Librarians from across the United States released a report showing that pro-censorship groups’ efforts to ban books with LGBTQ+ themes and stories about people of color have driven an unprecedented rise in the number of book challenges, with right-wing organizers pushing library workers to remove works ranging from the dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale to children’s books about foods enjoyed in different cultures.
According to the American Library Association (ALA), a record-breaking 2,571 unique titles were challenged in 2022, a 38% increase from the previous year.
The organization recorded 1,269 demands to censor books from various groups and individuals, compared to 729 challenges counted in 2021.
“Each attempt to ban a book by one of these groups represents a direct attack on every person’s constitutionally protected right to freely choose what books to read and what ideas to explore,” said Deborah Caldwell-Stone, director of the ALA Office for Intellectual Freedom. “The choice of what to read must be left to the reader or, in the case of children, to parents. That choice does not belong to self-appointed book police.
The Office for Intellectual Freedom said that starting in 2021, a rising number of challenges began targeting large numbers of titles, suggesting they were coordinated efforts from national groups like Moms for Liberty. Previously, the vast majority of book challenges were focused on a single book to which a parent or group of parents objected.
In 2022, 90% of the books challenged were part of attempts to censor multiple titles, the ALA reported.
“A book challenge is a demand to remove a book from a library’s collection so that no one else can read it. 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 Caldwell-Stone. “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 Florida, where Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis has led a nationwide effort by conservatives to keep public school students from learning accurate American history and discussing issues regarding the LGBTQ+ community, one county removed from school library shelves 176 books which have been held in storage since January 2022. The books include the children’s books Hush! A Thai Lullaby, featuring a Thai mother and child, and Dim Sum for Everyone!, about a family eating in a Chinese restaurant.
“I’ve never seen anything like this,” Caldwell-Stone told the Associated Press. “The last two years have been exhausting, frightening, outrage-inducing.”
People for the American Way called the association’s data, collected from media reports and library professionals across the country, “shocking but not surprising.”
“The far right wants to turn back the clock on the freedom to read, teach, and learn,” said the group. “We won’t stand for it.”
The ALA report comes four months after voters in at least two U.S. towns voted to cut or eliminate funding for their public libraries in the wake of campaigns to ban books with LGBTQ+ themes.
People in Jamestown Township, Michigan voted for a second time against a millage to fund 84% of their library’s budget, dooming the facility to a likely closure in 2024. The vote followed a push by a local conservative group to remove the book Gender Queer: A Memoir.
Craighead County Jonesboro Library in Arkansas lost 50% of its funding after “librarians and library workers were labeled pornographers and pedophiles because of the books on their shelves” that dealt with LGBTQ+ themes, as EveryLibrary Institute executive director John Chrastka told Publishers Weekly in November.
A poll commissioned by the EveryLibrary Institute last year found that 75% of respondents were opposed to efforts to ban books, and across 16 states last fall, a majority of initiatives to pull funding from libraries failed.
“While a vocal minority stokes the flames of controversy around books, the vast majority of people across the nation are using life-changing services that public and school libraries offer,” said ALA President Lessa Kanani’opua Pelayo-Lozada on Thursday. “Our nation cannot afford to lose the library workers who lift up their communities and safeguard our First Amendment freedom to read.”