The rising tide of book challenges: How academic library workers can help (IACRL Opinion)

Illinois Association of College & Research Libraries Forum (IACRL)

March 15, 2023

Emily Gilbert, University of Illinois Chicago

I’m sure I don’t need to tell you that a certain subset of books in school and public libraries is under serious threat. The issue has been pervasive enough to reach the general news media, and as library workers, we are more attuned than many to issues of censorship and intellectual freedom. But as a refresher, let me sum up the problem. Free speech advocacy organization PEN America noted in their recent report that between July 1, 2021 and June 30, 2022 there were 2,532 challenges to 1,648 individual titles in libraries across the country (Friedman, 2022). Attempted bans have increased sharply in recent years. The American Library Association, which reports statistics by calendar year, reported 729 challenges to 1,597 titles in 2021, and only 156 challenges to 273 titles in 2020 (ALA, n.d.). While the quantity of challenges has ebbed and flowed over time - and 2020’s notable decrease can probably be attributed in part to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic - the number of challenges weathered by libraries in our current climate is unprecedented (Pendharkar, 2022). These challenges are primarily against books featuring or written by Black and/or LGBTQIA+ people, and it is well documented that they are coming from organized efforts by conservative groups and politicians (Harris & Alter, 2022b). As the climate has become more volatile, public and school library workers have been caught in the middle, enduring harassment, reports to local law enforcement, and, in some cases, loss of employment (Harris & Alter, 2022a). 

Still, how does this affect us in the academic sector? It might be easy to dismiss this issue as not our problem–as shown in the most recent State of America’s Libraries report, only one percent of challenges in 2021 were in the setting of “academic or other” (ALA, 2022). However, if we stay silent on this topic, we miss a vital opportunity to use our expertise to stand up for our communities. All systems of oppression are connected, and if we remain silent in the arena we are uniquely qualified to speak in, we allow oppression to continue.

For transparency and positionality, it is important to share my own biases that impact my view on this topic. I have worked as a librarian for over twelve years, and in my current position at UIC since the end of 2021. I hold power as a tenure-track faculty member, local elected official, and present member of the IACRL Executive Board. I have experienced a great deal of privilege as a white, middle class, non-disabled, cisgender woman. I identify broadly as queer and specifically as bisexual, and as a queer parent, the recent uptick in cries of “grooming” around LGBTQIA+ people’s contact with children has especially hurt. 

However, I am heartened by knowing that I am in a position to lend my voice to help, as I believe all library workers are. Below are some action items for you to consider as we all work to fight censorship.

  1. Be informed and vote in municipal elections this April. Local elections are coming up on April 4. Do you know who is running for your school and library boards? While many Americans only show up to vote in Presidential elections, local elections can have a far greater impact on our daily lives than who is in the White House. Research the candidates in your area, and find out who is interested in preserving intellectual freedom and diverse representation in schools and libraries.

  2. Help out a local candidate who will stand up against book challenges. Do you have an extra two or three hours on the weekends? You’ve already identified local candidates who align with your values on book banning; now consider volunteering for one of their campaigns! Whatever your mobility level or experience with political activism, there is a way for you to help–whether it’s canvassing, data entry, text banking, or running signs.

  3. Attend library and/or school board meetings, and make yourself heard. As a group, we already care about intellectual freedom and equitable access. We can speak to how library users are impacted when they cannot access the information they need. Every board meeting will have time set aside for public comments. Acquaint yourself with the issues on the table, go to the meeting, and speak from the heart. Or if you can’t attend in person, submit a written public comment to the library director or school district superintendent, and ask for it to be read during the meeting. Your voice matters!

  4. Consider running for office yourself in 2025. I know, we’re all more exhausted than ever, and this is a big ask. And you might think you aren’t qualified to run for a library or school board, but you absolutely are! These boards are composed of regular citizens, and local governments across the state desperately need reasonable people who care about their communities. Running for office is not easy, but it’s also probably not as difficult as you think. There are groups of politically engaged people in many communities who can help you work toward getting a seat at the table. If you can spare the time to run, it is an incredibly impactful way to effect change.

  5. Be creative in getting the word out to your students, faculty, and community. Think about how you can raise awareness and provide resources for anyone who wants to join the fight! Some ideas:

    • Are you doing any instruction about searching for news sources? Use book banning as a search demonstration.

    • Make a display about censorship highlighting recent attempts at banning books.

    • Create and promote a LibGuide with resources on identifying and fighting censorship in your community.

    • Host (or give!) a lecture on historical instances of censorship.

    • Partner with a campus advocacy group and host a panel discussion on book bans.

    • Work with a faculty member from a relevant department to write an article for your institutional newsletter

  6. Go beyond what is convenient or comfortable. When we work toward equitable access to resources, we also work toward Black and queer liberation. Fellow white people: we are especially needed in this fight. Though individual circumstances will always vary, we have benefited from a higher place on the ladder in all oppressive systems, and we should put in extra effort toward liberation for the marginalized members of our communities. Challenge yourself to go a step further! It will make a difference.

  7. Remember to rest! You can’t help others if you are burned out. Caring for yourself is just as important as caring for your community, so don’t overdo it.

Even on the best of days, watching book challenges grow in the news has been overwhelming. However, we can all help resist the attempt to censor LGBTQIA+ and Black materials. As library workers, we know that free and open access to information is a cornerstone of a democratic society. We are excellent communicators, organizers, and critical thinkers. We work every day to connect people with information, and we are passionate about equitable access. So in this wave of censorship, we are uniquely qualified to move with empathy and compassion and help our communities turn the tide. Let’s rise to the occasion and make sure that the next generation has access to all the information and ideas they need to understand the world around them.


American Library Association. (n.d.). Top 10 most challenged books lists.

American Library Association. (2022). State of America’s Libraries Special Report: Pandemic Year Two (p. 9). 

Friedman, J. (2022, September 19). Banned in the USA: The growing movement to ban books. PEN America.

Harris, E. A., & Alter, A. (2022a, July 6). With Rising Book Bans, Librarians Have Come Under Attack. The New York Times.

Harris, E. A., & Alter, A. (2022b, December 12). A fast-growing network of conservative groups is fueling a surge in book bans. The New York Times.

Pendharkar, E. (2022, September 30). As book bans escalate, here’s what you need to know. Education Week.

Retta, M. (2022, December 16). American Library Association President: Librarians are facing harassment. Teen Vogue.


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