Navigating Challenges and Advocating for the Freedom to Read

HVLA Winter meeting 2023

Book challenges – something most (probably all) of us dread thinking about. However, many HVLA members braved the topic and came out last week to hear the fascinating and valuable perspectives of a panel of experts. The discussion was eye opening and supportive, and we have some takeaways to share!

Moderator Christine Nassar and audience members got a chance to ask questions of five people with direct professional experience in this arena. They were:

  • Leanne Ellis – School Library Instructional Coordinator, NYCDOE
  • Vincent Hyland – Library Coordinator, North Brooklyn Office of Library Services, NYCDOE
  • Kyle Lukoff – Newbery Honor author,  former HVLA Membership Coordinator
  • Kacey Meehan – Program Director, Freedom to Read
  • Christy Payne – Director of Library & Information Services, The Dalton School

The presentation began with an acknowledgement that book challenges have recently (past 1-2 years) spiked compared to previous eras. Kacey gave us some insight into the change, explaining that there are now well-organized grassroots groups that publish lists of books to target, with sample text to use about reasons, and even information about which libraries contain those books. This has been coupled with legislative action on the state level and political organizing at the township or school board level. Many of us will be familiar with headlines from Florida, Tennessee, Pennsylvania, and other places. Christy was able to provide a detailed story of her own brush with one such grassroots group, whose stated mission included gaining positions in local school boards in order to push specific religious values into public schools. 

Aside from scenarios in which specific titles are removed from shelves (what we think of as a “ban”) there are plenty of other ways to challenge a book or restrict freedom of expression and access to information. Kyle was able to describe some of the ways having one’s books challenged (or banned) might have a chilling effect on one’s career, such as reducing or complicating potential speaking engagements. Both Kyle and Christy spoke to the toxic harassment that can befall an author or librarian on the Internet, which can have implications for personal safety and wellbeing. 

Lest we fall into the common trap of believing that book challenges happen primarily in other places or in other times, Leanne and Vincent shared the story of a recent challenge to a book in a NYC middle school. They walked us through the review process, which included reference to a recently updated collection development policy, convening a panel that included different constituents from the school community and librarians, thoughtful reading of the book in question, and then a final recommendation about whether to keep, restrict, or remove the book (it got to stay!). Having such a process planned in advance is key, although Christy’s experience is a reminder that even when such a policy is on the books, it may not be followed.

A few takeaway thoughts…

  • It can help to review protocols for challenged materials early and often with administrators, to ensure that everyone is on the same page before a specific book (or material) is named. Have you had a recent change in administrators? Do they know what policy you have in your filing cabinet from several years ago?
  • Many independent schools (not all) do not have teacher unions like the one that Christy worked with in Delaware. In this scenario, building relationships of trust to show the library’s value and service to the community is especially important. A librarian in a pickle may need to reach out to other organizations (see below) in the event of a truly contentious situation. 
  • Many of our schools are interested to hear what their schools are doing, and so librarians within HVLA may find it particularly helpful to share policies and protocols with each other. How else can our association help to support librarians in navigating challenges?
  • We must continue to examine our own internal biases, considering whether we are quietly censoring authors or effectively banning books because we are nervous or do not understand something. Is our job to provide access to diverse ideas, information, and opinions… or is it to curate and promote only approved messages?
  • Students have rights, and the ACLU has a branch that is dedicated to preserving students’ rights within school settings. These rights have been interpreted to include access to the free speech of others.

Additional resources:

One thought on “Navigating Challenges and Advocating for the Freedom to Read”

  1. As a retired school librarian, I am appalled at what is happening with book banning throughout the country, and want to know what I can do to advocate for the freedom to read, and think, and make decisions that are not dictated by restrictive politics. What can I do? When I go to the ALA website, or United Against Book Bans, I don’t see much for me to act on, considering that I live in New York State, where this is not an issue. I want to raise my voice for those librarians, and readers, in other states whose freedoms are being taken away. Please let me know how I can participate in the campaign to stop book banning.

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