The Freedom to Read - Blog from Michelle Carr, volunteer leader

October, 2022.

When I hear the words “book banning” my head immediately goes to the Tudor era of times when books that spoke of the unsanctioned religion or beliefs were forbidden. Or the Nazis banning books that didn’t fit the agenda they wanted to prevail upon the people. I saw these efforts at some libraries recently, but they were in other states and part of me wanted to believe that they wouldn’t be something that would happen now or perhaps here. I was wrong.

A panel of people in a library. The photo is taken from the audience who are all seated.

I learned last month that two members and a pastor from a small local church had been attending our local library’s monthly board meetings to complain about the books in the teen section. They had been doing so since April of this year and the tone has slowly become more aggressive. One really disturbing part of this information was that the general complaints focused on books with LGBTQ+ characters and that even one library board member piped up in agreement. The Library board informed the group that they don’t ban books and that there is a committee that accepts complaints and reviews the materials. They were welcomed to submit a complaint. A month passed and no such complaints were submitted nor books specified. But due to issues of some people visiting the library to complain to employees, a spouse asked that supporters of the library join in at the September meeting. 

The September meeting went very smoothly. The library supporters outnumbered those who had come to offer baseless claims roughly 15 to 1. The majority of those who came spoke of their love of the library and how having the freedom to read whatever they wanted from the library had impacted their lives positively. During the speeches of support for the library, the pastor of the church left.

Those of us that had shown up in support of the library, left the meeting full of positivity and hope that perhaps this was the end. It wasn’t.

Soon a radio ad, created by the church’s pastor, began playing over the local Christian radio. This ad compared the evil shared by the library to the evil in a brothel. I would argue on both accounts, but that is how they portrayed the matter at hand and asked their listeners to join in the next board meeting to help take a stand against evil. The pastor even wrote a long Facebook post condemning books that mentioned youth crimes and transgender characters for influencing our youth. One of our current County Councilman shared this post on his page. 

We, the library supporters, began to take action to inform everyone we could about what was happening. Even though the church members declared repeatedly they weren’t banning books, they continued to elevate the message to remove these books from the shelves. By the meeting on the 17th, we had supporters of all ages arrive. The room was packed with hundreds of people.
Apparently, several book titles had been submitted and one called “Gender Queer” had already been reviewed. This book is in the adult graphic novel section and was deemed to be appropriate for that area. This didn’t stop the attacks on this book. Church members had photocopied multiple pages of the book and handed it out to the audience. Many people got up and spoke about how upset they were by it. 

On the opposite end, children from 8 years old to adults passed retirement, all spoke on how important it is that every group be represented in a narrative in the public library. That such books offer understanding and insight as well as characters that offer those who are underrepresented someone they can relate to. An eight -year- old described how reading a book with their parent helped them recognize the feelings in them that they weren’t their assigned gender. They realized, with the help of the book, how to articulate these feelings to their parent. 

Some shared how the books that were being put up as obscene were only the books with LGBTQ+ themes. And if this group wasn’t attacking all books with similar places in them as just as obscene, then this wasn’t about those parts but more about prejudice. Prejudice that was repeatedly denied by those wearing “Taking back the rainbow. Genesis 9:13” shirts. Even a lawyer, Ross Thomas, had to speak to remind the audience that what was in that graphic novel wasn’t considered illegal by law and the library hadn’t broken any laws by housing it on their shelves. 

I would like to say that I was just as positive at the end of this monthly meeting as I had been at the month previous. But I can’t. The amount of preaching, misunderstanding, prejudice and I will have to add hate that I felt that night radiating from those who wanted materials restricted, hidden or all together removed from the shelves made me realize this was probably far from over. Since they had escalated this so much for this meeting and they still met with such opposition, I wonder what will come next. For us, our goal is to try and remain as civil as we can and offer the library, its staff and the board our support so they can continue to say no to removing books. 

I am not sure if everyone has experienced this in their own neck of the woods. My hope is that you don’t, but I wanted to share my community’s experience with this attack on our public system. That just as you may be seeing an extreme group running for school board, you may also see these extreme attacks on our public libraries.

As the Sierra Club works for equity for everyone, the importance of protecting books that represent people of all walks of life is clear. We all deserve the freedom to read. 

Michelle Carr, volunteer leader with the Winding Waters Group.

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