Growing up in Milwaukee, the local branch of the public library was always just a bus ride away. But when my family moved to central Pennsylvania when I was entering high school, we lived in a rural region that didn’t even have a public library.
In the ‘90s, before the internet was widely available, the loss of a robust library system left me feeling cut off from the world. This is one reason I’ve spent the last 20 years living in a rural community, where I serve as library director for a school district.
After decades building resources and capacity in our small school districts, some of which don’t even have a public library, it’s been devastating to see the growing ferocity of attacks against our libraries over the past couple of years.
More than half of U.S. state legislatures have proposed or passed bills that would severely restrict access to information, threaten First Amendment rights, and punish entire communities by withholding funding critical library services — all for the sake of keeping books off the shelf that do not suit the taste of a few individuals.
Our small town school districts and public libraries are facing immense pressure from national groups that turn massive external funding into fake grassroots outrage in our communities. The grassroots origins are fake, but the outrage is very real.
The outrage we see on the news is not a reflection of our small towns: It’s imported by groups that aim to overwhelm and tear down our public schools and libraries. Book challenges of yesteryear were often sparked by a child bringing home a single book that prompted parents’ concerns. Today’s attempts to ban books are overwhelmingly driven by externally generated lists.
According to the American Library Association, 40 percent book challenges in 2022 involved requests to ban 100 or more books at a time. Most of these books were either by or about LGBTQ+ folks and people of color.
This outrage over diversity in literature does not reflect the increasing diversity in our small towns. According to the Housing Assistance Council, in 2018 there were more than 2,000 rural and small-town census tracts where racial and ethnic minorities made up the majority of the population. In another study, the Movement Advancement Project in 2019 showed that an estimated 3 million or more LGBTQ+ people called rural America home.
When censors come after books that reflect the diversity in a community, they’re attempting to erase the stories of community members themselves.
School librarians like me strive to build diverse collections that bring the world to the shelves of every town and ensure that every reader finds their story. When readers find their own stories in a library, they read more and grow into lifelong learners.
Such robust collections are built through professional — not ideological — standards, and every student benefits.
Access to books that represent a variety of cultures and viewpoints may boost a student’s development and well-being, according to a 2022 white paper from the Unite Against Book Bans coalition. Diverse books also cultivate empathy and provide a springboard for families to have meaningful conversations.
From coast to coast and across the heartland, Americans remain overwhelmingly committed to libraries, despite what manufacturers of moral panic may claim.
Recent polling shows large majorities of voters across party lines reject the idea of banning books from school and public libraries. Ninety percent of voters have high regard and trust for librarians, and similar percentages say that school and public libraries play an important role in their community.
As we move into National Library Week, I hope Americans will join me and 90 percent of our neighbors in supporting libraries and librarians — and in rejecting the manufactured outrage of book banning groups.