Mar 1, 2024 - Politics & Policy

Book bans? Make that "intellectual freedom challenges"

Illustration of a tiny person facing a brick wall, which is also the interior of a giant book.

Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

Librarians perceive the threat from the book-banning movement as so profound that they're using the more expansive term "intellectual freedom challenges" instead.

Why it matters: Attempts to ban books at public libraries have reached record levels, pitting right-wing parents and legislators against those who oppose censorship.

Driving the news: The culture war over books has become a legislative battle as well.

  • Last year, "more than 150 bills in 35 states aimed to restrict access to library materials, and to punish library workers who do not comply," per the New York Times.
  • As a counterpunch, legislators in blue and purple states are coming to the aid of librarians to help them fight efforts to remove books with certain racial, sexual or gender-related themes.
  • Last June, Illinois became the first state to pass a law penalizing libraries that ban books.

What they're saying: "We have broadened the framing to refer to 'intellectual freedom challenges'" rather than just book bans, AnnaLee Dragon, executive director of the New York Library Association, tells Axios.

  • In New York, "we have seen more challenges toward programming and displays than books themselves — drag queen story hours, displays for Pride month."
  • Book bans (which tend to give targeted titles a circulation bump) are "very frustrating," Dragon says. "It's the same people who are out touting freedom — the freedom to own a gun. But you don't think I have the right to pick a book for my kid?"

"People are being doxxed and stalked and harassed at the grocery store for providing books that some people in the community need and other people don't want," Dragon adds.

  • "A lot of it comes down to libraries being one of the last trusted institutions, and I think that's what's so hurtful about the intellectual freedom challenges that we're facing. It's accusing libraries and librarians of all these really terrible things, like being pedophiles."

Where it stands: The American Library Association has a campaign, Unite Against Book Bans, to encourage people to take action locally (and buy hoodies to show their support).

  • It also sells a workbook for librarians about "navigating intellectual freedom challenges together."

Between the lines: Even while fending off censorship efforts, libraries are serving a broader variety of community needs as other organizations struggle to find funding and support.

The bottom line: Librarians have gotten used to tackling whatever tasks society demands of them.

  • "If we didn't adapt, we wouldn't still exist," Dragon said.
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