Censorship Library Leadership

116. The State of Censorship in Libraries with Alison Macrina

How do we deal with the current climate of censorship facing libraries? On this show Alison Macrina, Director of Library Freedom Project, talks about the state of censorship in the US as coordinated efforts take place to remove materials from the shelves of libraries. She shares what we need to understand about those actively opposing materials in our libraries, how to respond to protect ourselves, and how to prepare for this issue with staff, boards, and other stakeholders. 

Transcript

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Adriane Herrick Juarez:

This is Adriane Herrick Juarez. You’re listening to Library Leadership Podcast where we talk about libraries, and leadership, and speak with guests who share their ideas, innovations, and strategic insights into the profession.

How do we deal with the current climate of censorship facing libraries? On this show Alison Macrina, Director of Library Freedom Project, talks about the state of censorship in the US as coordinated efforts take place to remove materials from the shelves of libraries. She shares what we need to understand about those actively opposing materials in our libraries, how to respond to protect ourselves, and how to prepare for this issue with staff, boards, and other stakeholders. It’s a timely topic. Enjoy the show!

Alison, welcome to the show.

Alison Macrina:

Thanks for having me here.

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

Question #1: Thank you for talking with me today about the state of censorship in libraries. Everyone in our profession is thinking about this topic as book challenges reach record highs. As we begin, what is the state of censorship in libraries currently?  01:31 

Alison Macrina:

Well, it is pretty bleak, as you mentioned. I think that it’s hard to even recognize what the full state of it is because we’re seeing so many different tactics from so many different actors. But I would say that the common thread is that there is a well organized movement—a pretty anti-democratic movement, that is using language about parents’ rights, and even language about free speech in order to censor certain materials, primarily LGBT materials, but also any materials in schools and libraries that have to do with difference, diversity, the experience of black people in the US, of immigrants. 

We’re seeing this in every single state around the country. It’s primarily in the form of book challenges, but there are a whole bunch of other tactics. There are both—I call it an organized movement because it is pretty well organized both in terms of groups that have formed like Moms for Liberty, or No Left Turn in Education, but also lots of individuals who are getting motivated by different far right-wing reactionary figures like Tucker Carlson, and the like.

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

Question #2: As you say, the censorship we are seeing reflects coordinated national efforts. What do we need to understand about those who are actively opposing materials in libraries?  03:07 

Alison Macrina:

I think that we need to understand that they are very dedicated. They are really—their organization is pretty good. Something I think that really reflects this is that they don’t really let failure stop them. In other words, they’ll try the same tactics again and again. 

Other things I think we need to understand about them is that not only are they organized in every state in many communities, but they have a whole breadth of different tactics—everything from, as you mentioned, book challenges, which I think is getting the most attention, but also things like attempting to redefine legislation around things like obscenity, criminalizing the work of libraries and teachers—getting on school boards, and showing up to library board meetings, and school board meetings with huge numbers.

Recognizing that it’s all part of the same kind of movement, but it can show up in different ways. Also we need to understand—anyone who’s listening, if it’s not in your community yet it is probably brewing and you need to be prepared for it. 

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

Question #3: You’ve mentioned tactics that are being used to spur censorship efforts. Can you share more about the particulars?   04:31 

Alison Macrina:

Well, I mentioned the takeover of school and library boards. We’re seeing this in a few different ways—people running for those seats. Then trying to use that position of influence to get materials taken out of school libraries and public libraries. If the rest of the board is not amenable to that then at least that one person serves as the squeaky wheel. They’re going to constantly be bringing stuff up even if they don’t find a whole lot of support. 

I think that itself is a tactic—trying to clog up the system and waste time—waste the time of librarians, school teachers, and other people who are working in those areas. 

We’re also seeing campaigns against library levies, and the structure of libraries. We’re seeing in-person confrontations and harassment, particularly at storytimes. We’re seeing, like I mentioned, legislation attempts—both in terms of trying to redefine existing legislation and also to get new laws passed. There’s a pretty good understanding of how the legislative process works here because again, they’re not really afraid of failure. They are willing to appeal those decisions to higher courts because they know the higher the court goes the more likely they’ll find, maybe, a more far right-wing judge that is on their side.

Then in terms of just the book challenges themselves. We’re seeing coordinated efforts attacking specific titles. We’re seeing the groups that I mentioned before, have different forms of information sharing that they do across the country. They have databases of reviews that they’ve put together of these books so that they can go through the challenge process more quickly. In many of these cases they haven’t actually read the materials, right? That’s not even—reflexively opposed to the material simply because it has LGBT characters in it, or something like that. 

That’s a pretty good summary of the kind of stuff we’re seeing. One more thing that I didn’t mention. I did mention in-person harassment and confrontation. We’re also seeing librarians and teachers harassed online. We’re seeing a lot of the practice of doxing, which is when someone takes your personal information and publishes it online without your consent. So, different forms of harassment campaigns aimed at librarians who have, maybe, hosted a LGBT storytime, or something like that—so that kind of coordinated campaign as well.

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

Question #4: How can we respond to censorship efforts to protect ourselves and our libraries?  07:20 

Alison Macrina:

Well, I think we need just as coordinated a response as our opposition. I call them the opposition because I think it’s important to name that these people do not want libraries to exist. One of the things that we need to do to respond is we need to understand that they are not arguing in good faith. If they cared about parents’ rights they wouldn’t be trying to censor parents that are not themselves. If they cared about children’s rights they wouldn’t be trying to erase the representation of certain children from these books, right?

So I think one of the first things is, we need to recognize this opposition movement for what it is. It’s an anti-democratic movement. It’s an anti-free speech movement. It’s an anti-LGBT movement. Then from there we can start to build our toolkit. There are implications for our policy. We need really strong collection development policies that speak to the diversity of our collections—how we purchase materials that reflect a broad community. We need strong challenge policies. 

I really particularly like the one that the website Book Riot put together. It’s a pretty comprehensive challenge policy. It covers basically, all the sort of typical things that the opposition movement tries to poke at. It has very specific information about what the challenger can expect in terms of timeline and the committee makeup. Then it also requires the challenger to basically, put together a short book report about the book. It works also in that way because, as we know, they’re not really reading these materials. So, it forces them to read it. That is a really good tool to have in your toolkit. 

But beyond things like policy—oh, another policy that I think is important is having a strong code of conduct that outlines the things that the library won’t tolerate—like harassment, like crowding around staff. If you’re in a place where you can prohibit filming without consent you should include that in there. If you’re in a place where our local laws prevent you from doing that I encourage you to look at other local statutes. Talk to your general counsel, or even get in touch with your local ACLU, because in many states there are laws that prohibit interference with the regular operation of the library. So you can have that kind of catchall in your code of conduct that if you have disruptive people showing up you can say, Listen this is our policy and it’s actually backed up by state law. 

So beyond policy, I think it’s really important that we also are building our coalitions. There are other people in our communities who see what’s going on in our libraries, and in our schools and they’re terrified and they’re opposed to it. I think we need to be building with those people. Find the parents at the storytimes and say, Listen, I’m sure you’re following these censorship issues. Here are some ways that you can support the library. Encouraging people in our community who are supportive to run for school and library boards seats and also to show up at those board meetings, also we need to utilize our professional organizations, in particular our state library organizations because we’re really especially seeing a lot of bad legislation being put forward by these groups. 

So we need to be political actors in this arena, too. I say this is a good spot for our state library associations, because obviously in our jobs we are not really allowed to do things like that but our state professional organizations, that’s what they’re there for. A lot of them are already doing great work in that space. For example I just spoke to a bunch of different librarians in Virginia. The Virginia Library Association has both done great work at building some of that coalition, so they have a great partnership with the Virginia, whatever the school association is called—I’m forgetting the name, but also the association for superintendents—they all show up to legislation days together, they have a really good advocacy alert system. 

Other things that I’ve seen—Texas, Michigan, and New Jersey State Library Associations, all have these rapid response programs for libraries in their state that are experiencing censorship. That’s a great way for libraries to get involved in this, because maybe it’s not going to come to you, but you could help someone else if they find themselves in these situations.

I also think that there are a lot of implications for staff training—things like getting staff together and making them aware that these issues are happening. That’s a lot of the work we’ve been doing in Library Freedom Project lately is just showing up and giving the whole picture, like what we’re doing here—and then going through some of the kind of remediation and preparation steps.

Also staff support, because I think that’s something that’s really important. Library staff are really afraid of this. I think that there is unfortunately a lot of leadership that are in denial about our current circumstances, or if they recognize what’s going on they think, 

Well, if we just ignore it, it will go away. Unfortunately, it’s not going away, not anytime soon. Recognizing that our staff are afraid that they’re already coming off of a few years of a pandemic where they had to be on the front lines. Now this is something that they see happening around them and maybe it’s already happened to them. Making sure that we’re naming the problem directly and figuring out how we can support our staff, because they’re the ones who are going to be having to deal with this—front and center.

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

Question #5: Do you have any thoughts on how to talk about the issue with boards or other stakeholders who might be feeling nervous in this current climate to help them know how they can support their libraries, and librarians in resisting censorship?  13:07 

Alison Macrina:

In helping our boards be ready for these issues I think we need to be educating them in similar ways that we do with our library staff—both talking about it honestly and truthfully; understanding who the opposition is; other things that we’ve seen. But, I also don’t think that it should be something that the boards should have to deal with either directly, or alone. The first thing is that most of these challenges should be handled by professional library staff. I think boards are—boards are what they are, but they mostly are not librarians. I don’t know that they’re fully ready to handle these kinds of challenges because they don’t necessarily understand the values of the library, or our professional training.

Something I really like about Book Riot’s challenge template is that the board is basically the last resort in that kind of program. But beyond that I think, you know, making sure that the board is educated, and also building your coalition to include other kinds of leaders in your community—so local lawmakers who are friendly to the library, other people who are in positions of leadership, and then let the board know that you’ve got—that there are other people, basically, who have their backs. In addition to those leaders I think if you’ve done the work of building your coalition if it does come to a point where your board has to face a challenge at the meeting then it’s not just going to be them versus the opposition, it’s going to be them—it’s going to be other library supporters, and you’re going to have briefed them. You’re going to have done education with them. 

I also think something really important for both educating boards and educating staff is role-playing through some of these scenarios. We’re seeing a lot of different kinds of tactics from the opposition, but they’re the same ones over and over again. I think going through some of the things that could possibly happen, and role-playing in real time how you would respond. I think that is so helpful for people dealing with any kind of crisis situation, because we know when we’re in a crisis we forget what to do and so role-playing can really help with some of that nervousness, and uncertainty.

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

Question #6:  Is there anything else you’d like to share?  15:46 

Alison Macrina:

I talk to librarians all day, every day as part of my work. What I’ve learned from them is that everyone is pretty afraid right now—that people are nervous about facing these kinds of attacks. They’re not sure what they’ll do. Some of them are even more nervous because  they feel that because of who they are they may be particularly targeted. So, first I want to acknowledge that climate of fear and uncertainty and recognize the way people are feeling, but I also really believe that we can meet this challenge. We can do it if we work together, if we prepare ourselves—we organize with our communities. I think the most important thing is that we are on the right side of history, that’s what we’ll be remembered after this time. I hope it’s inspiring.

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

Question #7: Do you have any favorite management, or leadership books, or resources, and why?  16:40 

Alison Macrina:

You know, I’ve tried to read some different management books and none of them have really spoken to me. I think that, to me, all the best leaders that I know read a broad breadth, and depth of different topics, so that’s really the best kind of resource advice that I think I can give you now. Especially reading history is really meaningful to me, because it’s true that we’ve seen these kinds of things before and we will see them again. We can learn from the people in the past, both people who were in positions of leadership, and people who were bystanders and everywhere in between. That’s what I think leaders should be reading, is a little of everything.

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

Question #8: Alison, in closing, what do libraries mean to you, personally?  17:31 

Alison Macrina:

Libraries are the only place in society today where we can go and just be, that we don’t have to pay any money to be there, that we don’t even necessarily have to use the services that the library offers. We can just sit. We don’t have to be a citizen. We don’t have to speak English. We don’t have to have a home. I think that is really a remarkable thing. It’s a really unique and rare thing. I think that is part of the reason why people love libraries so much, and reasons why we need to protect them.

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

Alison, thank you for talking with me on today’s show. Censorship is a topic much on the mind of our listeners these days as we see a huge uptick in challenges across the nation. As you say there’s a lot of fear about this issue. The information you have shared gives us insights to prepare and respond to challenges that may come our way. I appreciate your work in this area and this discussion.

You’ve been listening to Library Leadership Podcast. This is Adriane Herrick Juarez. For more episodes tune into LibraryLeadershipPodcast.com where you can now subscribe to get episodes delivered right into your email inbox. Our producer is Nathan Sinclair Vineyard. Thanks for listening. We’ll see you next time.

We would like to thank the Park City Library for their dedicated support of this show. The opinions expressed on this show are those of the speaker and do not necessarily reflect the views of Library Leadership Podcast, or our sponsors.

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