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With school starting this month and the American Library Association’s Banned Books Week just weeks away – Sept. 26-Oct. 2 this year – two RoundTable interns looked at how publicly funded libraries, the Evanston Public Library and those at School Districts 65 and 202, handle requests to remove, re-shelve or otherwise restrict access to certain publications.
A look into banned books at District 65
Throughout Evanston public schools, a robust library is a vital part of the institution, and for many schools, it is something to be proud of. However, just as in any other library, school librarians face similar challenges regarding banned books and keeping their collections inclusive yet well rounded.
In her 16 years at District 65, Nichols Middle School Librarian Kefira Philippe says she has never received a request to ban a book, or even a complaint about a book on the shelf. However, she did recall that many years ago, the librarian at Chute Middle School received a complaint in which a parent of color was upset about the portrayal of Black people in the graphic novel “Yummy.’”
“It’s not the usual reasons you hear about in terms of asking for a book to be banned, or be removed, it was more that they didn’t like the way things were represented,” said Philippe.
According to the Arizona State University Library Guides, common reasons for banning books include racial issues, encouragement of “damaging” lifestyles and political bias.
In a publicy funded institution full of developing young minds, one might ask who has the power to tell children what they can and cannot read.
“We have something called a collection development policy,” says Philippe. “It’s laid out and it says how we chose the materials, what criteria we use, both in terms of what journals we look at [and] reviews and things like that, [and] we weigh it in terms of curriculum, but they give ultimately the discretion to school librarians to choose what’s in the collection.”
In the privacy of their own homes, parents ultimately have the authority to control what kind of content their child is allowed to read. But at a public school, the process is much more complex.
“If somebody does object, there is kind of protocol you go through, you know, a certain number of people have to read the book, including your building administrator, and everybody writes their opinion based on what somebody was objecting to, whether or not they think it should or should not be removed,” says Philippe.
“Let’s say we all thought the book should stay on the shelf of the library and the parents disagreed with that, then it would probably go to the School Board [or Superintendent].”
Philippe says she feels grateful that in her time at District 65 the Board has never had to complete the protocol for a banned book request. Still, that is not to say that librarians throughout the District have not had to make tough decisions regarding what books should be kept on the shelf.
“In terms of things that haven’t aged well, so to speak, what we do as librarians, both in terms of space but also in terms of content, is we weed our collections,” she says.
However, she says, this is extremely challenging. An example is the esteemed “Little House on the Prairie” series by Laura Ingalls Wilder. In 2018, the American Library Association renamed its Children’s Literature Legacy Award, formerly known as the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award, because content about Native Americans and Black people included in the books was considered offensive.
While librarians want strong, well-rounded collections, which include classic literature such “The Little House on the Prairie,” should a classic or award winning book remain on the shelf if it is considered deeply offensive?
There is no one answer.
“A school library is different from a public library; we have more limited funds and more limited space, so I don’t have the same expectations to keep certain books on the shelf that a public library might. … They have to look at things a little differently,” said Philippe.
In addition to looking at books in terms of content, librarians and book-ban requesters alike may also consider the reputation of the author when deciding whether or not to shelve a book. The controversy around separating the art from the artists is relevant not only in music; it takes places also in libraries throughout the country.
“I mean, J.K. Rowling is an example of that because of her stance against trans women, and that’s deeply offensive – but it doesn’t say that in the books,” says Philippe.
Since the release of the first book in 1997, the Harry Potter series has transformed an entire generation of readers, as well as American pop culture. The seven-book saga of wizards, horcruxes and wands has resulted in a $25 billion franchise, including $7.7 billion in book sales as of 2016. Series author Rowling is the second highest-paid author in the world, despite her outspoken transphobia.
The actual Harry Potter books, though, do not at all convey her transphobic views and are beloved by billions of people and libraries around the world. And yet, since 1999, the Harry Potter books have been consistently challenged for promoting witchcraft, glorifying occult practices and for religious reasons.
Libraries throughout District 65 are stocked with Harry Potter books and the magic that lies within them. Philippe says the most popular books at Nichols School, however, are those that reflect the real world rather than the supernatural world of Harry Potter.
“In terms of books that deal with social justice issues, those are probably our most popular books in school. Because I have a limited budget, there’s different ways to go about purchasing items for the library,” she says.
“You can think about it in terms of ‘Here are the 20 most popular books. I’m going to buy five copies of each book. Or you can look at it and say, ‘I have enough money for 50 books, I’m going to buy one of each different 50 books.’ I always go with the second one. I’d rather have a little of a lot of different things. But, for example, the only book I have four or five copies of is ‘The Hate U Give,’ because that book has always been super popular.”
“The Hate U Give” is a declaration that Black life matters and reflects the all-too-real conflicts arising from police brutality and racism in America. Since it was published in 2017, “The Hate U Give” has won numerous awards, stayed high on The New York Times bestseller list for 50 weeks, and has been turned into a highly praised film – as well as consistently appeared on the American Library Association’s annual list of 10 most frequently banned or challenged books.
In addition to books about social justice issues, books about the LGBTQ+ community are also popular, Philippe says.
As time goes on and the world continues to reshape itself in different ways, different books may be challenged to reflect current controversies. Libraries are adaptable in a similar way.
“A big part of a library collection is, I feel, think[ing] about it like a living, breathing thing,” said Philippe. “It’s constantly changing and evolving, so what was in the library five years ago is not what’s in the library today and won’t be what’s in the library five years from now.”
Content challenges in the ETHS library
For Evanston Township High School Librarian Jessica Chadwick, it can be argued that being drawn to the library is in her blood. Her mother worked as an elementary school librarian in a “more conservative town” compared to Ms. Chadwick’s job as an Instructional and Informational Specialist at ETHS, where she has been for the last 10 years.
“Technically my title is Instructional and Informational Specialist, but for all intents and purposes I’m a library paraprofessional,” she said.
In her decade at the ETHS library, “We have not had any challenges or removal requests,” she said.
“A book doesn’t get banned before it’s challenged. There’s a process to it. First, it’s challenged. Most challenges don’t result in an actual banning,” she added.
“When a book gets challenged, generally what ends up happening is it would go to the School Board. That’s where the ultimate decision would be made.”
Asked whether there is a “typical” request to acquire a book, Chadwick said, “At ETHS the way we determine which books get ordered, is that we have the entire library staff – about six of them – go through selection journals, professional journals where there’s library and publishers who do book reviews. That’s kind of how we make decisions on which books to order.
“There’s certainly consideration for diverse protagonists, storylines, authors, viewpoints.
“A book isn’t always challenged because somebody is uncomfortable with the content, sometimes they’re challenged because they’re presenting outdated representations of people,” Chadwick says, giving the example of “using the N-word without context.”
Chadwick also noted the continual challenges to “The Hate U Give.”
Topics in banned or challenged books have shifted from witchcraft – a frequently unpopular topic more than a decade ago – to more current conversations concerning racism and the LGBTQ+ community.
The ETHS librarians presented an optional session for teachers and “when we looked at the statistics, we found that six out of the 10 titles featured alternative lifestyles. I would say in recent years that the books on the top-10 list tended to feature LGBTQ+ protagonists or they explicitly discussed racism in a way that makes people uncomfortable,” said Chadwick.
The Evanston Public Library
One of the more noted librarians in American lore is Marian the librarian in the 1962 musical “The Music Man.” Marian defended the library’s collections from attacks by the mayor’s wife and her friends, who knew the dangers in “dirty books” written by such scoundrels as Chaucer, Rabelais and Balzac. James Joyce’s “Ulysses” and Edward Fitzgerald’s translation of “The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám” also made the musical’s hit list.
More than 100 years after the 1912 setting and hundreds of miles removed from the fictional rural town of River City, Iowa, Karen Danczak Lyons recently began her 10th year as Director of the Evanston Public Library.
During that time, she says, “No one has tried to ban a book. There have been suggestions from some parents suggesting that a particular book instead of being in the children’s section should be in the teen section, and then we carefully take a look at that.
“[The EPL is] against banning books, and I view the public library, and especially the Evanston Public Library, as a place to have difficult conversations and explore uncomfortable topics, and we have done that and we continue to do that.
“In some cases we have moved materials because parents have suggested it and we’ve looked at it and said, ‘Yeah, you’re probably right,’ whether it’s the content, the level of vocabulary, or just the reading level that you’d need to read the book, it is more appropriately in with the teen section.
“If a parent does not want their child to read or view or learn something, that is the parent’s responsibility for their child.”
She added, though, “But for an individual to speak on behalf of an entire society or entire community, I don’t think any one individual should have that power. To say, ‘I disagree with a point of view, I disagree with a fact, I disagree with the content of a book, and therefore no one else should have the opportunity to read or view or think about this and decide for themselves,’ – I don’t think anyone should have that power.
“Now the power to suggest that [a book should be moved], that’s a little different than saying, ‘you have no right to freely read this.’ I think the public library is one of the most democratic institutions we have because everyone is welcome and everyone doesn’t have to agree.
“Decisions about what materials to purchase are carefully considered,” Lyons said.
“That does not mean we don’t include in our collection things that someone would find objectionable or someone would disagree with a point of view of the way an argument is presented. But we try and have both sides of different issues so that people can explore and make their own decisions. But whether it’s our website and our digital resources or our print resources, we try to have material that has been professionally and critically reviewed and that is factual.
The policies for collections and the procedure to request that a book be banned are both on the Library’s website, epl.org.
“Evanston is an urban library, so we have residents that are heads of multinational companies; we have billionaires; we have immigrants who have never been to a public library and don’t understand that they don’t have to pay and that they can take the material and bring it back. We have residents of all ages who are struggling with homelessness and mental illness. [We have] Northwestern University and all the professors and researchers there, two hospitals, Rotary International. So we have a wide variety of a 75,000-member community that we need to serve and try and meet the needs of. We also have differing points of view and lively debate, and have liberal members of our community as well as conservative.
“These are all things that I think we’re all exploring and recognizing, that there have been deficiencies in what’s been written. And [we’re] trying to recognize that there’s been underrepresentation of authors’ points of view. Lived experience are things that through our work, we’re trying to correct.
“We sent a librarian to Guadalajara to the book fair for a couple days… to bring works in Spanish, written originally in Spanish by [LatinX] authors with lived experience to supplement our works in Spanish. We’ve got an advisory meeting of local Black residents to help us with that part of our collection.”
Ms. Lyons adds, “I’m lucky to be practicing in our public library. … We have residents of a variety of backgrounds, so there’s more room to have different points of view.
“Everyone is welcome, and they’re welcome to explore whatever they’re curious about and informs their point of view.
“We’re lucky to live where we live, in Evanston, where there’s maybe not agreement, but no one is running to the doors of the Evanston Public Library saying, ‘here’s a long list of books you have to ban.’ It’s just not happening.”
The American Library Association says the annual Banned Books Week celebrates the freedom to read and spotlights current and historical attempts to censor books in libraries and schools.
This year’s theme is “Books Unite Us. Censorship Divides Us.” The books featured during Banned Books Week “have all been targeted for removal or restriction in libraries and schools. By focusing on efforts across the country to remove or restrict access to books, Banned Books Week draws national attention to the harms of censorship,” according to the ALA website.
A book or set of materials is “challenged” when there is an attempt to remove or restrict materials, based upon the objections of a person or group. Materials that are removed are “banned.”
In 2020, the ALA tracked 273 books that were challenged in 156 separate cases. Here is their list of the Top 10 Most Challenged Books of 2020, along with the reasons cited for censoring the books:
- “George” by Alex Gino
Reasons: Challenged, banned and restricted for LGBTQIA+ content, conflicting with a religious viewpoint, and not reflecting “the values of our community.”
- “Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You” by Ibram X. Kendi and Jason Reynolds
Reasons: Banned and challenged because of author’s public statements, and because of claims that the book contains “selective storytelling incidents” and does not encompass racism against all people
- “All American Boys” by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely
Reasons: Banned and challenged for profanity, drug use and alcoholism, and because it was thought to promote anti-police views, contain divisive topics and be “too much of a sensitive matter right now”
- “Speak” by Laurie Halse Anderson
Reasons: Banned, challenged, and restricted because it was thought to contain a political viewpoint, was biased against male students, and included rape and profanity
- “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” by Sherman Alexie
Reasons: Banned and challenged for profanity, sexual references and allegations of sexual misconduct by the author
- “Something Happened in Our Town: A Child’s Story About Racial Injustice” by Marianne Celano, Marietta Collins, and Ann Hazzard, illustrated by Jennifer Zivoin
Reasons: Challenged for “divisive language” and because it was thought to promote anti-police views
- “To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee
Reasons: Banned and challenged for racial slurs and their negative effect on students, featuring a “white savior” character, and its perception of the Black experience
- “Of Mice and Men” by John Steinbeck
Reasons: Banned and challenged for racial slurs and racist stereotypes, and their negative effect on students
- “The Bluest Eye” by Toni Morrison
Reasons: Banned and challenged because it was considered sexually explicit and depicts child sexual abuse
- “The Hate U Give” by Angie Thomas
Reasons: Challenged for profanity, and it was thought to promote an anti-police message