Opinion - It’s Banned Books Week. Here’s how to fight for libraries.

Alyssa Rosenberg and Greg Sargent - October 2, 2023

Opinion - It’s Banned Books Week. Here’s how to fight for libraries.

One of us writes about parenting, the other about politics. Our work converges in a troubling new trend: increasing attempts to remove books from public schools and libraries. This Banned Books Week, we wanted to share what we’ve learned about how book lovers can defend their schools and public libraries.

Remember that censors aren’t the majority. The number of challenges to individual books can make it appear as if there’s broad support for censorship. That’s not true: A small number of individuals are challenging multiple titles, often using preexisting lists created by advocacy groups. As our colleagues in The Post’s newsroom reported, just 11 people filed 60 percent of all book challenges issued in the entire United States during the 2021-2022 school year.
The best thing library lovers can do is show up and make themselves known. Write to the school board to praise a librarian with great taste. Show up for every local hearing on school and library funding. It’s not always easy to make time for local politics. But if kids can speak up for their schools and libraries, adults should do the same. And parents who want their kids to have access to challenged books should summon their own sense of moral authority.

Demand that lawmakers defend libraries, too. It’s a mistake for lawmakers to shy away from defending the contents of local libraries or to try to talk about education funding instead (though, of course, that matters, too). Majorities want kids to get excellent educations, even if that means they encounter ideas that disturb them. Allowing individual parents to get books kicked off library shelves is broadly unpopular.

Politicians at every level should argue in favor of expansive libraries so every family can decide what books are — or aren’t — right for them. That’s the popular position, and the principled one. And if lawmakers and administrators need inspiration, there are plenty of experiments in protecting books and teachers’ speech already underway.

Some politicians who oppose censorship are nonetheless reluctant to take on these battles. They shouldn’t be. There are large, neglected constituencies out there that want to hear their leaders articulate a forceful stand in favor of free expression and against book banning.

Show the public where bad laws and censorship inevitably lead. Censorship never stops with one book. Target “obscenity,” and Larry McMurtry’s novels might get excluded from Texas schools, or the Bible might run afoul of Utah standards. Laws making teachers and librarians legally liable for distributing certain material could result in ruinous municipal insurance bills. Some towns are even facing the prospect of closing their libraries altogether, cutting residents off from a wide range of services.

The vagueness of these rules puts pressure on local officials to err on the side of removing books, rather than risk going against mandates that are very hard to interpret, leaving censorship as the “safer” option. Most people don’t want those in charge of their kids’ education to be making decisions out of fear that bullies them into siding with censors.

Look to the law. Suggesting that books be removed from library shelves on political grounds — because they advocate “gender ideology” or “communism” — might violate laws banning viewpoint discrimination in public schools and libraries. A group of Florida parents is testing that theory in the courts, hoping to establish a clear precedent. And some teachers are challenging restrictions on the grounds that they’re unconstitutionally vague. While those cases play out, library advocates can remind officials and administrators that censorship carries its own legal risks.

And politicians can get behind an anti-censorship legislative agenda. Illinois recently passed a state law that directs public libraries to adopt a “library bill of rights” declaring they won’t remove books under partisan or ideological pressure. Other ideas include transparency requirements for how school systems handle book challenges and contested classroom topics. More state legislators should push such ideas. It sends a clear signal that the law is not merely an instrument that can be wielded by censors but also a potential shield against them.

Put the focus back where it belongs: on kids. At a moment of great concern about children’s academic performance and their declining love of reading, one thing is clear: Kids read more, and more enthusiastically, when they’re allowed to choose their own books. Making sure they have access to libraries with volumes for every possible interest that are staffed by teachers and librarians who can help them find books that will ignite their passion for learning is vital. Who could possibly oppose that?