Posted by: bluesyemre | December 20, 2022

American Library Association President: Librarians Are Facing Harassment


Miseducation is a column that chronicles what it’s like to be a student in the modern United States.

Public libraries are crucial spaces for learning and community building. They’re also experiencing unprecedented attacks. According to recent data from the Unite Against Book Bans campaign, there were 781 attempts to ban or restrict books and 1,835 individual titles challenged from January 1 through October 31, 2022. This is a huge jump from 2019 when there were 377 challenges. A large number of the books in question deal with issues of race, gender, sexuality, and identity, or are written by marginalized authors.

Book bans are only one of the issues that public libraries are currently facing. In Tennessee, lawmakers want to force librarians to list all the materials they offer and to conduct periodic reviews to make sure the materials are “age-appropriate,” a measure many librarians told Chalkbeat is unnecessary and beyond the scope of their job. Across the country, several librarians have been attacked or doxxed for standing up for books that are deemed controversial or worthy of being banned.

The American Library Association (ALA), the oldest and largest library association in the world, is a nonprofit that promotes libraries and public education across the United States. Teen Vogue spoke with the organization’s president, Lessa Kanani’opua Pelayo-Lozada, about the consequences of book bans, the importance of public libraries as community spaces, and how the ALA is fighting back against censorship across the country. 

Teen Vogue: What particular challenges has the ALA been facing in the past few years?

Lessa Kanani’opua Pelayo-Lozada: We are seeing unprecedented levels of book banning right now. There is this small minority of people who want to ban books and they’re not suggesting individual titles, they’re coming in with huge lists of books that for the most part they haven’t even read. They are trying to silence diverse voices and ideas and using public libraries as a pawn in this fight. 

Another one of the biggest challenges we’re facing in the library profession is a lack of funding and a lack of institutional support for both libraries as institutions and library workers to be paid fair wages. To be a librarian you have to have a master’s of library and information science and the starting pay does not always equate to a master’s-level salary. This is also related to the defunding of education in general. 

TV: What is the process of a book getting banned from a public library? Who ultimately makes the decision and how is the library involved?

L P-L: It varies. At my public library [in California], for instance, the process is that if someone doesn’t want a certain book to be at the library, they will have a conversation with either the adult or children’s services manager, depending on what department the book is from. After that, the department manager will explain to them why we bought the book and who it might serve. If they still want to do a formal challenge then they’ll fill out a form. Then a subcommittee of staff is formed to read the book and review the complaint to see if it has merit. And then a response is given. At some libraries, the committee that is formed to review the book is made up of both community members and staff. 

But we are also in an interesting time right now where there are these really high-profile people, like governors or congresspeople, who want to use a book ban as part of their political platform. For example, there was recently a lawmaker in Texas who wanted to [potentially] ban more than 800 books from libraries and the curriculum throughout the state. The way governors and politicians get around the formal processes is through legislative acts.  

TV: What are the consequences of book bans on different demographics who rely on the library?

L P-L: The main consequence is that our students, our children, our patrons, and adults don’t have access to certain ideas, or to ideologies that will help them create more empathy and understanding for one another even if we don’t come from similar backgrounds. 

There are consequences for library workers as well, as we’re seeing mounting legislation against us. There is a bill in the state of Oklahoma that says a library worker can be fined merely for providing access to information on abortion. Librarians are being doxxed and many of them are facing harassment that they are too afraid to speak out about and report. 

TV: In the last few years, and particularly since the start of the pandemic, we’ve seen data showing that a huge number of teachers and educators are quitting their jobs due to low pay and bad working conditions, et cetera. Would you say there has been a similar trajectory with librarians?

L P-L: We don’t have a ton of statistics on that, but anecdotally what we’re seeing and hearing is folks are leaving the profession. People have been leaving for a while because of low wages and the pandemic didn’t help anything either. But with this new round, you know, especially school librarians are looking for other opportunities where they are not being attacked. 

TV: We’re seeing a growing number of state laws that censor the type of content young people can read in libraries. For example, there are laws being proposed that would make libraries assign ratings to books or only carry children’s books that are deemed age-appropriate. What are your thoughts?

L P-L: I think in a lot of ways a desire for book ratings shows a degradation in the public’s trust in libraries. As part of our master’s program in library and information science, we are trained to make purchases and create collections for children, toddlers, middle grades, and so on based on the reading level. But assigning an age level to the subject matter isn’t for us to decide — that’s a family decision. So when these types of legislation require us to do that through creating ratings for children’s books, for example, it’s a signal to librarians that these people think we don’t know what we’re doing and we’re not doing a good job.

TV: In what ways are individual librarians or the ALA as a whole standing up to censorship and book bans?

L P-L: First I want to talk about what the ALA is doing for library workers, which is that our office for intellectual freedom provides staff expertise and support. They do one-on-one confidential consultations with folks who are experiencing book bans and challenges in their libraries. We also provide financial support to individuals for any legal fees or for their everyday living fees if they have to stop working for whatever reason. We also offer policy guidance, legal advice, and advocacy. 

One of the broader ways the ALA is standing up to censorship is through the Unite Against Book Bans campaign. We have several institutional members of the campaign, like big publishers and other library associations, but we encourage members of the public to sign up as well. The campaign has resources such as how to start a banned books club through your library or with your friends, or how to host a banned books party to create awareness. It also has talking points and grassroots organizing resources on how to have tough conversations with friends and family members who believe certain books should be banned. We believe that it’s the people who use the library who make the most difference and we’re making sure that these books stay on our shelves.

TV: There are so many misconceptions about what a public library does and what its purpose is. What do you wish more people understood about why libraries are an important community resource?

L P-L: I think that one of the most beautiful things about a public library right now is that we are the only free third space for folks to go to. People have [their] home, they have work or school, but where do they go for bonding? Where do they go to build community relationships? Where do they go for learning? Some folks will go to Starbucks or they’ll take extracurricular classes, but most of those things cost money, whereas with the library you can do that with us and it’s all free. You can join a book club and have a conversation, you can advance your degree, and some libraries have programs where folks can get their GED. Things like that are possible in the library and are totally free, as well as just the opportunity to explore and be whoever you want to be.

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