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Book challenges and bans surge nationwide, and Illinois is no different

LA Johnson
Some of the book titles that are subject to bans or censorship efforts.

Book banning is again making headlines across the United States, a practice that first emerged in America back in 1650. While back then, religion tended to be at the heart of most bans and censorship, that has shifted over time, with more resulting from a wider variety of topics.

For example, in 1953, concerns about communist propaganda emerged as a quick way to ban titles. Like much of the country, there was a second "red scare" at the time, and the Peoria Public Library (PPL) was not immune to the challenges.

“There was a small group…they were concerned that some films that we had in our collection at that time were communist propaganda,” said Jennifer Davis, manager of marketing at PPL. “The interesting thing is these films had been shown many times before with no criticism…The library board was saying these films are educational, and they belong in our collection.”

After a summer of back and forth between the library and the groups, one being the Veterans of Foreign War (VFW), they came to a compromise.

“What they decided to do was to instead of allowing people to check out the films, they would keep them in the collection, but you could come view them at the library,” said Davis.

Such a compromise could not be reached when it came to the Illinois State Library’s ban of 6,000 to 8,000 volumes of books that same year, after a parent disapproved of a title her daughter found within the collection.

“It was a woman in Southern Illinois…so she complained to her local authorities, who complained to state officials and eventually it made its way up the food chain to the governor. And the governor told the state librarian to do something, basically, and so the second-in-charge at the Illinois State Library decided to pull books,” explained Davis.

It’s estimated that those thousands of volumes were pulled within a month, with the library making it clear that more would follow. Davis recently researched the 1953 case at the Illinois State Library and published an article on it as well as where PPL stands regarding controversial books in the July issue of Peoria Magazine.

Compromises surrounding book challenges and bans have been difficult to come by these days, too. According to the American Library Association's Office for Intellectual Freedom (ALA), the number of challenges nationwide to library materials has more than tripled from 2020 to 2021.

In 2022, the main titles that tend to come under heat deal with the LGBTQ+ experience, regardless if the book is fiction or nonfiction. That’s according to Veronica De Fazio, deputy director of the Peoria Public Library.

“In the past five years, there's definitely been an increase in challenges in both school and public libraries across the state of Illinois,” said De Fazio. “In the past year in particular, the challenges have really, really increased, especially in the school libraries, and especially in regards to LGBTQI+ materials, and that's been a real trend in the past 12 months.”

Deputy Director of the Peoria Public Library Veronica De Fazio (left) with manager of marketing for PPL Jennifer Davis
Jody Holtz
Deputy Director of the Peoria Public Library Veronica De Fazio (left) with manager of marketing for PPL Jennifer Davis

It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly why the number of challenges has surged to what the ALA deems an unprecedented number. In the archives detailing the 1953 Illinois State Library case, it’s noted that at that time within society, fear and suspicion about alternative views of social norms were rampant.

Looking at more recent book challenging cases at the Lafayette Library Board in Louisiana, political and culture wars seem to be a driving factor causing the surge, according to the article done by NPR covering the debate.

In that case, a conservative Christian group known as Citizens for a New Lousiana has taken control of the Lafayette Library Board. De Fazio noted she has seen a shift in how books are challenged. More frequently, groups of people are organizing to challenge titles, rather than a single person.

“In the past year, we've seen that it’s become groups of people who say, we don't like these books, and none of our children in this area should be reading these books, and they need to come off the shelves. And there's been that upfront sort of censorship,” explained De Fazio.

In addition, she's noticed an uptick in subtle censorship.

“School districts don't put books on the shelves. They order them, but they have had school boards turned over, and so they have not approved the process for adding books to their collections…so the people aren't actually coming out and saying, 'I don't approve of this,' but they're not putting those books in the collection purposely by not putting the process into place.”

Jennifer Stubbs, instruction and outreach librarian for Bradley University’s Cullom-Davis Library, said it's also important to understand who has a voice within this larger conversation of challenging a book.

“What biases they're presenting in each piece, why they're challenging it, what emotional experience they had in the past, if they even got the name and the title correct,” said Stubbs.

So how should libraries navigate listening to community concerns when there are so many different opinions about what should be put on the shelves?

“We, like all public libraries and school libraries, have what we call a collection development policy," said De Fazio. "And so that is the guidelines that we use to select every kind of material that goes into our collection, and that guides us by saying we use professional reviews to help us decide what goes in there. We also try to make sure that in the policy that it says that we reflect the community, the demographics of our community.”

Stubbs noted that representing the demographics of a community can look like a lot of different things.

“Sometimes, that's through who works in the library, who feels welcome going into that library space, and authors that are available in that space, how much effort the librarians take to find those titles and those authors and create those kinds of programs. If you're in a public space that has a lot of young families, then you may have a lot of young story times. Or, if you're in a space that has more of a retired community, do you have more large print books?” said Stubbs.

Jennifer Stubbs, instruction and outreach librarian at Bradley University's Cullom-Davis Library
Jody Holtz
Jennifer Stubbs, instruction and outreach librarian at Bradley University's Cullom-Davis Library

Not only do libraries represent the community they serve, but Stubbs said they also need to be adaptable to change.

“Libraries are a growing organism. Cultures change, times change, what we put on the shelf changes, whether or not we have nine planets in our system changes with time. How we want to interact with that as a discussion, or only in a more contentious manner can change with time,” she said.

And if someone does want to present a book challenge, De Fazio said there’s a process.

“We have a materials reconsideration process and policy. And so if someone wants to challenge something they need to fill out a form," she said. "And then there's a whole process the item goes through. And sometimes that results in the item being moved to a different area of the collection, or perhaps it just stays where it is. But we do take it very, very seriously.”

While the committee reviewing the material in question is required to thoroughly read or view the material in its entirety to come to an informed decision, no such requirement exists for the person(s) who submitted the challenge in the first place. Stubbs called attention to a recent internet trend that has surfaced that calls attention to this discrepancy.

“When someone wants to challenge a book, in order to present that challenge, they must also present the book report having read the whole book, because that is an important part…taking a quote out of context can be very emotional. Reading that same quote, in its full context, is a whole other space, a whole other experience. It takes more time, and it's less fun on social media, because there's less of that emotionality, but it's where a lot more of that intellectual engagement and what the community needs to grow and go forward,” she said.

Currently, much of these conversations are going on at library board meetings, which Stubbs said might not always be the most relevant time to express these opinions.

“In the past summer, some library board meetings have been ground to a halt. They're not able to make budgetary decisions or hiring decisions because people want to have a chance to say their piece about a book or about a concept that they don't want to see represented in their library,” she said.

In addition to filling out a formal challenge form at the PPL, Stubbs offered some alternative ways to make your voice heard.

“Perhaps it's an editorial to the newspaper that's a better place to write it to. Right now, there's a great opportunity for people who support libraries and who support authors who've written books that are challenged to write to your editors of your newspaper, to write to the school boards, to write to the library directors and the librarians at schools to provide that support letter to say, 'I support, I live in this place, I pay taxes in this district, I support what the library has done and some of the statements that can be more specific.'”

Moving forward, she said library directors and boards may need to have evidence to balance the people who attend these public meetings and create the challenges.

“If the silent majority stays silent, because they think it'll be fine, the higher voices will eventually be out-balanced,” said Stubbs.

With increasing pressure on librarians and libraries amid these challenges, De Fazio wishes every community would see the materials in the library as both windows and mirrors.

“Books should be a window for people so that you can look into other's lives and see what their experiences are, which might be completely different from yours, and you can learn and grow from that. But they also need to be mirrors and reflect back at you what your experiences in your life is like…that's important for everybody no matter what age they are.”

According to Jennifer Davis, because of the book challenging surge, the 2023 Peoria Reads! one city, one book program will not feature just one book to read for the first time.

“We're inviting the city, we're inviting Peorians, to choose a challenged or banned book of their own, and to read it for next year,” said Davis.

PPL will provide a list of banned or challenged books for those interested, and will be developing programming that supports having conversations around these sometimes difficult topics within the literature. Davis noted there’s also a possibility of bringing in an author who has had their books challenged before to talk about their experience.

The library also will be putting on a suite of programs in honor of banned books week, which is Sept.18-24. Find more information on those events here, which include trivia, and an opportunity to write postcards to authors with challenged or banned books.

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Jody Holtz is WCBU's assistant development director, assistant program director, host of WCBU's newsmagazine All Things Peoria and producer of WCBU’s arts and culture podcast Out and About.