Counter Book Banning With Book Sanctuaries

It seems incongruous to have members of the Proud Boys complain about a book at a local library. Unless there was a plan to scale the building or enter and threaten patrons it seems odd to have that right-wing organization involved with books. Or engaging with the ongoing book-banning conversation in the nation.  But in Downers Grove, Illinois group members objected to an autobiographical novel in a school library about nonbinary author Maia Kobabe’s journey of gender identity.  After the needless controversy, Gender Queer was unanimously voted by the school board to remain on the shelves.

This is but one of the far too many episodes where an attempt at censoring books and limiting ideas and removing varying perspectives on bookshelves has been undertaken by conservatives in the United States.  Not all such cases, sadly, are concluded as soundly as with the Downer Grove school board.  That then begs the question of what route can be taken to limit the damage from those who feel threatened by living in the 21st century?  While some conservatives are hell-bent on limiting exposure to the lives and experiences of people of color and LGBTQ+ people, it is important to know a move to counter the book banners is gaining traction.

The idea seems to have started in Chicago and is centered around a rather fundamental cornerstone. The city’s public library system has grounded itself as an institution fully committed to upholding the First Amendment Rights of all citizens, wherein books and the right to read them are front and center and where the well-heeled political groups have no undue influence. There is a procedure for complaints, but the first hurdle to cross would be the First Amendment.

The Chicago Sun-Times ran an article about this concept, which echoes the disdain that authors, readers, librarians, and teachers have registered against the ones who find censorship an embraceable action. 

Chicago hasn’t faced any battles over which books to make available, so library Commissioner Chris Brown said the city library system has more freedom to respond to the issue than many. He said any place can be a book sanctuary.

“It can be in your house, it can be in a community center, it can be in a school and also a library,” Brown said.

People seem to be catching on to the idea. Brown said more than 1,300 people viewed and downloaded materials that the Chicago library system first made available online last fall to help them get started. The library isn’t keeping track of who is downloading the kits. He said protecting challenged titles is part of the legacy of Chicago’s libraries.

According to the library association, which is based in Chicago, there were 67 attempts to ban books last year in Illinois, up from 41 such efforts in 2021. It says the number of book ban attempts has been on the rise in recent years, with 681 such moves involving more than 1,600 titles throughout the United States in 2021. That’s the most attempts the association has seen since it began tracking these numbers 20 years ago. According to ALA statistics, 44% of challenges to books happen in school libraries and 37% in public libraries, with sexually explicit material the No. 1 reason cited.

Tracie Hall, executive director of the library association, said the rise in book-banning efforts could be due to an increasingly polarized political climate nationwide. She said there’s a focus on books representing the lives and experiences of people of color and LGBTQ+ people.

“The way that power is hoarded, sometimes the way reading is politicized is an attempt to get to something that’s much deeper than just a joy of reading,” Hall said. “It’s really trying to restrict political, economic and social access.”

I fully understand the importance of books and their introduction of new ideas and countless perspectives.  I was a boy in rural Wisconsin with my local library providing the light and opening to the vast world beyond the town limits. I can speak to reading at a higher level than my peers from an early age, and why venturing into topics and arguments about issues that define our humanity allowed me to become the man I am today.  Book banning and censorship are reprehensible.  Book sanctuaries are an idea that must be furthered coast to coast.

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