Illinois librarians prepare for more book bans, challenges

Librarians statewide are preparing to meet an influx of book challenges if a nationwide censorship trend comes to Illinois.

“We’ve not seen as many widespread orchestrated challenges or campaigns in this state yet,” said Diane Foote, executive director of the Illinois Library Association. “But we do expect challenges, thinking it’s only a matter of time. Everyone’s poised and ready in case it happens. ”

Librarians are trained to be open and responsive to individuals who question their policies on developing collections, a practice those in the library industry call collection development. They also have policies for removing or moving books, known as a reconsideration policy.

They might be less prepared for a new type of challenge librarians across the country have seen growing in the past year. Organized efforts to ban books from public and school libraries have popped up in Missouri, Idaho, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia and other states.

“We’re seeing these organized groups of people who are trying to gin up local grounds to remove books or prevent other people from getting them,” Foote said. “These larger orchestrated efforts seem to be more about control than about a legitimate concern over materials. They want to assert their control over what other people can see, and that’s counter to the First Amendment. It’s counter to library ethics and libraries’ purpose for existing. ”

If censorship efforts do come to Illinois, librarians will have to rely on their policies to protect books.

In response to the trend, one of the state’s biggest library sharing systems, the Illinois Heartland Library System, updated its resources in June for libraries facing book challenges, according to executive director Leslie Bednar.

“We were cognizant of what has been going on around us, not necessarily in our state but around the nation,” Bednar said. “It seemed like there was more information we could share with our members.”

Book challenges in Illinois have been scattered. There’s little appetite in state legislature, which has a Democratic super majority, to control library collection development policies, unlike in other states such as Kentucky.

Yet book challenges have appeared in Illinois, mostly in schools.

In Mascoutah in early April, a mother questioned the school district about why her first-grade son was able to check out the 2012 graphic novel “Drama,” said Assistant Superintendent Cindy Presnell. The book features gay characters, and the mom wasn’t prepared to “have a conversation about some of the things brought up by what the child saw in the book,” Presnell said.

The parent did not want the book banned from the school, but had questions about how the school determines if the books are age-appropriate.

Administration removed the book from library shelves district-wide while they went through their book reconsideration policy. When a complaint is made about a book in the Mascoutah district, Presnell starts reviewing the book with a committee of school staff, including librarians, teachers, administration and a social worker.

“We took a pause because the parent had talked about what is age appropriate and what isn’t,” Presnell said. “We thought, ‘Let’s not check it out until we have an opportunity to review and determine if we need to do something different.'”

Staff eventually decided to return the book to shelves at all schools. The book had been around for a decade, and kids love graphic novels. They’re a good way to “motivate the reader,” Presnell said. The committee also found the book was “about choices and treating individuals as truly that, individuals, and being respectful of one another,” she said.

“We have to be mindful that we really are here to support, keep safe and educate all students,” Presnell added. “(The book) does reflect some of our student body.”

Parents can ask school librarians to prevent their children from checking out certain books or genres. The district was “respectful of the parents’ decision and they were respectful of what the district decided,” Presnell said, but that’s not always how it goes.

In Downers Grove, members of the extremist group Proud Boys joined an effort to ban the book “Gender Queer: A Memoir from a high school library.” In La Grange, a parent read passages from a book at a school board meeting in an attempt to demonstrate “explicit language,” according to the Illinois Library Association.

When challenges arise, librarians rely on their policies.

“If you don’t have a policy in place to back you up, you have no argument,” said Leah Gregory, a school liaison coordinator for the Heartland system. She helped school librarians in Mascoutah develop the successful argument to support keeping “Drama” on shelves.

Collection development and reconsideration policies are meant to guide librarians through challenges and questions. But they’re also meant to protect everyone’s right to access information from all points of view without restriction, or their intellectual freedom, according to the American Library Association.

“When I’m arguing book challenges, I say, ‘I respect your right as a parent to limit what your child reads. I just do not believe you should have the right to limit what everybody else reads, ‘”Gregory said.

The same goes for public libraries. Books remain on the shelf even if they don’t appeal to everybody because someone else might want to check them out.

“You are not able to make that decision for everybody else,” Foote said.

Increasingly, school librarians she talks to say they’re encountering parents who want to control what other children read.

“We’re all prepared for it to get a lot worse,” Gregory said.

Librarians preparing for more book challenges

Censorship efforts don’t just affect school libraries. Public libraries often face blowback for their content.

Between June and September last year, there were 155 book challenges nationwide, according to the American Library Association’s Office of Intellectual Freedom. The number in September marked a 60% increase from the previous year.

“In my twenty years with (the American Library Association), I can’t recall a time when we had multiple challenges coming in on a daily basis,” said Deborah Caldwell-Stone, director of the intellectual freedom office.

Head librarian Leander Spearman at the Belleville Public Library says he welcomes questions and concerns about his collection. He keeps a form titled “request for reconsideration of a book” if someone wants to fill it out, but no one has ever done so since he started working there 11 years ago.

Filling out the form is the first step in a review process to attempt to get a book removed from the library.

Most people who come into the library with a complaint about a book just want their voice heard and it stops there, Spearman said. It usually has to do with race or the LGBTQ community.

“There’s been a big stink about books dealing with the (LGBTQ) subject matter especially for kids, helping kids understand it, because they really don’t think kids need to know that there’s gay people out there,” Spearman said.

Providing that kind of content is an essential part of what a library does, Foote said.

“The public library is for everyone but not every book in it is for everyone,” she said.

Spearman is prepared to explain his responsibility as a librarian if there is an uptick in book challenges.

“Libraries have to cater to all populations, so we intentionally and deliberately try to make sure we have something that appeals to everybody, racial backgrounds, ethinic, religious, political,” Spearman said. “We’ve got books I personally don’t agree with, but this isn’t about what I want to read. It’s about what the community at large wants to read. ”

Ryan Johnson, head librarian of the public library in O’Fallon, said his library’s policies help prevent personal beliefs and preferences from affecting decisions on which books to buy or retire from their collection.

Johnson and his staff consider certain questions when making those decisions. Which books have patrons checked out? What are a library’s top authors, top genres and top formats? What are the current best-sellers? Has there been an item with a top review in publications for libraries? What books have patrons been asking for?

“It really just boils down to representation,” Johnson said.

Censoring books does a disservice to taxpayers who support their local library, Foote said.

“If these books are taken off the shelves, there’s real people who live among you who would be denied representation,” Foote said. “The community is not one voice, not one person. Librarians are trained to serve everybody in the community. ”

What is a library collection policy?

A collection policy is a public, written document that specifies how and why a library plans to serve its patrons.

“It’s important for people to know that purchasing decisions for library materials do have a lot of time and thought and effort put behind them,” said Johnson of the O’Fallon library. “It’s not just someone going on Amazon and throwing a bunch of items in a cart and checking out. There’s policies in place, there’s procedures, there’s budgets. There’s a lot of checks and balances and a lot of professional energy put into doing it as right as possible. ”

Library staff and boards routinely review their policies publicly, providing opportunities for people to comment.

Belleville’s collection development policy specifically emphasizes materials that address current events, local history, genealogy and education for K-8 students. It explains why the library would retire a book, such as if it’s worn or going unused. The policy specifies that parents, not library staff, are responsible for monitoring what materials their children access. Belleville’s library board of trustees also has a policy for reconsidering materials.

“At our core, we are disseminators of information,” Spearman said. “We don’t interpret it. We don’t explain it. We just deliver it. ”

If a library patron or parent has a question or concern about materials, librarians are great at listening, Johnson said.

“I’ve had collection development conversations with a few patrons over the years,” he said. “I love sitting down with people and walking them through it, and usually they’re kind of surprised by how much work behind the scenes goes into that to make it all happen.”

While state law mandates public libraries maintain collection development policies, school libraries aren’t required to have them, Gregory said. With the potential for more frequent book challenges, Gregory said school librarians should get a policy in place if they don’t have one.

“Every single librarian who has not yet experienced says they’re braced for it. They can feel that’s in the air and it’s coming, “Gregory said. “We’re really working on trying to get this word out about your policies, making sure everything’s in place so that when it does happen, you can react.”

Kelsey Landis is an Illinois state affairs and politics reporter for the Belleville News-Democrat. She joined the newsroom in January 2020 after her first stint at the paper from 2016 to 2018. She graduated from Southern Illinois University in 2010 and earned a master’s from DePaul University in 2014. Landis previously worked at The Alton Telegraph. At the BND, she focuses on informing you about what your lawmakers are doing in Springfield and Washington, DC, and she works to hold them accountable. Landis has won the Illinois Press Association awards for her work, including the Freedom of Information Award.

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