Banned Book Week now a party for adults, too

October 2, 2023 3:00 am

A wave of book bans have hit school libraries in the last few years. (Getty Images)

First they came for the textbooks. Then they came for the school library books.

Now they’re coming for your public library books. That’s the latest word from the American Library Association, which tracks the distemper of book banning. In its report on book challenges during the first eight months of 2023, it found 49% of them were titles in public libraries, a threefold increase from the same time period in 2022.  

You remember public libraries: those big buildings your tax dollars paid for, ostensibly to promote the promise of an informed public and encourage the free exercise of intellectual thought.

Now, the self-righteous, self-appointed cultural police not only want to eliminate books from your kids’ classrooms and libraries, they want to limit what you can check out at the public library. Can telling you what to think be far behind? Nearly four decades after 1984 (year and book)?

It’s Banned Book Week, brothers and sisters. Shout it from the rooftops … especially those of public libraries.

Regular readers know the ill regard with which this space holds book banners such as Ron DeSantis and Moms for Liberty who rant and rave against a widening swath of knowledge, history and information. Others, too, including the Nebraska Legislature and the University of Nebraska Board of Regents, have played footsie with eliminating textbooks on the whim of one parent or limiting the scope of scholarly inquiry on a college campus. 

As for content, while ignoring American history has made some inroads among our favorite censors, the usual suspects remain … well … usual. The American Library Association report said, “Most of the challenges were to books written by or about a person of color or a member of the LGBTQIA+ community.” 

Those two categories comprise most of the ruckus, but other, seemingly innocuous titles, have also come under the banner’s lash. We once again express our incredulity when challenges are made to “The Adventures of Captain Underpants,” “Little Red Riding Hood” and “The Grapes of Wrath,” John Steinbeck’s Pulitzer Prize winner. That gives you an idea of the caliber of complainer with whom we are dealing.

Yet, even in the midst of such moral tumult, public libraries have always appeared safe, a measure apart from their scholastic counterparts, a haven for adults to choose what they read and librarians free to offer titles enough to quench a diverse thirst for knowledge. 

Wrong. The Library Association numbers do not include recent physical threats against public libraries, including bomb threats at six suburban Chicago public libraries. They were not alone. Bomb threats and threats against staff have closed public libraries from Davis, Calif., to Iowa City to the Bronx to Hawaii to Nashville to Denver to Boston. Mirroring the bannings in schools and challenges in public libraries, stories or events about LGBTQ issues have preceded a number of the threats.

Of course if you can’t intimidate a public library until you get your way, perhaps you can simply starve it to death. That’s what happened to the Patmos Library in Ottawa County, Mich., after librarians there refused to remove books with LGBTQ themes and characters. Twice voters have put the kibosh on funding the library of 90,000 titles, which has stayed afloat through donations. Such largess will run out in a year if voters say no a third time this November.

If you’re keeping score at home, the scolds have also been busy at our schools. According to a report by free speech advocate, PEN America, public schools suffered a 33% increase in challenged titles during the 2022-23 school year compared to 2021-22. PEN’s report broke down last year’s increase: “… 3,362 book bans affecting 1,557 unique titles,  … impacting the work of 1,480 authors, illustrators and translators.”

Some pushback is afoot. While anecdotal, evidence continues to grow that students want a voice in what kind of education they will get and what kind of school library will be there to support it. Student protests have popped up in a number of school districts including Plattsmouth, Neb.

More diverse books at school is an uphill slog. Parent groups that support bans are emboldened as the Nebraska Legislature and others continue to debate a “Parents Bill of Rights,” the inexplicable repeat — at least in Nebraska — of their current rights. At the public library, however, adults get to choose what they want to read.

So try this: If you don’t like the book, don’t check it out. And leave the rest of us — and our books — alone.

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George Ayoub
George Ayoub

George Ayoub filed nearly 5,000 columns, editorials and features in 21 years as a journalist for the Grand Island Independent. His columns also appeared in the Omaha World-Herald and Kearney Hub. His work has been recognized by the Nebraska Press Association and the Associated Press. He was awarded a national prize by Gatehouse Media for a 34-part series focusing on the impact of cancer on families of victims and survivors. He is a member of the adjunct faculty and Academic Support Staff at Hastings College. Ayoub has published two short novels, “Warm, for Christmas” and “Dust in Grissom.” In 2019 he published “Confluence,” the biography of former Omaha World-Herald publisher and CEO John Gottschalk.