by Steven J. Bell, Associate University Librarian, Temple University Libraries
My original title for this post was “Do Academic Librarians Care About Book Challenges?” I realized it was a stupid question. Of course they care. Anyone who practices or participates in this profession in any capacity or who calls themselves a librarian, not to mention most open-minded people, is deeply concerned about and offended by any effort to censor librarian practices or create laws or regulations to control what they may and may not purchase for their collections. Our practice is to engage with our communities to earn their respect and support for our professionalism and judgment in determining what materials belong in the collections to which we provide access.
Materials challenges have been going on for years in this country. While public and K-12 school library collections are the traditional target of censors, they are now under attack at heretofore unseen levels. ALA reported receiving an unprecedented 330 challenges in fall 2021. This increase suggests a movement is morphing from the occasional parent or fringe group effort into something more sinister. What is emerging is a far more organized strategy in which state legislatures or regional school boards now take official, government sanctioned steps to prevent the public display or borrowing of whatever books they deem unsuitable for America’s children. We need look no further than the decision by a Tennessee school board to ban the graphic novel Maus.
While academic libraries have thus far avoided the material challenges experienced by public and school libraries, our parent institutions are feeling the wrath of those who want to place similar controls on what faculty may and may not teach in their classrooms – and even what they say publicly as private citizens. One of the more troubling trends of 2021, was action taken by some state legislative bodies to interfere with the operation of public colleges and universities. Whether it’s firing administrators, appointing partisan political appointees into high-level positions of authority, placing restrictions on faculty rights, or other strange attempts to question the operations of higher education, the notion of an independent American public college and university system is an increasingly endangered concept. It is quite likely these challenges will only grow worse and potentially even more egregious in 2022.
These worrisome developments require higher education institutions and their workers to acknowledge that what we once thought was unthinkable, the overt intrusion of politics into the daily operations of our institutions, is increasingly become an accepted reality. Backroom politics has always played some role in public higher education, whether it was the appointment of trustees or chancellors or deals made to get funding approvals. This is different. We’ve now crossed a threshold into some new and radically strange territory. The political maneuvering has shifted from behind the curtain to playing out right before our eyes in a heightened, threatening way.
Whatever anger results from these developments, academic librarians still have the luxury of telling themselves materials challenges only happen to public and school libraries. They may believe it could never happen on their campus. How could it? Those long-standing practices and policies supporting academic and intellectual freedom should adequately provide a form of material challenge immunity. But what if academic libraries are eventually seen as new, fertile territory for materials challenges. We might think it is simple for adults to understand that college-age students have the mental capacity to handle controversial and radical ideas. Who could fail to recognize that it contributes to a well-rounded education and the collections of academic libraries have supported the curriculum for ages. If foundational structures of higher education such as academic freedom and tenure can come under attack, what is that makes academic library collections sacred, untouchable ground.
Perhaps this line of thinking is alarmist or simply the product of an out-of-control imagination. The rise in materials challenges might just be a sign of the times, sparked by the COVID pandemic, racial unrest, the rising tide of authoritarian governments and a whole host of other socio-economic developments. When we return to normal or whatever passes for normal, all this will pass we may think. Our profession may not have the luxury of waiting. What can academic librarianship do now? Here are some possibilities:
- Raise the alarm about this issue on our campuses to engage our non-library colleagues. One possibility is to organize faculty discussion panels on how higher education would most effectively resist materials challenges;
- Invite librarians who have fought book challenges to speak at our professional development events so that we may learn from their successes and failures;
- Speak out at disciplinary conferences about the need for academia to pay more attention to materials challenges in an effort to raise consciousness and create new allies to support this cause;
- Consider working with your faculty senate to pass a freedom to read statement or resolution that commits the institution to condemning or opposing any form of censorship or forced removal of materials from libraries;
- Activate now to identify allies in local and state government who will be ready to serve in the defense of academic libraries should such challenges materialize;
- Connect with faculty who are already or may be interested in incorporating readings or discussions about book banning into their curriculum as a way to bring our students into this conversation.
Let’s learn from our public and school library colleagues what they experience when materials challenges occur and how they cope and battle back. These conversations could lead to additional strategies we can employ now to join with these colleagues to create a united front to resist book banning. As we well know, if we choose to remain silent now, who will be there to speak out in defense of the integrity of academic library collections when they come for us.
About the Author: Steven J. Bell is the Associate University Librarian at Temple University Libraries. His past blogs have included The Kept-Up Academic Librarian and Designing Better Libraries. He started the blog ACRLog in 2005 and was its primary contributor through 2011. Between 2009 and 2019 he authored two monthly columns, “From the Bell Tower” and “Leading From the Library” for Library Journal. You can learn more about Steven at http://stevenbell.info or follow him on twitter @blendedlib