Featured, Library, Reading and Literacy, Social Justice

Librarians vs. Book Bans: In Defense of Literature

Librarians vs. Book Bans: In Defense of Literature

Originally published June 2024

By Adam Stone

The number of books targeted for censorship in America increased by 65 percent in 2023, with 4,240 titles targeted for removal from schools and libraries, the American Library Association (ALA) reports. That’s the highest level ever documented in more than 20 years of tracking.

There’s a clear agenda here. “Recent censorship data are evidence of a growing, well-organized, conservative political movement, the goals of which include removing books about race, history, gender identity, sexuality, and reproductive health from America’s public and school libraries that do not meet their approval,” according to ALA.

In this environment, librarians—and school librarians in particular—find themselves on the front lines of the culture wars.

“We’ve had librarians who’ve been doxed, people sharing where they work or where they live. We’ve had librarians who’ve received death threats. We have had librarians [whose jobs have] been made so difficult that they don’t feel that they can continue in their positions,” says Courtney Pentland, president of the American Association of School Librarians, and a school librarian herself, in a Nebraska school district.

“For people who are in districts where it’s very contentious, the stress level is obviously that much higher. But everybody is feeling the stress,” she adds.

A recent study released by First Book Research & Insights found that 15 percent of educators have preemptively removed books from their libraries, out of concerns about possible challenges. But maybe self-censorship isn’t the answer. Even in the current environment, experts say, there is much librarians to can do to keep books available—and to keep up their own professional morale.

The Big Picture

At a high level, librarians can get out in front of potential book challenges by helping the community at large to see the bigger picture.

“A lot of it comes down to education. I see so much misunderstanding and misinformation,” says Julianne Buonocore, founder of the book and lifestyle blog The Literary Lifestyle.

People need to know first that “these are books deemed age-appropriate by experts in the field. They are not age-inappropriate books,” she explains. And they need to understand why those books are on the shelf in the first place. Libraries are all about “making books available…for those who wish to read them. It is not about forcing children to read certain books.”

Of course, “parents can still be involved in deciding whether to allow their children to check these books out of the library,” Buonocore says. “The school is not forcing anyone to read [them].”

In the current political climate, however, this kind of outreach alone may not be sufficient to stop people from challenging books. When those challenges arise, there is much librarians can do to push back.

1. Know the law

When book-banning efforts arise, “the biggest problem that we run into is that school boards and administrators are not necessarily well-briefed on the matters of the Constitution and state and federal law around civil rights protections,” says John Chrastka, founder of EveryLibrary, an organization that supports dozens of state and local anti-censorship efforts in schools and public libraries. 

As an example, he points to the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark Pico Case (formally the Board of Education, Island Trees Union Free School District No. 26 v. Pico), calling it “the only decision dedicated to school libraries that matters.”

Under that ruling, “school libraries are a place of ‘voluntary inquiry,’ and a student’s rights to read don’t end at the schoolhouse door,” Chrastka says. That means “you cannot prohibit students’ access to reading materials based on viewpoint, doctrinal issues—the slant, as it were.”

In the U.S. there are Civil Rights statues, as well, that apply to potential book bans. Librarians should know the law, and help other decision makers to understand it, as a first step toward framing their responses to challenges.

2. Enlist allies

It’s easy to feel isolated right now, especially if you’re the only librarian in a school where books are being targeted. In reality, “you’re not alone,” Pentland says. “There are many people who are going through the same thing.”

Librarians can rally support close to home, bringing in English teachers, history instructors, ESL educators, and others with an educational interest in the books that are under fire. They can also connect with their larger professional community.

“The school librarian community is so giving and so willing to rally and support each other,” says Pentland. “If you are feeling isolated, reach out to your state association, reach out to the national associations. They can connect with people who understand you and can get you the support you need.”


At the New Jersey Association of School Librarians, for example, “we can give advice: ‘This is how to approach your board’” when books are challenged, says Amy Penwell, leader of the association’s regional response team. “We can tell you: ‘This is what you need to tell your school administrator. This is how you should be communicating with parents.’”

The associations can even rally resources to back a librarian in fighting a proposed ban. They can often supply expert testimony, for example, so that librarians don’t have to go it alone. “The people that are challenging books are networked and supported, and we need to do the same,” Penwell notes.

3. Elevate your profile

When it comes to reading, librarians are the experts. In order to operate effectively at a time when books are on the chopping block, they should be proactive in elevating their credentials. They need to communicate to parents, and to the community at large, the true nature of their expertise.

Librarians know that “all viewpoints deserve to be represented in collections,” says Kent Oliver, senior fellow at the American Library Association Public Policy and Advocacy Office. “They subscribe to the notion that parents have the right to determine what books their children read, but no one parent or group of parents has the right to decide for all families in a community what everyone may read.”

With this in mind, “librarians need to be strong advocates for their profession and professional practices,” he says. “They must create awareness so that the public understands the role they play in developing a critical learning environment where students and children develop lifelong skills.”

4. Follow the policies

Every school district will have a policy in place for how library books are to be chosen. To forestall challenges, and defend against them when they arise, librarians need to follow those polices and document their actions.

If a parent simply raises a question about a book, those policies can help frame the response. “You can have a personal conversation with them and say: ‘This was carefully curated, for this reason, and it had this many positive reviews,’” says Donna Mignardi, president of the Maryland Association of School Librarians and a high school librarian at Calvert High School.

While that may not put out the fire, adherence to a formal selection process puts the librarian in a stronger position to respond to a banning effort. “If a reconsideration challenge comes up, you can refer to the fact that you followed the selection and evaluation policy,” she explains.

5. Revisit those policies

Speaking of policies, it’s possible that these may be out of date. Not just the ones that describe how a book is chosen, but also those laying out what happens when a title is called into question.

“In the past, policies maybe didn’t need to be quite as detailed. They didn’t need to ask for quite as much information,” says Alexandra Patterson, director of library services at Mercersburg Academy.

While the Pennsylvania private school hasn’t had any book challenges, Patterson has had to respond to a growing number of anxious queries. “I fielded more questions than ever this year about the types of things that we have in our collection,” she says. “We have had folks asking questions, because of things that they’ve heard in the media about particular books or authors, and how we might be handling that.”

In that kind of environment, Patterson notes, librarians across the board should be taking a fresh look at the policies the govern their work, and advocating for change if necessary.

“People should be thinking their book-reconsideration policies really thoroughly, before they need it,” she adds.

“Is anyone allowed to challenge a book, or only particular types of constituents? Is any book up for grabs? What does it mean to submit a request for reconsideration? Those front-end policies should include [questions] like: ‘Have you examined the entire resource? If not, which sections did you review?’”

When challenges arise, “you need to know what exactly is objectionable to the individual who’s bringing that challenge,” Patterson explains. That means a revised policy will demand a higher level of specificity than in the past.

* * *

Librarians can collaborate with professional peers and like-minded educators to push back against calls for book bans. They can help to craft stronger policies in the face of expected challenges, and they can document adherence to those policies when questions arise about particular titles.

Of course, librarians alone aren’t going to stop the tidal wave of censorship that’s sweeping through the educational system these days—if it can be stopped at all. But they can at least establish themselves on a stronger footing, as they ride out this difficult moment.

Adam Stone is a seasoned journalist with 20+ years’ experience. He covers education, technology, government and the military, along with diverse other topics.