy.
But in the end, you know, it really does come down to a controversy about what young people read. And I have to say it reflects a touching belief in the idea that words have the power to affect hearts and minds. You know, and I guess as a reader I agree with that. But you know as I said earlier, you know, it's the parent who should make those decisions about what a child reads and that government and other families, other religious communities, government as a whole shouldn't have any say in that process.
SARA: Yeah. And for our listeners, if you're you know in doubt about a certain item that's on the shelf that you... your child is interested in, there's plenty of resources that you can access with your library card or you can, you know, reach out to your local librarians and ask them their experience with the materials. So like you said, you can inform yourself and... and you don't have to necessarily feel like you're excluding your child from opportunity, you just can be informed.
DEBORAH: No, absolutely. I mean, what I often end up explaining is that, you know, librarians aren't in the job of forcing information on people or leading people down a primrose path. Their whole job is to match individuals with the information that meets their needs and that what meets their needs includes, you know, matching their reading ability, their interests, their values, and their beliefs. And so just as you might help a homeschooling family find particular resources that match a particular range of religious beliefs, you know, you'll help another family as we talked about earlier, you know, who had either, you know, a family led by a a same-sex couple that wants resources that reflects their family life for example. And so you know the librarian is just there to make sure that everything matches and is not there -- you know, and is a great resource to make sure that the materials that you're looking for do match. It's one of the great things about a library, I think.
SARA: No, definitely. Well, one final question for you: can you tell our listeners about Banned Books Week -- you mentioned it earlier -- and other initiatives that your office supports?
DEBORAH: Well, in brief, Banned Books Week is our annual celebration of the freedom to read, very precious freedom because we know that many countries you don't have the freedom to choose what to read all the time, and to focus on the harms of censorship by identifying the books that are most challenged and celebrating those books and the authors that have written them. And so every September -- actually the last week of September going in October, we ask libraries and schools across the country to observe Banned Books Week to... to talk about the freedom to read, about intellectual freedom and what that means for one's ability to exercise their right to read, their First Amendment rights, and and to identify works that are being challenged and understand why the censorship of those materials might be harmful and... and is harmful to the community as a whole, to society as a whole, to the ability of of our entire democratic process really.
And so we're joined in this -- I mentioned that we're part of a Banned Books Week Coalition and so we have a number of groups like the National Council of Teachers of English, NCAC, Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, the publishers, booksellers, we all come together and it's really a celebration of the book and the ability to read freely which is... you know, you... I don't want to say it's unique to our country but the United States is one of the few countries that has no government limitations on what to read and we need to celebrate that and preserve and fight to preserve that in a time when we actually are seeing legislation introduced in the states to restrict the right to even think about things like anti-racism and critical race theory, which by the way isn't what is being portrayed in the press but that's a story for another day. It's... it's just a label being used to vilify a whole range of books and articles that discuss, you know, racism and how to fight racism and I think that -- you know, we think that those materials should be freely available in public libraries and are worthy of study at any level of education and... and so Banned Books Week identifies those issues and and brings them to the forefront so that we don't forget that that, you know, even though we have this overall idea that censorship doesn't occur in the United States, it's still happening at the local level and that we need to inculcate a culture that fights censorship and and celebrates the ability to read and think for oneself.
SARA: Thank you so much for joining us today, Deborah. This has been so enlightening and sharing your experience with our listeners because again like I mentioned, this is a category that often confuses a lot of people and so we chose not to call it banned books, we chose to to go with challenged because there's just a lot more options for folks when they want to select a book that's been challenged. But again, I appreciate you making the time to join us today and explaining these tough issues because we do appreciate all the hard work that you and your office are doing to fight for our own intellectual freedoms and the freedoms of libraries to support our customers and make materials available to them.
DEBORAH: Well, thank you for having me on. I'm happy to do it and you know, any time that you have questions or would you know if we can come back and and talk about other concerns about censorship and intellectual freedom, we'd be happy to return. Thank you for having me, Sara.
SARA: Thank you.
SARA, VOICEOVER: Today we are joined by three librarians who will share their recommendations for noteworthy books that fit category 9: a challenged book.
KEN WARNER: Hi, I'm Ken Warner, a member of the technology training team here at the Advanced Learning Library. Today I'm reviewing George by Alex Gino, a title in the ReadICT category of challenged book. George is often challenged for having a middle grade audience with a transgendered main character. George is a book about a girl named Melissa who the world sees as a boy named George. George hates everything about being a boy. Life is a struggle as the people in her life are clueless about her gender identity. She longs for the day that she's able to tell them about herself. Her only support is from her best friend Kelly. Kelly has an idea about how George could get others to accept her as the girl she is. The two hatch a scheme to switch out roles in the school play Charlotte's Web. They believe that if George were to play the lead role, Charlotte, a female character, she would show everybody that she is really a girl. The reactions are mixed: she's allowed to continue the show by the principal who wants to create a safe space in her school but the bullies won't let up. George's life begins to improve incrementally after the show. The message of George is be who you are. I found myself uplifted and proud of the small triumphs George has made but saddened by the overall state of affairs that is a reality of George's life. I still hold out hope for the Georges of the world that in time things will get better.
MYHOA VAN: Hi, my name is Myhoa Van from the Interlibrary Loan department. My book recommendation is for category 9, a challenged book and the title is The Giver. It is about a dystopian world that is built to idealistically be peaceful and conforming. Everything is chosen for each person from their families to their meals to their careers. The society takes away anything that can create pain and conflict. It creates a type of sameness for everybody. A boy that is coming of age named Jonas is about to have his job chosen for him; however, he is assigned a career that is unfamiliar. His life takes a turn for the unknown as he faces the past, learns about the present, and changes the future. The Giver has been challenged since the '90s. Many felt that the story was inappropriate for teens as it is a young adult book and was also required for some school curriculum. The story touches on topics such as genocide and suicide which was very uncommon at the time. The Giver was a book that I was required to read for a class presentation. It was something completely different from what I was reading at the time. As someone who lived a sheltered life, The Giver gave me perspective from a different standpoint morally and helped me appreciate the differences in society. It opened my love for teen dystopian stories that has helped pave the way for many others. It is a great read if you're looking for something easy to follow without outrageous detailing. I read from time to time just to appreciate the simplicity of the story.
ERIN DOWNEY HOWERTON: Hi, I'm Erin Downey Howerton, the Youth Services Manager at the Advanced Learning Library and for ReadICT I was asked to talk about a book that fits category 9: a challenged book. One of my favorites is The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman. It's the first in a trilogy of books called His Dark Materials, inspired by John Milton's epic poem Paradise Lost. In a world very similar to ours, Lyra is a young girl running wild with her friend Roger in the halls and on the rooftops of Oxford University. She's being raised by her uncle, Lord Asriel, who has gone to the north to study a new and mysterious concept called dust. When Roger is kidnapped, Lyra sets out on an epic adventure to rescue him and ends up learning startling revelations about the magisterium that rules over her world, her own family, the idea of dust, and all of the other worlds that exist just beyond her own. Written as a children's fantasy novel and published during the same timeframe as the early Harry Potter books, the series has been challenged and banned in many places due to Pullman's depiction of the magisterium which resembles organized religions here on earth, the ideas of sin and spirituality, and how he depicts the abuse of power in a world where human souls roam freely outside their bodies as expressive symbolic animals where mysterious objects like the golden compass empower Lyra to learn about other people and about her world and where polar bears and witches have their own complex societies right alongside human ones. Once you've read the books, you might want to check out the recent HBO series His Dark Materials which is currently shooting season 3 based on book 3, The Amber Spyglass.
SARA MCNEIL, VOICEOVER: Thank you for those awesome recommendations and thank you to the listeners of today's episode. Listeners can request books by visiting our website, wichitalibrary.org, or calling the Library at (316) 261-8500. To participate in the ReadICT reading challenge, please visit wichitalibrary.org/readict. To find a full list of books mentioned in this episode, please visit wichitalibrary.org/podcast. And as always, stay connected with other ReadICT participants on the ReadICT Challenge Facebook page. Find out what's trending near you, post book reviews, look for local and virtual events, and share book humor with like-minded folks.
You can follow this podcast through the Anchor app or stream episodes wherever you get your podcast. If you like what you heard today, be sure to leave us a 5 star review. This has been a production of the Wichita Public Library and a big thanks goes out to those staff members who helped produce this episode. I'm your host, Sara McNeil. Join us next time when we will be discussing category 12, a Kansas notable book, with State Librarian Eric Norris. We will explore how the Kansas Notable Book project highlights Kansas literary heritage and fosters interest in books reading and libraries that celebrate the Sunflower state.