Emily Articulated: Libraries

By Emily Erickson
Reader Columnist

I’ve loved libraries my whole life, starting with the Lettie Jensen Community Library, perched picturesquely on a riverbank in my hometown. This library was a middle point on the path between my house and school, and was filled with even, colorful rows of Magic Tree House and Goosebumps books — titles often neatly stacked in threes and fours in my backpack.

I’d chatter with the library assistant about new releases as she stamped the little card on the inside cover of each new book, set to be returned in two weeks’ time, like a promise that all the stories I hadn’t yet read would still be there waiting for me when I finished the ones I’d checked out.

Emily Erickson.

As I got older, libraries became spaces of learning just as much as they were places of escape and entertainment. They were refuges for quiet homework sessions, resource centers for subjects about which I was researching (as efficiently as my ability to navigate the card catalog system would allow) and, in college, spaces for my laptop and me to tuck into and write the essays that would precede this column.

It’s that college library, the Saint Norbert College Mulva Library, that so aptly defines the importance of these spaces, describing them as places “where people and ideas converge and spark the creation of new knowledge.” 

This convergence and that potential for sharing ideas and sparking new knowledge is what so often makes libraries epicenters for cultural and political discord — a reality that is currently top of mind across the country, at state, regional and community levels. 

In the New York Times article, “A Fast-Growing Network of Conservative Groups Is Fueling a Surge in Book Bans,” writers Elizabeth Harris and Alexandra Alter describe the nationwide political action committees and funded campaigns seeking to influence the kinds of books and subjects to which people (specifically children) have access. 

According to the article, “The materials the groups object to are often described in policies and legislation as sensitive, inappropriate or pornographic. In practice, the books most frequently targeted for removal have been by or about Black or LGBTQ people, according to the American Library Association.”

Similarly, a recent study by PEN America found that subjects of books most likely to be challenged focus on communities of color, the history of racism in America and, most frequently of late, LGBTQ themes and characters — which made up nearly a third of all challenged books in the 2022-’23 school year.

This targeted challenge holds true at the local level, with Stacy Rodriguez running to replace incumbent Susan Shea in the Tuesday, May 16 election for a seat on the Bonner County Library Board of Trustees. 

Rodriguez outlined her local application of this nationwide campaign claiming at an April 19 candidates’ forum, “For the past several years, our library has adopted the radical dictates of the ALA,” an organization she also described as being run by a “Marxist lesbian.”   

Similar to other popular tacts across the country (like those used by Texas school board candidates funded by Patriot Mobile or Moms for Liberty in Florida), Rodrigez positions her argument as fighting against “obscenity” and the sexualization of children, worrying that her own kids might stumble out of the children’s section and into books that depict, “little Johnny giving little Georgie a you-know-what,” as she said at the April 19 forum. Instead, she’s proposing an age-restricted section of the library for such materials.

Stephana Ferrell, one of the founders of Freedom to Read, a Texas organization offering guidance to librarians tasked with standing up to these targeted campaigns, offers insight into the well-worn argument, sharing, “They don’t want to use the word ‘ban.’ Instead they ‘remove,’ ‘relocate,’ ‘restrict’ — all these other words that aren’t ‘ban.’ But it’s a ban.”

Personally, I’m weary of these thinly-veiled national campaigns making their way into our community conversations, let alone our elections. I question the frequency with which children are straying from the colorful rows of age-appropriate fiction to find themselves immersed in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale or Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, forever scarred by the content they weren’t mature enough to consume while their guardians were in the bathroom.

Libraries are cornerstones of community; inclusionary spaces that should allow for unfettered freedom to learn and explore. They hold significance for people from all walks of life, and with varying means of accessing resources and knowledge.

Because of this, they’re the last places that should be hotbeds for political influence, especially when that influence is funded by the deep pockets and narrow points of view. They should be run by people who understand and respect the role of libraries, and who care about the real and relevant responsibilities of maintaining these precious spaces.

I hope you all get out and vote.

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