Libraries report record number of book ban attempts

The American Library Association documented 1,269 efforts to ban library books and resources last year.
FILE – Amanda Darrow, director of youth, family and education programs at the Utah Pride Center, poses with books that have been the subject of complaints from parents in Salt Lake City on Dec. 16, 2021. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, File)

Library systems across the nation recorded attempts to censor, ban or limit more than 2,500 books, a record number that reflects a growing cultural schism over the availability of books that deal with issues of sexuality and gender orientation.

An annual report released Wednesday by the American Library Association documented 1,269 efforts to ban library books and resources last year, the largest number since the group began keeping track more than two decades ago and almost twice the number of challenges lodged the previous year.

Parents or concerned activists who sought to ban books targeted 2,571 unique titles, up 38% from the year before, the association said. The vast majority of the titles targeted for censorship or removal are about or by members of the LGBTQ community and people of color.

“Overwhelmingly, we’re seeing these challenges come from organized censorship groups that target local library board meetings to demand removal of a long list of books they share on social media,” said Deborah Caldwell-Stone, director of the ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom. “Their aim is to suppress the voices of those traditionally excluded from our nation’s conversations, such as people in the LGBTQIA+ community or people of color.”

In many cases, the association said those who challenged books lodged objections to a substantial list of titles. About four in 10 challenges included efforts to ban 100 or more titles.

A concerted push by conservative states to limit the rights of transgender adults and minors has brought with it a new focus on titles that address the experience of LGBTQ people, Black people and other minority groups.

Last year, five of the 10 most-challenged books charted by the ALA dealt with LGBTQ themes that opponents called sexually explicit. Others on the most-challenged list contained depictions of abuse, sexual content or violence. Titles by Sherman Alexie and Toni Morrison were among those that received the most complaints.

Lawmakers in dozens of states have introduced legislation dealing with libraries and the responsibilities — and at times liabilities — librarians have when lending books. 

The Idaho Senate this week approved a bill that would allow parents to sue libraries if they lend “harmful” material to children. The bill, which must still be approved by the state House, would limit books that include any act of homosexuality. 

Illinois lawmakers on Wednesday approved a measure that would prohibit libraries from banning books because of partisan or religious reasons. The bill, backed by Secretary of State Alexi Giannoulias (D), would require libraries to establish a written policy against banning books as a condition for receiving state grants.

Bills introduced in North Dakota could expose librarians to jail time if they display sexually explicit materials where minors may be present. The Texas House Public Education Committee debated legislation this week that would require book vendors to rate books based on their sexual content. The Indiana Senate voted Tuesday to ban materials that are deemed “harmful to children” from school libraries. And the Iowa Senate approved a bill Wednesday to remove school library books that depict sexual acts, part of a broader push to limit teaching about gender identity or sexual orientation.

A new poll released this week shows Americans are broadly in favor of keeping government out of book-banning decisions. 

The survey, conducted by Iowa-based pollster Ann Selzer on behalf of Grinnell College, found 57% of Americans believe school librarians should play a big part in decisions about what materials to include in school libraries; 55% said students should play a big role in those decisions, and 53% said families should be significantly involved.

Just 17% said elected officials at the state level should have a big part in library decisions, the poll found.

Asked what topics should be included in a public middle school library, 84% said the Bible was appropriate to include, 76% said books dealing with racism in society should be included, and 67% said both the Quran and creationism were appropriate. Majorities said gender identity (57%) and sexual orientation (56%) were appropriate topics to cover.

“Even as public schools across the country are seeing demands to remove books from their libraries and classrooms, we find that the majority of Americans believe that school libraries should include a diverse array of educational materials,” said Peter Hanson, who directs the Grinnell College National Poll. “This is a strong signal that Americans believe a sound education requires students to have access to a rich array of books and resources on topics that are interesting and important to them.”

Some parents are pushing back on the conservative move to limit books in libraries. In Utah, the Salt Lake Tribune reported that one parent submitted a request that a school district in Davis County review one particular title that includes “incest, onanism, bestiality, prostitution, genital mutilation, fellatio, dildos, rape, and even infanticide.”

“You’ll no doubt find that the Bible, under Utah Code Ann. § 76-10-1227, has ‘no serious values for minors’ because it’s pornographic by our new definition.”