Illinois’ new secretary of state and Democrats in the General Assembly are pushing back against a rise in challenges to books shelved in libraries.
Secretary of State Alexi Giannoulias, who is also the state librarian, is spearheading legislation that would make state grants to libraries contingent on their establishing “a written policy prohibiting the practice of banning books.”
At stake is about $61 million annually to 1,600 public and school libraries. The legislation, HB2789, sponsored by Naperville Democratic Rep. Anne Stava-Murray, won House approval 69-39 last month and awaits action by the Democratic-controlled Senate.
Illinois would be the nation’s first state to adopt such a policy, according to Giannoulias. But it’s far from the only state dealing with contention among the stacks. The American Library Association compiled 1,200 challenges to books nationally in 2022, nearly double the record number a year earlier. And librarians are receiving violent threats.
“These efforts to ban reading materials have nothing to do with books, they are about restricting freedom of ideas that certain individuals disagree with,” Giannoulias told The Associated Press. “That is very dangerous for a democracy. And that’s inherently against freedom of thought.”
Libraries could adopt their own pledge or sign one developed by the library association.
Giannoulias, who in January was sworn in as the first new secretary of state in a quarter-century, teamed up with Stava-Murray after parents in the Chicago suburb of Downers Grove complained to the high school board about “Gender Queer: A Memoir,” by Maia Kobabe.
Kobabe’s recollection of a journey of self-identity, which angry Downers Grove parents called a “pornographic sketchbook,” has been villified in other parts of the country, including Virginia, where a state court judge last summer refused to declare the book obscene and restrict its distribution.
The Downers Grove school board appointed a study committee and last spring the board unanimously voted to keep the book on library shelves.
“It’s important for people to be able to see themselves on the bookshelves,” Stava-Murray said. “It’s not just someone who is a cisgendered white woman like myself, it’s someone who could be of a completely different ethnicity, different background, different culture. ... To take that diversity out is a very dangerous type of thinking.”
Conservatives wince at the term “book ban.”
“Nobody is in favor of doing that,” said Rep. Blaine Wilhour, a southern Illinois Republican and member of the Legislature’s Freedom Caucus. “It’s never been about banning books. It’s always been been about age appropriate, especially when we’re talking public tax dollars on this stuff.”
Wilhour doesn’t believe a book such as “Gender Queer,” whose description includes dealing with adolescent crushes, coming out to family and “bonding with friends over erotic gay fanfiction,” should be in any K-12 school library, but at the very least, local control should prevail on such a decision. That’s why there are elected school and public library boards, he said.
Whatever you call them, restrictions on literature in America have been around longer than the Constitution. According to Harvard University’s Gutman Library, the government of Quincy, Massachusetts in 1637 banned Thomas Morton’s “The New English Canaan” for apostasy in criticizing Puritan customs and exercise of power.
Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” was banned throughout the Confederacy. After the Civil War, the anti-vice crusader Anthony Comstock won support for laws restricting material that he considered obscene - from anatomy textbooks to “The Canterbury Tales.”
The First Amendment was viewed anew after a 1933 court case reversed an 11-year prohibition of James Joyce’s “Ulysses.” In subsequent decades, “A Catcher in the Rye,” “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” and even Stephen King’s “Carrie” have been targeted.
“The extremists are coming after your literature. They’re coming after your libraries, they are coming after your books under the guise of, ‘We’re protecting somebody,’” Gov. J.B. Pritzker, a Democrat, said. “The reality is more information is better. Obviously we all believe in age-appropriate materials, but the reality is our libraries have been able to manage this for years and years and years.”