Librarians unlikely warriors in culture war combat

Troops in the trenches have been taking a beating of late. Some have surrendered.

They aren’t infantry engaged in the Russo-Ukraine War. These are US librarians who find themselves at the forefront of the battleground in the current culture war pitting Americans against each other.

Across the nation, libraries and their employees, along with books housed in what were once considered pantheons of free speech and thinking, are under attack. The hostilities are increasing we’re learning as Sept. 18-24 marks the annual Banned Books Week in the US

Ironically, September also is Library Card Sign-up Month. No longer are libraries just for books, but have become learning resource centers offering movies, music, audiobooks, databases, online portals, literary programming, computer classes and hosting community meeting space.

The slogan for Banned Books Week this year is: “Books Unite Us, Censorship Divides Us.” That’s because censorship efforts surged last year, according to the nation’s librarians.

That includes one attempt in Idaho to ban a book — “Gender Queer” — which the town library didn’t even stock. That didn’t stop “readers” from threatening the librarian, who eventually resigned, The Associated Press recently reported.

“Gender Queer,” a memoir of sexual orientation, tops the list of books repeatedly being challenged to be removed from library shelves. Others on the roll include call similar LGBTQ books; others about racism and race relations in America or topics arbiters just may consider inappropriate for their communities.

Over the decades, libraries in several Lake County locations have seen books challenged. But it’s nothing like what’s happening across the nation the past two years, according to free speech advocates.

The American Library Association said through August 2022, there have been 681 book challenges based on political, legal, religious and moral grounds, involving 1,651 titles. For all of 2021, there were 729 calls to ban books from libraries and schools, the group said .

Texas has had the most challenges and cases of books being banned, which shouldn’t surprise Illinoisans. Following the home of Trans-Migrant Bus Lines, runners-up include Florida, Pennsylvania and Tennessee.

It’s not that books have never been banned in the US, or censorship used to discourage discussion. It is the current scope which worries literary enthusiasts.

Which is unusual considering Americans of both political parties overwhelmingly oppose book bans. Many liken book censorship to book burning, the scary topic of “Fahrenheit 451,” written by Waukegan native Ray Bradbury.

The first books banned were those with certain political slants, ie, “Animal Farm” or “Brave New World.” Then came the lusty novels, such as “Lady Chatterley’s Lover,” “Tropic of Cancer” or “Naked Lunch.” The Bible made a few banned-book lists, especially in authoritarian nations during the Cold War.

But what happens when a book or art work is banned or removed from a public library? It piques one’s interest in why the book or movie was taken from circulation.

One wants to know what all the fuss is all about. Often, it is merely putting more dollars in an author’s pocket.

Raise your hand if you remember the “condemned” movies section listed back in the day in the old New World newspaper of the Chicago Archdiocese. Not naming names, but some folks used that as a guide for picking out feature films to watch at once- grand cinema palaces.

With surging calls for book bans, kids today are finding their parents and grandparents, when they were their age, had a wider range of controversial reading topics into which to immerse themselves. Seems we’re taking a step back in time.

While librarians — and their library boards — keep standing tall for reading freedom, there’s another way to combat book banning and censorship. True readers can take the time to read some of those challenged books.

They may find out why librarians oppose book bans. They might also open their minds.

Charles Selle is a former News-Sun reporter, political editor and editor.

Twitter: @sellenews

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