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Challenges to books at Ky. libraries tripled in 2022 amid national jump in attempted bans

Stacks of books are pictured on the left and right  a 
 side of a walkway.

Like libraries nationwide, Kentucky libraries experienced a surge in challenges to materials in 2022.

Data released by the American Library Association’s Office of Intellectual Freedom earlier this week indicated the number of challenges nearly doubled in the U.S. since 2021, but in Kentucky they tripled. The number of attempts to restrict materials went from just seven to 22 and the number of titles challenged rose from 23 to 70.

Andrew Adler is the president of the Kentucky Library Association, the state’s ALA chapter. He said most of the challenged titles have to do with LGBTQIA+ lifestyles or sexuality and that these challenges are motivated by “a culture of fear and misunderstanding.”

“As a librarian and someone who values anti-censorship and intellectual freedom, I am very appalled and concerned by what we're seeing nationally. [People are] challenging these materials and the way in which they are being categorized and described … has been as ‘pornographic’ and ‘subversive,’ whenever they are definitely not,” Adler said. “The idea of trying to silence and limit voices that, for so long, have always had been oppressed historically, to try to continue to do that, and see those challenges continue is something that is concerning to me, and very disheartening.

“The way they've been categorized and attacked is something that I believe that all people should be concerned about, not just librarians, but the larger public as well.”

President Joe Biden also acknowledged the rising trend in attempted book bans earlier this week when he announced he was running for office again.

PEN America – a nonprofit tracking national book ban data – found more than 40% of the books challenged in the U.S. in 2022 had to do with LGBTQIA+ lifestyles or sexuality and 21% dealt with issues of race or racism.

There were nearly 1,300 demands to censor library books and resources in 2022 — nearly double the 2021 total. That's the highest total of attempted book bans since ALA started compiling data more than 20 years ago.

Nearly 51% of the attempts to challenge or censor books took place in school libraries and schools and 48% of book challenges targeted materials in public libraries.

The most challenged book nationwide, and in Kentucky, in 2022 was Maia Kobabe’s graphic memoir “Gender Queer.”

Maia Kobabe

Jen Gilbert is a school librarian in Henry County and the president of the Kentucky Association of School Librarians. Gilbert said some challenges have attempted to restrict as many as 25 books at a time.

“There's definitely way more than have happened in previous years,” she said. “Probably what's most unusual is just the ones that are happening in mass.”

That’s in line with what American Library Association president Lessa Kananiʻopua Pelayo-Lozada said is happening across the U.S. She said in the past titles, were challenged when a parent or other community member saw a book in the library they didn't like. But now, things are different: "Now we're seeing organized attempts by groups to censor multiple titles throughout the country without actually having read many of these books."

This represents a big shift in the past year. A 2022 poll commissioned by the ALA found “national bipartisan support for the freedom to read.” The data indicated that over 70% of U.S. voters are against efforts to remove books from public libraries, including 75% of Democrats, 70% of Republicans and 58% of Independents.

The wave of challenges in Kentucky last year preceded legislation passed by the state legislature this spring that lawmakers said would make challenging obscene material easier. It also comes a year after another bill passed into law granted local officials more power over who sits on the boards that govern libraries.

Senate Bill 5 – sponsored by Republican Sen. Jason Howell of Murray – mandated that school districts have a process in place when it comes to material challenges. It also defined what sort of material can be classified as “harmful to minors.” That bill passed into law without Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear’s signature in March.

Adler said all but two of Kentucky’s 171 school districts already had a policy in place and that the bill was “a solution in search of a problem.”

Howell told the Senate, “The great thing about this bill is it keeps us from deciding this up here as legislation,” in reference to the authority of school boards to review parents’ complaints. The far western Kentucky senator did not respond to requests for comment.

After the bill was delivered to Kentucky Secretary of State Michael Adams without Beshear’s signature, the Republican Party of Kentucky released a statement accusing Beshear of taking “the coward’s way out” and not standing up for parental rights in education.

Gilbert said that challenges can be costly and time-consuming for library systems. Some have policies that include purchasing enough copies for every member of an evaluation committee to be able to read and discuss the work before making a ruling on the material in question.

“In general, you put a committee together, and you take a lot of time to consider that one work. When that suddenly balloons to that many titles, then that can't continue to happen in the same way with the same fidelity,” Gilbert said. “It quickly becomes a question [of] how do you actually address those [challenges] then. In one county, they're almost done with the first batch of 20 and another batch has already come in.”

Gilbert said her and her school librarian colleagues “want to protect kids all the time” and they’re willing to work with parents to offer alternatives to any required text they’re concerned about their children reading.

However, she doesn’t think libraries should outright ban materials that could be helpful for other students.

“There already have been processes and ways to talk that through and to work with parents and – when there's a problem with a student and a concern – that can be addressed without removing the rights of an entire school’s worth of students,” Gilbert said. “I really feel like, what it's landed us is [that] it's easier to take things away now and that concerns me.”

What the future holds for challenges in Kentucky’s libraries is difficult for Adler to project, but he anticipates more of them.

“Each independent library system will have to make their own decisions as to how they're going to face these challenges and face these movements against some of these titles,” he said. “What I suspect is that a number of them are going to go back and review their policies and see in what ways can they work to continue to protect the values that are important to the profession and to ensure that we are fulfilling our missions to provide information access and material access to all members of the Commonwealth.”
Copyright 2023 WKMS. To see more, visit WKMS.

Derek Operle

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