By Fraser Sherman
The freedom to read is under attack according to Chapel Hill Library Director Susan Brown. “Libraries across the country and the state face coordinated campaigns to remove books from shelves, dismantle displays, and cancel programs,” Brown said in a press release about the library’s Right to Read campaign. The goal of the campaign is “to educate and engage our community about what’s happening and what they can do to voice their concerns.”
Demands that libraries censor books and resources have become an everyday news item in the 2020s. The American Library Association (ALA) says it documented 1,269 censorship requests last year, the highest number in more than 20 years.
Multiple libraries and school districts in North Carolina have grappled with calls to ban or restrict access to books. The Charlotte-Mecklenburg School District recently banned the children’s book Red from K through fourth grade, for instance. The book is the story of a red crayon that eventually realizes it’s blue. Some parents, the district said, complained this violates a new state law against teaching gender identity and sexuality to young children.
Hannah Olson, Chapel Hill Library’s Marketing and Communications Coordinator, told The Local Reporter that although Chapel Hill has all 13 most banned books on its shelves, the library hasn’t seen that level of censorship pressure. Even so, the library wanted to take a stand.
“The library staff developed the [Right to Read] campaign in response to the growing wave of book bans targeting marginalized voices, particularly Black and LGBTQIA+ authors and stories, in public libraries and schools,” Olson said in an interview.
The Right to Read campaign includes a library exhibit with information about frequently challenged books and ways to fight book bans. The library is also offering postcards Olson designed that feature statistics about censorship and book challenges. Brown said the library hopes patrons will use the postcards to contact elected officials, library boards and school boards, “urging them to reject book bans and to send messages of solidarity and support to those targeted by censorship, including librarians, teachers and authors.”
The postcards are free through October as long as supplies last.
To kick off Right to Read, the library held an Oct. 1 discussion panel. Panelists included:
- Joal Broun, Orange-Chatham District Court Judge
- Renee Sekel, Deputy Director of Red, Wine and Blue NC. The group is a coalition of suburban women pushing back against conservative women’s groups.
- Gretchen Westman, Morris Grove Elementary School Media Specialist
- Tracy Fitzmaurice, Jackson County Librarian and Fontana Regional Library Director
- State Senator Graig Meyer
Sekel told the audience that Red, Wine and Blue’s fight to “raise 21st century kids” often triggered ugly responses. She said one speaker at a recent school board meeting claimed Sekel had two trans kids — she doesn’t — and therefore “I was proof that grooming works.”
Westman said fighting censorship was a matter of intellectual freedom: “Your right to think about things the way you want to think about them and learn about things the way you want to learn about them and the right of others to do the same.”
Fitzmaurice said pro-censorship efforts happen at multiple levels: individual libraries, library boards, local advisory boards and county commissioner meetings. One library critic, she said, had demanded their area’s Friends of the Library — a private group with more flexibility in spending than a government body — be investigated for money laundering.
The fight has extended as high as the state legislature, which passed a “parents bill of rights this year,” banning instruction in “gender identity, sexual activity and sexuality” from kindergarten through fourth grade. Sekel said that would technically ban stories which show heterosexual gender identity such as the Berenstain Bears series with a momma and poppa bear.
However, she and the other panelists said the focus is overwhelmingly on LGBTQ themes and characters, not heterosexual ones. Sekel said she’s encountered people who object to school libraries holding any books with LGBTQ content. One complainant said they wanted Home at Last — a book about a gay couple adopting a son — pulled because “I find this objectionable for young boys to be exposed to.”
Westman agreed the books that draw the most fire are those about “groups who have been squashed down forever.”
Meyer said not to lose hope. Despite the rising number of censorship requests, “we’re in an offensive position, not a defensive position. It’s the progress people of color and LGBTQ individuals have made that fuels the opposition so we should not take our foot off the accelerator.”
Social media can both hurt and help libraries in the fight, the panelists said. Fitzmaurice said by posting allegedly offensive passages online, conservative groups make it easy for people to file objections without reading the books. Some individuals use social media to whip up angry protests at board meetings.
Sekel said, however, that social media can also benefit groups such as Red, Wine and Blue. If there’s controversy at a meeting, she said, video shared on social media can provide proof of exactly what went down.
“We are in a fight,” Sekel said, “and every single one of us in this room and beyond has a role to play in that fight.”
Fraser Sherman has worked for newspapers, including the Destin Log, the Pensacola News-Journal and the Raleigh Public Record. Born in England, he’d still live in Florida if he hadn’t met the perfect woman and moved to Durham to marry her. He’s the author of several film reference books and has published one novel and several short story collections.