How Librarians Can Counter Lies from Book Banners

Danika Ellis

Associate Editor

Danika spends most of her time talking about queer women books at the Lesbrary. Blog: The Lesbrary Twitter: @DanikaEllis

The past two years has seen a rise in conservative propaganda against queer books in schools and libraries, so it’s not a surprise that Pride displays got hit especially hard in June. In one Illinois library, though, the fight began before Pride month had even started, and what happened offers a useful case study for librarians in how to approach these challenges, especially when the accusations includes lies or misinformation.

In the Illinois county where Joan* works, complaints against their Pride display started to come in before they had one. A conservative group called Awake Illinois had begun organizing opposition to it in anticipation, based on the library having a Pride display the previous year. This really shows that the complaints weren’t based on any one book being “offensive” or “pornographic,” but instead on the concept of having LGBTQ books on display at all.

By May, the library had received more than a hundred responses in defense of the display. Patrons wrote in to say how much they loved the library’s Pride display. The only problem? There still wasn’t a display to challenge or defend.

Regardless, the library did put up a Pride display in June, as usual. It was on the way to the children’s section and included a shelf of LGBTQ books for younger kids and a shelf for older kids. It had an interactive element, asking “What are you proud of?” Dozens of kids wrote their responses on rainbows, which were posted around the display. Some said they were proud of their grades, while others said they were proud of their two moms or two dads.

As expected, once the display was finally up, it got both support and challenges from patrons. When Joan received complaints about the display, she explained the reason they put it up: that the library is inclusive, the materials meet their collection guidelines, and anything that is worthy of being in the collection is also worthy of being on display. She also asked patrons if they are able to find the materials they want in the library, because the collection should reflect the entire community. All the patrons who complained agreed that they were able to find the materials they wanted.

One patron who demanded the display be taken down argued that no other libraries in the area had Pride displays. Joan found that surprising, so she decided to check for herself. She called the nearest 18 libraries to ask, and 14 replied. (Joan guessed that the other four were worried about the motives of asking about the displays.) Eight said that they also has Pride displays in the Youth section. Of the rest, some said that they had Pride displays just in the general section of the library, while others said they kept inclusive displays up all year.

This is a small act that represents a crucial strategy in dealing with book challenges. Often, the conservative groups organizing these challenges use misinformation and outright lies. It’s essential to question these claims and find out the truth, especially when it’s an easy thing to fact check. Joan’s library was far from the only one to have Pride displays up, including in the Youth section.

Another claim made in complaints against the display was that “Nobody in the community wants this.” They also claimed that immigrants would be offended by the display, despite not being an immigrant themselves. The hundreds of messages of support that came in throughout May proved that this claim, too, was inaccurate. In fact, Joan disagrees with the idea that the display is controversial, because it’s only a small group who protested it.

It’s a common tactic for book banning groups to claim to speak for all parents, all families, and the entire community. In reality, they are usually the minority. For example, when Florida parents were given the option to opt their children out of being able to check out any book in the school library, less than one percent did.

Joan’s story shows how librarians can counteract these lies. She recommends librarians keep track of how these books are being used in the library. Are they being checked out? Document positive and negative feedback for these books, and expect more challenges in the future. The interactive element to the Pride display meant they could collate those, too, and show that that the community was responding positively to it.

She also recommends that libraries regularly review their collection policy plans, challenge forms, and harassment procedures. Directors and administration need to have policies in place for if library workers are being harassed by patrons, and they need to build a culture that does not tolerate it. If Joan faced this herself, she would tell the patron, “You have the option to change the way you’re speaking to me” — when it escalated into yelling and/or swearing — “or I will escort you out of the building.”

Directors and administration have to think worst case, such as when the Proud Boys, a white supremacist group, stormed a library during Drag Queen Story Hour. She advises that librarians who are facing hostile patrons should say, “I think this conversation will be better handled by the person in charge” — and the person in charge needs to be able to handle those situations. Librarians also need a chance to leave the desk if it’s getting too much and they need a break.

Joan shared that although the people complaining are outnumbered by those who support the library and the display, the incident caused her to think differently about her community, which she had seen as mostly inclusive. She feels that she doesn’t know her neighbors as well as she thought.

Joan has received multiple emails accusing her of being a “groomer.” The library has been FOIAed over Pride content, and she expects it will happen again. It feels like a resurgence of these tactics from about a decade ago, which she hasn’t seen in recent years, though it’s been brewing under the surface. She also found that although she expected these complaints to come from a mostly older demographic, it was actually younger people who led the charge against the Pride display.

Joan hopes that the increased challenges against books in libraries won’t drive good librarians out of the career. This a passion job, one that people get into for the love of it. It would be easy for this environment to extinguish that love and passion, making it very tempting to leave for a job with better pay and more benefits while not facing harassment — especially for queer librarians, who may feel that they don’t belong and aren’t accepted by their communities because of this.

By documenting the community’s use of and support for the LGBTQ books in the collection, this challenge attempt in a small Illinois library provides a great example of how librarians can counteract lies from groups trying to ban books and displays. For supporters of these books and of libraries, Joan shared that they positive messages the library received about the Pride display — even the ones that came in before the display went up — helped balance the scales against the complaints, if just emotionally. So make sure to let your library know that you support the queer books in the collection and the Pride displays they put up.

As for next year’s Pride display? Joan says, “We’ll continue to offer inclusive displays with no hesitation.”

*I’ve anonymized this librarian’s story, so Joan is not her real name.