Freedom To Read: Local Libraries React to Banned Books Week - 27 East

Freedom To Read: Local Libraries React to Banned Books Week

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A section of the adult banned book display at the Amagansett Free Library. KIMBERLY PARRY

A section of the adult banned book display at the Amagansett Free Library. KIMBERLY PARRY

A section of the adult banned book display at the Amagansett Free Library. KIMBERLY PARRY

A section of the adult banned book display at the Amagansett Free Library. KIMBERLY PARRY

Staff members of the John Jermain Memorial Library read their favorite banned books. Front row, from left, Kelly Harris, Rita Skerys and Nancy Myers. Second row, Aracely Garcia, Catherine Tremblay, Donna Fisher, Andrea Hill, Sue Mullen, Rachel Lucas and Richard Browning. Third row, Ginta Genender and Susan Blumenkrantz. COURTESY JOHN JERMAIN MEMORIAL LIBRARY

Staff members of the John Jermain Memorial Library read their favorite banned books. Front row, from left, Kelly Harris, Rita Skerys and Nancy Myers. Second row, Aracely Garcia, Catherine Tremblay, Donna Fisher, Andrea Hill, Sue Mullen, Rachel Lucas and Richard Browning. Third row, Ginta Genender and Susan Blumenkrantz. COURTESY JOHN JERMAIN MEMORIAL LIBRARY

A section of the young adult banned book display at the Amagansett Free Library. KIMBERLY PARRY

A section of the young adult banned book display at the Amagansett Free Library. KIMBERLY PARRY

A section of the young adult banned book display at the Amagansett Free Library. KIMBERLY PARRY

A section of the young adult banned book display at the Amagansett Free Library. KIMBERLY PARRY

A section of the adult banned book display at the Hampton Library in Bridgehampton. LISA MICHNE

A section of the adult banned book display at the Hampton Library in Bridgehampton. LISA MICHNE

A section of the young adult banned book display at the Hampton Library in Bridgehampton. LISA MICHNE

A section of the young adult banned book display at the Hampton Library in Bridgehampton. LISA MICHNE

A section of the young adult banned book display at the Hampton Library in Bridgehampton. LISA MICHNE

A section of the young adult banned book display at the Hampton Library in Bridgehampton. LISA MICHNE

A scene from the banned books display at Hampton Bays Public Library. ALEX GIRESI

A scene from the banned books display at Hampton Bays Public Library. ALEX GIRESI

A scene from the banned books display at Hampton Bays Public Library. ALEX GIRESI

A scene from the banned books display at Hampton Bays Public Library. ALEX GIRESI

A scene from the banned books display at Hampton Bays Public Library. ALEX GIRESI

A scene from the banned books display at Hampton Bays Public Library. ALEX GIRESI

A scene from the banned books display at Hampton Bays Public Library. ALEX GIRESI

A scene from the banned books display at Hampton Bays Public Library. ALEX GIRESI

Mara Zonderman

Mara Zonderman

Mara Zonderman

Mara Zonderman

Mara Zonderman, the head of reference and adult services, scans the shelves on Friday afternoon, moving from department to department with a list over 500 titles long, pulling picture books and chapter books, children’s graphic novels, young adult reads, adult fiction and non-fiction alike.   DANA SHAW

Mara Zonderman, the head of reference and adult services, scans the shelves on Friday afternoon, moving from department to department with a list over 500 titles long, pulling picture books and chapter books, children’s graphic novels, young adult reads, adult fiction and non-fiction alike. DANA SHAW

Mara Zonderman, the head of reference and adult services, scans the shelves on Friday afternoon, moving from department to department with a list over 500 titles long, pulling picture books and chapter books, children’s graphic novels, young adult reads, adult fiction and non-fiction alike.   DANA SHAW

Mara Zonderman, the head of reference and adult services, scans the shelves on Friday afternoon, moving from department to department with a list over 500 titles long, pulling picture books and chapter books, children’s graphic novels, young adult reads, adult fiction and non-fiction alike. DANA SHAW

Mara Zonderman, the head of reference and adult services, scans the shelves on Friday afternoon, moving from department to department with a list over 500 titles long, pulling picture books and chapter books, children’s graphic novels, young adult reads, adult fiction and non-fiction alike.   DANA SHAW

Mara Zonderman, the head of reference and adult services, scans the shelves on Friday afternoon, moving from department to department with a list over 500 titles long, pulling picture books and chapter books, children’s graphic novels, young adult reads, adult fiction and non-fiction alike. DANA SHAW

authorMichelle Trauring on Oct 4, 2023

“A truly great library contains something in it to offend everyone.” — Librarian Mary Jo Godwin

The moment librarian Mara Zonderman plucked “How To Be an Antiracist” by Ibram X. Kendi from a shelf at the Westhampton Free Library, her mission officially began.

Moving from department to department with a list over 500 titles long, the head of reference and adult services scanned the shelves on Friday afternoon, pulling picture books and chapter books, children’s graphic novels, young adult reads, adult fiction and nonfiction alike.

By the end, her pile of books towered over 170 high, all with a commonality: In at least one corner of the country, sometime in the last century, they have each been challenged — or, in the worst case, banned from a school curriculum or public library.

“If all the books on the list were actually banned in our library, we would have virtually nothing left on our shelves by Toni Morrison or Ernest Hemingway,” said Zonderman, who has personally read 78 of the titles she compiled — and encourages others to do so, too.

She isn’t the only one.

Through Saturday, libraries across the country are shining a light on embattled literature through displays and programming during Banned Books Week — an annual event that, for more than 40 years, has celebrated the freedom to read, while acknowledging the censorship hurdles it faces.

Nationwide, large numbers of books are being removed from libraries in one fell swoop, government is interfering by passing vague legislation, and now, even teachers and librarians are being targeted, Zonderman said.

“All librarians are very, very fierce about the importance of the freedom to read. It is essential to our democracy, really,” said Lisa Michne, executive director of the Hampton Library in Bridgehampton. “We’re responsible for disseminating this information, so we don’t want anything taken away. We trust people to make their own decisions. We don’t need to be protected by others who think they know what’s best for everyone. It’s really one of our greatest freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution.”

The American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom recently reported that, from January 1 through August 31, there were 695 attempts to censor library materials and services, and documented challenges to 1,915 unique titles.

This marks a 20 percent increase from the same reporting period in 2022, which saw the highest number of book challenges since the American Library Association started compiling the data more than two decades ago.

“It’s just really disturbing, especially coming from a library standpoint, where our feeling is, it’s our job to have all of the information on the shelf,” explained Kelly Harris, director of the John Jermain Memorial Library in Sag Harbor. “You get to decide if you want to read it, you get to decide if your child gets to read it, but you don’t get to make that decision for anyone else.”

Of the 3,923 total titles targeted for censorship, the vast majority were books written by, or about, a person of color or a member of the LGBTQIA+ community. Among the top 13 most challenged books of 2022, all were claimed to be sexually explicit, and seven cited LGBTQIA+ content.

“The Bluest Eye” by Toni Morrison, who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1993, was challenged 73 times — in part for “EDI” content, or “equity, diversity and inclusion.”

“When you’re taking away all the books with Black leads or queer leads, you’re not doing anybody a service, and it’s actively harming the people who need those books, whether you agree with it or not — and it’s just a slippery slope to government censorship,” explained Alex Giresi, head of teen services at Hampton Bays Public Library. “Our country’s commitment to freedom of expression would be just walked all over. There’s no getting around that — that’s just what it is.”

Challenges to books in public libraries comprised 49 percent of those that the American Library Association documented — a dramatic increase from 16 percent in the same reporting period last year that speaks to recent times. Last month, a library in Illinois received a bomb threat. Others now house bare-bone shelves following book removals. Librarians themselves face harassment and name-calling — “groomer” and “pedophile” chief among them — and even criminal charges.

Last year, the head librarian of a district in Texas claimed she was fired because county officials demanded she remove certain books from the shelves, and she refused. And in Florida, if a school library book is found to contain “pornography” — “What does that mean? I don’t know,” Zonderman said — a teacher or librarian could be found guilty of a third-degree felony, the penalty for which is up to five years in prison, she said.

“I think I’m very lucky not to live in Texas or Florida, because I can imagine it’s scary, potentially, to be a librarian there,” she said. “I became a librarian because I like to talk about books. There was no nefarious purpose. I think 99 percent of librarians you talk to would say something very similar.”

But in June 2022, the Smithtown Library Board of Trustees voted to ban Pride-related books and displays from its children’s sections — and swiftly reversed its decision during an emergency meeting less than 48 hours later following enormous backlash from activists, politicians and community members.

And while the outcome was ultimately positive, for many East End librarians, this struck too close to home.

“I know we all think ‘up-island’ — like, you have to pack a sandwich to get to Smithtown — but it’s closer than you think. And we do live in interesting times,” Harris said. “So it’s always on my radar, that someone at some point is probably going to walk in the door and want to see a book removed from the shelves, and we have a policy and a procedure in place for that.”

Most East End libraries have a materials selection policy and challenge policy, which involves a reconsideration form for anyone requesting a book to be removed from a collection.

In Westhampton Beach, the first question is, “Have you read the book in its entirety?” Zonderman said — “the answer to which, you might not be surprised to know, is usually, ‘No.’”

Regardless, the objection would then be reviewed by a committee and a determination would be made, with the opportunity to appeal. To be clear, Michne said that library staff want to listen but are “very much going to defend everybody’s constitutional right to read whatever they want.”

In addition to the challenge policy, at John Jermain Memorial Library, there is also a book display policy, which requires a submitted form for any part of the display that draws ire. “Our goal in life is to never have those two things happen,” Harris said.

Local librarians reported zero bans or even officially challenged books in recent memory, though the same does not apply to more casual, vocal opposition. To combat it, some libraries have adopted a Freedom To Read Policy and a Library Bill of Rights, among them Rogers Memorial Library in Southampton, reported director Liz Burns.

“These last two are ones the library is proud to espouse,” Burns said, “particularly during the last few years, when book challenges have become more common, even on Long Island.”

At Hampton Library, Michne said a parent approached her about a graphic novel that she found inappropriate for her child — a complaint that the librarian took seriously, but she ultimately determined that the book was in the age-appropriate section.

While working as a children’s librarian at the Riverhead Free Library, Giresi recalled when a parent pointed to a picture book about Dr. Anthony Fauci and the importance of masking during the COVID-19 pandemic, and commented that she “wishes she could take the book and burn it.”

“Parents have the right to guide their children’s reading, but only their children,” Giresi said. “They really shouldn’t be making decisions for other people’s kids.”

But it was an experience while the librarian, who uses “she/he/they” pronouns, was a trainee that has stuck with her, she said. And, unsurprisingly, it was about “Gender Queer: A Memoir” by Maia Kobabe — the most challenged book for two years running.

The parent had pulled Giresi aside and asked her, “Do you carry this book? Do you think that you should? It’s pornographic,” the librarian recalled, showing her pictures that she took of the book. Giresi said she thanked her for her concern and that she’d report it to her supervisor — but in hindsight, she would have handled that differently.

“I wish I told her, like, if that book had been out when I was a kid, that would have been life-changing,” she said. “It just would have been. I would have just tried to explain to her as calmly as possible, ‘Just don’t check it out.’”

At its core, the act of challenging books, or questioning them, is not inherently wrong, Giresi said, though she largely disagrees with many of the motives behind it. Groups like Moms for Liberty — which has a Suffolk County chapter — have circulated lists of books that they condemn, leading to cases involving 100 or more books reported in 11 states, compared to six during the same reporting period last year and none in 2021, according to the American Library Association.

In the past, most challenges to library resources focused on a single book.

“On one hand, I’m surprised that it hasn’t happened already and on the same hand, that sort of makes me hopeful that it’s not gonna happen very much here if it hasn’t already — but I don’t really believe that,” Zonderman said. “If we start to see it here, just because it starts coming does not mean we have to let it happen, and we can come together and have a difference.

“We just have to be willing to do it,” she continued, “and I know there are people here who are just waiting for the call. But it’s important. We have to be informed and we have to be willing to stand up.”

On Friday evening, Zonderman was three-quarters of the way through pulling banned and challenged books. When she finally finished, the last title would be: “Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl” by Anne Frank.

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