What’s a Book Sanctuary?: Book Censorship News, October 14, 2022

Kelly Jensen


Kelly is a former librarian and a long-time blogger at STACKED. She's the editor/author of (DON'T) CALL ME CRAZY: 33 VOICES START THE CONVERSATION ABOUT MENTAL HEALTH and the editor/author of HERE WE ARE: FEMINISM FOR THE REAL WORLD. Her next book, BODY TALK, will publish in Fall 2020. Follow her on Instagram @heykellyjensen.

If “book sanctuary” is a new phrase to you, it’s likely because it is a new phrase more broadly. Book sanctuaries are institutions committed to upholding the First Amendment Rights of all citizens, wherein book bans and challenges must follow through a specific procedure to be considered. They are places where books and the right to read them remains at the forefront of what an institution does, and well-funded, well-connected political groups do not get to wield their power in changing what is available.

Chicago Public Libraries (CPL) declared themselves book sanctuaries in late September during Banned Books Week. Along with the declaration, they set up a website that invites other institutions — and individuals! — to join the movement and declare themselves book sanctuaries, too. The goal is for all 81 of their branch libraries to have heavily-banned books available and to create programming around banned books throughout the year. While the messaging around their specific branding of a book sanctuary overlooks the vital language that this isn’t about books but about the rights of people to read and exist (and, to be fair, it is implicit), this is one way to push back against book banners.

As national polls and localized actions showcase, book bans are not popular with most people:

And as reported here, the vast majority of Florida parents have not opted their children out of school library materials, despite the state’s continued creation of new “parental rights” bills on the local and state level.

CPL is not the only library in the U.S. to declare themselves a book sanctuary. While others use different terminology and may not be utilizing the same format as CPL, more and more libraries are taking a stand against censorship and reminding communities that their purpose is to provide access to materials for all. That as a publicly funded institution, public libraries are tasked with upholding the First Amendment Rights for all members of their community, not just the most vocal. Among the libraries reasserting their roles? Wellington Public Library in Colorado and this week, Oak Park Public Library in Illinois. Without doubt, Brooklyn Public Library and their Books Unbanned program also counts as a book sanctuary. The Right to Read Act, were it to pass through Congress in the coming year, would push student rights to access material to the forefront, too.

In addition to revisiting, revising, and strengthening book challenge policies, now is an ideal time for both public libraries and public schools who can speak up and declare themselves places where book bans won’t be tolerated. That does not mean people cannot challenge a book — that is their First Amendment Right, too — but it does mean that a challenge will not result in an immediate removal, either as a means of quelling the challenger or as a means of “reviewing” the book in the process. Remember: pulling the book off the shelf during a review is still censorship.

If you work in one of these institutions, bring the idea up to your management and/or board. Ask for a resolution or statement in support of the freedom to read. State that the rights of individuals to access materials remains at the forefront of your organization’s mission.

Don’t work in one of these organizations? Ask your local school and library board to speak up on behalf of those same rights. You can do that via letter writing or by showing up to the board meetings. Likewise, if you’re in a community where school/public library board elections are coming, show up to candidate forums and ask each individual to talk about their beliefs on the freedom to read. About student rights. Keep your ear open for the dog whistles and the moral panic codes rampant in these discussions and demand clear answers with support.

You’ll see soon enough that such support or elaboration simply doesn’t exist.

Even Moms For Liberty and their own school board candidate training programs doesn’t bother teaching elaboration or explanation. You only need to say some words, stoke some fear, and then cash in.

Each and every demand for more — and response that emphasizes the rights of everyone, not just a select few — breaks down their power and their message.

Book Censorship News: October 14, 2022

  • Decatur Public Library (TX) is keeping Flamer and Let’s Talk About It on shelves, despite complaints.
  • “Kee also told the board the plus sign in the LGBTQ+ community was ‘for the pedophiles,’ and supporting one part of that community meant supporting pedophiles as well. Voting in favor of Gender Queer would be voting in favor of pedophiles, Kee said, and the board would face judgment ‘in this world or the next one.'” This is in Union, Maine, where the decision over keeping Gender Queer on library shelves in the schools will happen later this month.
  • More fallout from the new bill in Missouri which is removing graphic novels from schools across the state.
  • “Casper [WY] City Council candidate Eric Paulson accused a substitute teacher of being a ‘pedophile’ at the Natrona County school board meeting on Monday after the teacher argued in favor of the Kelly Walsh High School library keeping a book that explores gender identity and sexuality.” This is the rhetoric and if it’s not clear why educators are leaving — and subs are hard to come by — maybe it has to die with the lies and name calling (and poor pay and poor treatment)?
  • Conway Public Schools (AR) just banned Beyond Magenta and Felix Ever After.
  • After Placer County schools (CA) made their curriculum available online for parents to access, they’ve now been fielding complaints about nearly every item on the list. The thanks for this goes directly to Faith Impact, an organization coordinating book challenges like these throughout California.
  • Faith Impact was also connected to a series of challenges at Granite Bay High School (CA) but those books will not be removed from the school.
  • The lawyer who filed an obscenity lawsuit over Gender Queer in Virginia Beach, Virginia, failed to file an appeal so the book will not be banned from the state due to “obscenity.”
  • Connetquot Central School District in New York banned rainbow flags from classrooms. This came weeks after they banned the book Gender Queer.
  • The Bozeman Public Schools (MT) are revising their materials challenge policies, as they prepare for potential challenges on the horizon. “There are two titles from the high school freshman English curriculum that look like they’re headed towards a formal process and committee review: The Marrow Thieves by Cherie Dimaline and The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie.”
  • Back to some great reporting: this piece looks at where Moms For Liberty is getting their money and pushes back against the group’s neat — and misleading — narrative about their “grassroots” history.
  • What’s happening at Elmbrook Schools (WI) when it comes to invasion of student privacy and the infiltration of book banning is reflective of what is likely happening across the country. Isiah Holmes has been doing tremendous work uncovering this story and several others in Wisconsin. Read this. “Thompson told Wisconsin Examiner that the district’s policy ‘declares a student’s check out history as part of a pupil record, which parents have access to by state statute.’ But removing  books and monitoring what students check out in Elmbrook is raising concerns among civil liberties and LGBTQ advocates.”
  • “Aside from the book being available in high school libraries, Mr. Cole also alleged that concerned parents of students at Dos Pueblos High School and Santa Barbara High School reached out to him saying that Gender Queer was listed as ‘required reading’ in their students’ classes. Mr. Cole declined to provide evidence to these allegations out of concern for the privacy and safety of the parents and their children.” Mr. Cole talking a big game but having no evidence to back it up. This is in California.
  • The former director of the Boundary County Public Library (ID) talks about the harassment she and fellow library workers faced from far right-wing “activists” attacking the library.
  • Hempfield Area Public Schools (PA) are revising their book challenge policies. The part about how if the complaint violates laws against discrimination is pretty dang good.
  • Catawba County Schools in NC have a ton of book banners eager to do their work on the next board.
  • Here’s the current battle for school board in Loudon County, Virginia, and of course, books are at the center of some of the discourse.
  • In Muskegon, Michigan, a cop who is running for school board continues the nonsense about pornography in school libraries.
  • Conservatives in California are packing school board races, in part thanks to aa new initiative they created called Parent Revolt. Okay, then.
  • I am paywalled from this article, but you might not be. A pastor who has made several false claims about materials in the Hamilton East Public Library (IN) is now a member of that very library board.
  • Madison County (VA) schools violated their own policy in removing — sorry, “relocating” — 26 books in the library.
  • “On Oct. 6, the Pennsylvania American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed a federal complaint against the Central Bucks School District (CBSD), on the grounds of widespread and persistent discrimination against the LGBTQ+ community, particularly the trans community.” It should not come to this, but it is nice to see the ACLU stepping in.
  • Remember how people were mad that the Montana State Library logo was too close to the colors of the rainbow flag? The new update has been revealed. This is maybe the dumbest waste of time and money over colors.

I want to end this roundup by quoting this entire article, but I will limit myself to the first couple of paragraphs. Go read the whole thing — teenagers should not be the ones held up as heroes or tasked with saving their own right to education, but when they do these things, it is worth paying attention to:

Shiva Rajbhandari, a senior at Boise High School in Idaho, was sworn in last month as a member of the Boise School District Board of Trustees, becoming the first student to serve on that city’s school board.

The 18-year-old won against an incumbent candidate with 56 percent of the votes in a special election last month . He joins a small number of students on school boards across the country with voting rights instead of serving in an advisory role.

Rajbhandari said his win should be an inspiration for students, reminding them that their voice matters especially when it comes to deciding the future of public education. His opponent, Steve Schmidt, was endorsed by some far-right groups including the Idaho Liberty Dogs, and Rajbhandari said he also wants his win to send a message that efforts like book bans are losing platforms.