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A Deeper Look: Censorship beyond Books

Drag queen reads a book to children (Photo: Jennifer Ricard)
Programming such as
drag queen story hours
has been subject to
challenges. Photo: Jennifer Ricard

Just as books are sometimes challenged and banned in libraries, schools, universities, and public institutions, other library materials, resources, and services have been challenged, canceled, or dismantled. People’s perception of offensive content is not limited to the written word. Censorship beyond books can happen anywhere—in private and public institutions, large school districts and small public libraries, rural universities, state prisons, and urban government buildings. The variety of resources and services challenged is just as broad, including films, videos, music, magazines, newspapers, games, internet access, databases, programs, use of meeting rooms, exhibits, displays, artwork, reading lists, and online resources. Here are three examples of censorship beyond books that could happen at your library.

Databases and digital resources

Almost every library has at least one database subscription that offers curated content published by reputable sources. The target audience and content vary widely among databases, and because databases are digital resources, users can access the content in various settings—in the library, at school, and at home. These factors can cause confusion in determining whether content is appropriate and to whom concerns should be addressed. Does responsibility for content rest with the library, the library’s parent organization (for example, the school district), or the database vendor? While most parents have directed their concerns to the school district, in some cases complaints are elevated to the level of elected officials, statewide systems, and even the courts.

Cover of Intellectual Freedom Manual, 10th edition
This is an excerpt from Intellectual Freedom Manual, 10th edition, edited by Martin Garnar and Trina Magi (ALA Editions, 2021).

In September 2018, a parent in Tooele, Utah, claimed to have found inappropriate content in EBSCO’s K–12 databases and complained directly to the Utah Education Network (UEN). UEN connects all Utah school districts, schools, and higher-education institutions with the goal of providing high-quality educational resources.

After receiving the complaint, the network’s board quickly voted to remove access to the K–12 EBSCO databases for every public school district in the state, potentially affecting more than 700,000 students. When trying to connect to the databases, users received this message: “Ongoing concerns about content prompted action. The Utah Education and Telehealth Network places a high priority on the safety and well-being of students and is taking additional action to address concerns about inappropriate content within EBSCO services for K–12 students.” Many teachers did not know about the decision until students tried to use the databases for homework assignments.

Teachers, librarians, and parents, with strategic assistance from multiple organizations, sent thousands of email messages and petition signatures to protest the ban and urge UEN’s board to restore access to EBSCO.

Then–American Library Association (ALA) President Loida Garcia-Febo issued a letter, cosigned by the leadership of the American Association of School Librarians, the Association of College and Research Libraries, the Utah Educational Library Media Association, the National Council of Teachers of English, and the National Coalition against Censorship. Garcia-Febo wrote: “By committing to statewide access to EBSCO databases for all students, UEN [would be] committing to a quality, equitable education for all Utah students.”

At the board meeting and in the press, opponents of EBSCO’s database continued to suggest that if the board reinstated access, it would be “intentionally and knowingly” distributing pornography to minors, though UEN could not substantiate their claims. Almost a month later, after public feedback, collaboration with EBSCO staff, and statements by multiple educational organizations, the board voted unanimously to restore the school districts’ access to the K–12 databases.

Programs and displays

People raise concerns about library displays and programs for the same reasons they raise concerns about other types of library resources: objections to LGBTQ+ content, profanity, political viewpoints, sexual content, and religious content. In June, during ALA’s Rainbow Book Month (formerly known as GLBT Book Month), libraries often receive complaints about displays that celebrate Pride Month or recognize LGBTQ+ history, or programs that acknowledge gender fluidity and diverse perspectives.

Sometimes the request to dismantle a display comes from an administrator in a preemptive attempt to avoid controversy or to placate informal concerns raised by someone with power or influence.

In Leander, Texas, a drag queen story hour was canceled by the city, and a local church used meeting space in the library to host its own Leander Family Pride Festival and Storytime. The security costs and a public outcry led to a review of the library’s meeting room policy. The city council then changed the policy to limit meeting room use to city departments. During the policy review, another program was canceled: Leander Public Library had scheduled author Lilah Sturges to speak about writing and publishing her series Lumberjanes. The library administration told the transgender author that the event was canceled because she had not undergone a background check, but several other youth events were held in library meeting rooms without review by city officials. Community members have questioned whether this cancellation is another example of discrimination and censorship.

Library-created content

In addition to books, databases, programs, and displays, other resources can be challenged and censored. Many of these resources are created by librarians in their role as educators in their communities, such as online research guides, reading lists, materials advocating for libraries and an informed citizenry, and social media posts and items related to community outreach.

In February 2009, a complaint was deposited in West Bend (Wis.) Community Memorial Library’s book drop along with a printout of the library’s online readers’ advisory list for teens titled “Out of the Closet.” The library did not have a policy to address the demand to remove the online content, so by default, it offered the complainant a reconsideration form (a written request that the library remove or restrict access to particular resources, invoking a standardized review process by the library and/or its governing board). The form was returned to the library director with a list of 37 book titles with LGBTQIA+ content. Over the course of four months, the list grew to more than 80 young adult books with the complaint that the librarian had a “gay agenda.”

This challenge garnered national media attention, daily local newspaper articles and letters to the editor, multiple petitions and protests, and support from ALA, the Wisconsin Library Association, University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee, the Cooperative Children’s Book Center, and the American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin. In the end, the nine-member library board voted unanimously to retain the online reading list and books, and not to move them or label them differently.

What to do

Libraries should have policies and procedures in place for routing and addressing concerns to ensure that community members are heard and that their opinions and concerns are seriously considered. These policies and procedures should broadly cover all library resources, including books, journals, films, videos, music, databases, displays, programs, and more. They should outline how libraries select resources and how those resources will support the overall mission of the organization. They should outline an objective, thoughtful, and efficient process for the reconsideration of resources.

Finally, all library workers and governing authorities should be educated about these policies and procedures so that every challenge is handled in a consistent manner, whether the object of a challenge is a database, display, program, or book.

Following these policies and procedures helps the library serve the community as a whole. It also helps build a stable workplace where library workers feel secure and valued, as well as confident in the knowledge that the library’s values extend beyond the freedom to read and reach into the freedom to teach, advocate, and engage.

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