Chicagoans of the Year for Books: Librarians and library workers of Illinois fight for dignity during a year of challenges

Intellectual Freedom Committee

December 21, 2022
Kristin Pekoll

Article in Chicago Tribune "Chicagoans of the Year for Books: Librarians and library workers of Illinois fight for dignity during a year of challenges"

When Julie Milavec thinks back on the past 12 months, her sigh gets long and heavy, almost comically so. Not that there was anything funny about being director of the Downers Grove Public Library this year. Last summer, after just four lines appeared in the library’s regular newsletter announcing a drag queen bingo night, timed to coincide with National Coming Out Day, the protests began. Soon Milavec and her library staff were in the headlights of Awake Illinois, which bills itself as a parental rights group but shows a particular fondness for protesting drag events. As during other library challenges across the country this year, local board meetings became shouting matches. Staff received threatening emails and phone calls; a bullet mailed to DuPage government offices included a pointed warning to the library.

After that, because of safety concerns, bingo was canceled.

But the library kept its broader plans to increase equity and inclusion-minded programming, an initiative the library board had passed only a few months earlier. After bingo was scraped, Milavec was then criticized by the same group for safety concerns; specifically, as she puts it, “they said I was turning the library into a homeless shelter.” She stood firm. She pushed back: What was a homeless person supposed to look like anyway? “Libraries are bastions of free speech and exist for everyone,” she told me. “Information and resources are for everyone — that is what a library does, no matter who you are. A library is a choose-your-own-adventure. Choose what you like but please leave the rest.”

It was hard to work at a library in 2022.

Once the quietest place in town, public libraries across Illinois were battlegrounds this year for (mostly) far-right organizations and even hate groups, opposed to everything from mask mandates and LGBTQ rights to YA novels about racism. In the village of Glen Carbon, the question of whether libraries should include drag events even made it onto the November ballot. (Nearly 70% of voters rejected drag-themed events.) A school board near Rockford removed “Gender Queer” (a frequently challenged book) from its libraries. Protesters wandered St. Charles libraries with cameras, protesting mandatory masks. Closer to Chicago, libraries in Lincolnwood, Oak Brook, Barrington, Wheaton, Glen Ellyn and the Niles-Maine district (for starters) faced scraped events, book bans, possible defunding, staff firings and casual threats to call the police on librarians. Not always, but often, contested material concerned books directed at LGBTQ readers and people of color.

You probably heard about this.

Less commonly reported were those library boards (in Downers Grove and elsewhere) that voted to reject such challenges and library workers who reaffirmed the foundational idea of a library as a public space for all. Even in the Chicago Public Library system, where book challenges are rare, Commissioner Chris Brown launched a “book sanctuary” initiative, staking out Chicago libraries as off-limits for exclusion. “We wanted to contribute our voice,” he said, “and offer paths for others to take.”

“We’re librarians so we’re not fighting so much as reminding people of what we stand for,” said Josephine Tucci, director of the Lincolnwood libraries, where a drag-themed children’s book faced removal (unsuccessfully).

“I think of this as a clarifying moment for library workers,” said Cynthia Robinson, executive director of the Illinois Library Association. “On the other hand, even if libraries seem ready to defend themselves, smaller libraries are not ordering some books they otherwise might have,” she added. “Intimidation works. This is not really a grassroots movement against libraries. You see the same books, over and over, challenged. It’s national campaigns to get rid of libraries for various reasons.”

Indeed, though Americans consistently and overwhelmingly tell pollsters they are against banning books, a study released in September by PEN America found around 50 organizations — with regional campaigns and chapters, such as Moms for Liberty and Awake — responsible for most challenges. Of those challenges, PEN also found at least 40% were connected to pending legislation or political influence. In many cases, library workers say, the content of a book or event challenged has seemed to be far less important than a symbolic victory, intimidating librarians into compliance.

Elizabeth Lynch is a librarian in Addison, but lives in the Niles-Maine area, where its library has been roiled for more than a year by a feud pitting library workers and their supporters against library board trustees accused of trying to defund and dismantle the library’s culture. Lynch, an active member of the Niles Coalition, formed to protest the trustees, said: “If you asked me a few years ago where this could happen, I would assume in DuPage County, in the library I work. But this has reached the edges of suburban Chicago, which doesn’t traditionally see this sort of right-wing thing. Yet, here we are.”

One rallying point has been Kelly Jensen, a former librarian who lives in Woodstock and works for the online literary site Book Riot. Part journalist, part activist, she thinks of herself “as a catalyst, because it’s been brutal out there. I have been covering censorship news nationally for Book Riot for more than a decade but the past 18 months have been remarkable. The Chicago area wasn’t bad for a long time. Now’s a different story. There’s fear out there, and it’s because of all these little groups in the suburbs showing fake outrage over parental rights. At the end of the day, it’s about defunding public institutions to move them into private hands and so powerful white people keep the access they already have.”

To fight back, Jensen has been offering training sessions for libraries throughout the area, explaining the players involved and the best ways to respond to worst-case scenarios.

Same with Emily Knox, a researcher and associate professor at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign who has taught a course on intellectual freedom since 2012; she’s also board president for the National Coalition Against Censorship. She’s been busy training local libraries to get prepared for book challenges and how to respond. “You don’t want it to happen but you can’t think that it can’t happen, either. A library needs its arsenal ready. How much risk are you willing to take to win? I tell them they need to make sure they know who they can reach out to who will reliably show up at board meetings. And often that means students, kids, who will come to testify for libraries.”

In Downers Grove, a half dozen students rallied for high school librarians when two parents tried to remove “Gender Queer” from shelves and drew support from Proud Boys. The school board voted to keep the book, and the students were awarded the 2022 Intellectual Freedom Award from the Illinois Library Association.

The thing is, according to the Chicago-based American Library Association, which also released a report on book challenges: At least 82% percent of challenges go unreported. Also, “there’s division among librarians on how to apply the First Amendment,” said Tucci, noting a brief challenge last month in Lincolnwood (since rescinded) to the picture book “Johnny the Walrus,” which gathered a reputation among progressive librarians as a smirking takedown of trans culture. (Its fans include Tucker Carlson.)

“Many in the library community are dead set against books some see as homophobic, of course,” Tucci said, “but we have to ask if we can serve one group and not another.”

What offers some perspective is the sheer volume of challenges coming from conservative groups, said John Chrastka, executive director of the Riverside-based EveryLibrary, a national organization that works with libraries on funding and voter referendum issues. “We have quite the hefty portfolio these days,” he said. “Because the petition process is being weaponized. When a library is fielding 300 challenges at once — and that is happening — it’s no longer about the content of a book, it’s about grinding the gears to a halt. When Proud Boys are showing up at library board meetings in Illinois, depending on how armed they are, that’s somewhere between harassment and domestic terrorism.

“You, me, libraries — we need to do this every generation, to be reminded of our rights and privileges. How do we want to be organized as a society? These are not attacks just on the First Amendment, but on human rights and dignity, and libraries are there to respond.”

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