Barack Obama turned to the Kankakee librarians when he kicked off an effort to push back against book bans earlier this week to support their belief that among their library's 80,000 books, there's something for each reader.
"We provide books for everybody on every topic," said Mary Bass, the Kankakee Public Library's youth services supervisor. "That's what libraries stand for. It's not just one particular worldview. We are here for everyone, and we want them to see that there's space for you."
The library's staff joined the former president in a TikTok video Monday highlighting several books that have faced scattered calls for censorship on the shelves of schools and libraries across the country.
In the video, the librarians posed with books including Ibram X. Kendi's "Antiracist Baby" and Angie Thomas' "The Hate U Give" before Obama appeared reading a copy.
"A book like "Alice in Wonderland" and "The Color Purple," it's ridiculous why those would be banned from any library," library director Allison Beasley said, citing two more books the video featured. "We wanted to highlight that book banning can be for any type of book."
Censorship efforts have risen across the country and Illinois, where there were 67 attempts to ban books in 2022, a jump from 41 the previous year, according to the Chicago-based American Library Association.
Obama criticized the bans Monday in an open letter to America's librarians. The censorship efforts often target books written by people of color, Indigenous people and LGBTQ+ people, he wrote. But bans have also targeted conservative authors, he added.
"Either way, the impulse seems to be to silence, rather than engage, rebut, learn from or seek to understand views that don't fit our own," Obama wrote.
The letter and video Obama shared were followed by other TikTok collaborations between the former president and libraries, including a video with the Harris County Public Library that serves Houston.
The efforts are part of a broader upcoming campaign focused on book bans that the former president plans to take.
The Obama Presidential Center campus now under construction in Jackson Park is also set to include a Chicago Public Library branch.
In June, Illinois became the first state to pass a law attempting to prohibit book bans when Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed a bill championed by Secretary of State Alexi Giannoulias blocking state funding for public libraries that remove books and other materials for "partisan or doctrinal" reasons.
The Kankakee librarians told the Tribune they have not faced specific efforts calling for book bans at their library, praising state lawmakers' recent moves to impede censorship.
"It helps that we have that support," said Camille Rose, the library's engagement director.
But the librarians see the efforts to ban certain books spreading across the country in recent years, a censorship movement they say goes against the core mission of libraries.
The video was a way to show solidarity with librarians who face pressure to take controversial books off shelves, Beasley said.
"No matter what community we're in, our goal is informing, enriching, empowering. And none of that can happen if people are censoring what other people are trying to read," Beasley said.
The Kankakee Public Library dedicates a whole week every September to banned books, offering programming on titles targeted for censorship elsewhere.
A book one person deems offensive might be a "saving grace" for someone else, Beasley said.
"I don't think that any one of us has the right to start saying, 'I don't like this, so no one should have access to it,' " Beasley said.
The books and other information inside libraries have the power to build perspective and open up the world, especially for young people, Rose said.
However, the library doesn't just offer books, the librarians added. It's home to an array of programs, information sources and resources. There's printing, faxing and resume help, Beasley said.
"But also, just a safe place for people," the director added, "for people who maybe either don't feel safe at home or don't feel safe out in the world, and just want to be somewhere where they feel supported and can just be, can just exist."
The efforts to meet community needs beyond books also extends to the library's TikTok videos, where the librarians make funny clips and recommend their favorites to followers. It's an effort to counter the view some might have that libraries aren't accessible places, outreach coordinator Susanne Bult said. It also shows people that librarians are relatable, she added.
"And we're them," Bult said. "A lot of times, there feels like a barrier getting people to realize we're not trying to fine them for books and make them read."
The librarians encouraged people to support their local libraries by visiting ones in their community and engaging with library programs.
If libraries were just starting as a concept now, they would never be funded, Beasley said. But they're more important now than ever, she added.
"It's really one of the last great institutions in our world. And we need to protect libraries," Beasley said.