Library Research Notes #26
Book challenges, intellectual freedom, and the future of knowledge
Intellectual freedom versus the restriction of knowledge
Since the beginning of time, humans have shared knowledge with one another. The physical world is a scary place and as a species, we have worked together to stay informed. Survival required, and still requires, absorbing information from reputable sources and cultivating critical thinking skills to determine which course of action is the safest and most fruitful for the continuation of life on earth. Without the ability to discern good information from bad, we fail.
As humans, we also have a layer of social interaction and achievement that sidetracks us from the necessary actions that sustain life. We are seeing this in hyper-focus with responses to the COVID pandemic that do not consider the collective good. People who would rather be “right” than healthy and, in many unfortunate cases, rather be “right” than alive. But this piece isn’t about COVID. Although we can see overlap between covid-denialism and the push to restrict educational resources for students in public school systems, I am going to focus on books today. Reading is fundamental and books are the building blocks that allow humans to increase knowledge and open our minds. Without the written word we might all be pandemic deniers.
Leading into the conversation on educational restrictions, I would like to stop for a moment and ponder what Anand Pandian, in an article for the Guardian, states:
“Walls at home and on the road, shielding the body from exposure and the mind from uncomfortable ideas: these interlocking divides make it more difficult to take unfamiliar people and perspectives seriously; harder to acknowledge the needs of strangers, to trust their motives and empathize with their struggles. In an atomized society, others become phantoms all too easily, grist for the mill of resentment and mistrust.” (theguardian.com)
Pandian highlights the ways in which mostly white Americans have come to be more and more internalized and isolationist. In a country that is becoming increasingly more diverse by the decade, white Americans are grasping at ways to maintain power through restrictions on thought, and in our recent climate, there is nowhere that this power struggle is more evident than in the public school system.
But the roots of this power struggle are deep. They go back to the time before our country was founded. For this piece, however, I want to focus on the last 100 years and start with the 1950’s and the desegregation of schools. Since we are focusing on public schools and banned books this is an excellent place to begin.
What was school desegregation and why was it necessary?
In 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled, in Brown v. Board of Education, that the separate but equal notion that had been established with the Plessy v. Ferguson decision (in 1896) was unconstitutional and that schools could not be deemed equal if they were racially segregated. Where the 1896 decision held that as long as facilities were of equal quality they could be segregated by race, the 1954 decision made it clear that within education, if schools were racially segregated they were not considered equal, no matter the quality of the education.
Due to this decision, schools that had been formerly segregated were now required to integrate. And here is where we see an overlap with a forward motion of civil rights in the 50s and present-day backlash of continuing this forward motion. Back in December of 2021, in Oklahoma, State Senator Rob Stanbridge proposed two bills that would restrict materials for public school students stating:
“Our education system is not the place to teach moral lessons that should instead be left up to parents and families. Unfortunately, however, more and more schools are trying to indoctrinate students by exposing them to gender, sexual and racial identity curriculums and courses. My bills will ensure these types of lessons stay at home and out of the classroom,” (thehill.com)
Meanwhile, in Texas and Tennessee
Just as the Oklahoma legislator put forth a bill to restrict books in 2021, so too did a State Representative in Texas by the name of Matt Krause. Rep Krause created a 16-page spreadsheet listing 850 books to be banned in school libraries across the state. One of the books on this list, entitled “This is Your Time”, was written by the first child (Ruby was 6 years old) to desegregate an all-white school in New Orleans, Lousiana, in 1960. In July of 2021, another book by Ms. Bridges “Ruby Bridges Goes to School: My True Story” was singled out by the Williamson County, Tennessee, chapter of Moms for Liberty when they called for the removal of it from school libraries and K-5 curriculums in their school districts. Let me reiterate: A book about a 6-year olds experience being the first Black child to attend a white school in Louisiana in 1960 was deemed not good for the white children of this school district. Here was the rationale:
“The Tennessean reported that Robin Steenman, the head of the Williamson County chapter of Moms for Liberty, “presented excerpts [of these books] to the Williamson County Commission’s education committee in May,” and criticized Ruby Bridges Goes to School for being too harsh in its depiction of a “large crowd of angry white people who didn’t want Black children in a white school,” as well as for not offering “redemption” in the end.” (themarysue.com)
Between the Oklahoma Senator and the Texas Representative trying to remove books on race from the curriculum and the Moms for Liberty wringing their hands over materials that they find ‘too harsh’ for their precious white children to ingest, let us take a moment to ponder the following.
A thought experiment
Let’s say you are a white 6-year old, living in Oklahoma, in 2022, in a home with racist parents. The messages you receive at home are going to be those of racism toward people of color and the superiority of your whiteness. When you attend school, you are in classrooms with students of all races and ethnicities because we have integrated public schools in the United States. You might have interactions with Black children that go against the things you are learning at home from your racist parents, but these school interactions might not be enough to change your mind.
In grade 2 you have a teacher who reads a book to your class about a little girl who was your age in 1960 and she was subjected to horrible treatment by white adults and children of the time simply because she wanted to go to school. This book gives you a sense that maybe the way your parents think about the world isn’t always true. Maybe there are other perspectives that are different from the ones you get at home.
If your State Senator, Rob Standridge, had his way, you would never be presented with this material in class. At home, your parents are not talking to you about how Black children are equal to you or the history of civil rights in America and why it was needed. You would never get these messages because your teachers would not be allowed to read you this interesting, informative, and moving book about a little girl, the same age as you, that had to go through horrible circumstances just to be educated.
Why do legislators keep putting forward bills to restrict knowledge?
Senator Standridge thinks that white parents will teach their white children about the history of racism in America and, therefore, we don’t need these materials to be presented in class. But the reason we DO need these materials presented in class is that we have a history of racism in America that is re-inscribed on children daily through their racist parents. And re-inscribed through the silence of parents who may not be actively racist, but also don’t feel the need to talk to their children about racism. Those “I don’t see colour” people who believe that by ignoring racism it will surely just go away. I mean, it hasn’t happened yet, so?
As Tim Wise remarked on the Sunday Show with Jonathan Capehart, this morning,
“I think what [legislators] are really afraid of is that young, white, kids - many of whom got involved in thinking about and being active around racial justice, after the murder of George Floyd - we had the largest racial justice uprising in history, millions of people joining in that movement - their fear is that if you talk about systemic racism and the truth of our history, a lot of those young people, who have an inate sense of justice, are going to want to get involved, side by side with Black and Brown folks, to fight for justice. They don’t want that.” (msnbc.com)
reinforcing what we already know - white people who are racist do not want their white children joining a social justice movement that will help people gain equality and move the needle forward into that diverse nation that many of us would like to see realized. They are grasping at the last straws of white supremacy and they are using their own white fragility as an excuse. They are using the feelings of their children as a reason to not allow the forward motion of our society.
Wise also went on to remark about how teaching the history of abolition might be what they are really afraid of. Talking about white people who were doing good work back when most white people were trying to restrict the rights of people of color or maintain order rather than working for social justice, means that the current white students might decide that they want to also be in the abolitionist struggle. That they want to lend their voices, hearts, and hands to the fight for racial justice. That they might, SHOCK, want to be anti-racist.
America has always purported to be a melting pot, but we have never truly embraced the idea of all citizens being American. There are white citizens that believe they are the true Americans and that people of color are somehow, not. We saw this with the birtherism movement, before, during, and after the election of President Obama and we see it in current day gaffs (or, as I like to see it, truths) spewed by Republicans like Mitch McConnell.
Meanwhile, in Florida
Back in December of 2021, Governor Ron Desantis of Florida put forth another piece of legislation to restrict knowledge. The Stop the ‘Woke’, or Stop the Wrongs to our Kids and Employees, Act was put forward. This bill is another attempt from Conservative forces to consistently undermine the ability of white people, whether school children or adults at work, to gain knowledge about the past, present, and future. I mean, I suppose that these white dudes who keep putting forth these bills are just really afraid that people might actually move forward with the whole “more perfect union” of our founding documents. We might want to fight to make this country truly great, rather than just a pale facsimile of what it could have been. Needless to say, this bill also seeks to remove materials from both schools and workplaces in favour of just continuing the status quo of racist rhetoric we have come to know from the history of the United States.
That is plenty of time spent on these bills. Next, let’s look at the ways in which teachers and librarians are fighting to move society forward.
Librarians to the rescue
Although it may seem like we are moving backward some days, librarians are here for the fight! One of the main tenets of librarianship is intellectual freedom and the Library Bill of Rights, from the American Library Association (ALA) spells this out in detail. I believe this is important to note, so here is the full text, from ala.org:
The American Library Association affirms that all libraries are forums for information and ideas, and that the following basic policies should guide their services.
I. Books and other library resources should be provided for the interest, information, and enlightenment of all people of the community the library serves. Materials should not be excluded because of the origin, background, or views of those contributing to their creation.
II. Libraries should provide materials and information presenting all points of view on current and historical issues. Materials should not be proscribed or removed because of partisan or doctrinal disapproval.
III. Libraries should challenge censorship in the fulfillment of their responsibility to provide information and enlightenment.
IV. Libraries should cooperate with all persons and groups concerned with resisting abridgment of free expression and free access to ideas.
V. A person’s right to use a library should not be denied or abridged because of origin, age, background, or views.
VI. Libraries which make exhibit spaces and meeting rooms available to the public they serve should make such facilities available on an equitable basis, regardless of the beliefs or affiliations of individuals or groups requesting their use.
VII. All people, regardless of origin, age, background, or views, possess a right to privacy and confidentiality in their library use. Libraries should advocate for, educate about, and protect people’s privacy, safeguarding all library use data, including personally identifiable information. (ala.org)
All the clauses in the list are applicable to what we have discussed thus far, but clause two is especially prescient. Librarians are charged with providing resources that reflect all points of view and do not leave out parts of history. Librarians review materials for content and school librarians especially, but also public librarians who work with children and young adults, provide books that are age-appropriate. In contrast to what appears to be happening with parents who cherry-pick passages to read at school board meetings as a way to challenge books, librarians actually read the books that they provide to their patrons.
Providing materials with various themes, that will open a reader’s mind and help them to think more critically about the world around them is what librarians are in the business of doing. Book challenges are a natural process for each librarian and the way to handle them is spelled out in each library’s collection development and circulation policy. Librarians are encouraged to stay ahead of challenges by clearly stating these policies. This allows patrons and/or parents to challenge a book but also allows the library to review the challenge and make the final decision about whether a book should remain on the shelf.
Censorship is not taken lightly in the library community and neither should it be in the community at large. We should remember what it means to ban and/or burn books. As it states on the ALA website:
Censorship can be subtle, almost imperceptible, as well as blatant and overt, but, nonetheless, harmful. (ala.org)
In August of 2021, the ALA Executive Board came out with a statement “opposing the censorship of programs addressing racial injustice, Black American history, and diversity education” (americanlibrariesmagazine.org) which stated:
ALA member leaders and staff pledge to join with library workers, libraries, and state and regional library associations to oppose any proposal to censor information resources, curricula, or programs addressing racial injustice, Black American history, and diversity education. We commit to supporting libraries, library workers, schools, and universities facing these challenges and developing tools that will prepare library workers to defend their collections, counter falsehoods, and engage their communities in important conversations about racial injustice and empowering everyone to fully participate in our democratic society. (americanlibrariesmagazine.org)
The commitment of the ALA to the profession of librarianship in public and educational settings requires this response and this is why librarians are at the forefront of the fight against book banning. Legislators who are trying to restrict materials from public and school libraries will have a great fight on their hands going forward if they continue to try and tell librarians how to do their jobs. The library community has always had book challenge rules in place and remains ready for whatever comes. After all, librarians are superheroes!
CRT Tool Kit for Educators (crttoolkit.com)
Librarians fighting back against right-wing efforts to censor LGBTQ books (flux.community)
Calls to Ban Books by Black Authors are Increasing Amid Critical Race Theory Debates (edweek.org)
All 850 Books Texas Lawmaker Matt Krause Wants to Ban: An Analysis (bookriot.com)