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Notes from Executive Director Scott Garrison – Mar 2023

This month, I’ll reflect on Dr. Emily Knox’s thought-provoking Feb. 7 lecture on intellectual freedom, book banning, and more that MCLS co-sponsored with Western Michigan University (WMU). Dr. Knox’s books include Book Banning In 21st Century America and Foundations of Intellectual Freedom. Her events drew a wide audience of academic, public, and school librarians and others. I’ll recap Dr. Knox’s Feb. 8 workshop in April. 

In introducing Dr. Knox’s lecture, WMU Libraries Dean Julie Garrison noted that while book bans happen predominantly in schools and public libraries, higher education is increasingly seeing challenges to free speech and academic freedom (in many of the same states that Think Space speakers have mentioned, e.g., Florida, Idaho, Iowa, and Texas). 

Dr. Knox began by setting some context on intellectual freedom (which most outside libraries refer to as “free speech”) and censorship. She described the American Library Association (ALA)’s concept of intellectual freedom as the right of every individual to both seek and receive information, from all points of view without restriction. Intellectual freedom provides for free access to all expressions of ideas, through which any side on all sides of a question, cause, or movement may be explored. Censorship is the opposite: suppression of ideas and information that certain persons, individuals, groups, or government officials find dangerous or objectionable. 

 Next, Dr. Knox explained how she looks at intellectual freedom through several lenses: 

  • Legal: e.g., the National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC) has First Amendment lawyers who discuss what the law allows in exploring ideas. 
  • Philosophical: considering ethics, morality, the question of neutrality, and information access. 
  • Privacy: an important issue that manifests differently when a person reads a physical book with a visible cover versus an eBook without one, or reads aloud versus silently. 
  • Access: e.g., considering selection, classification, and a bibliography that records what’s been challenged when. Keeping track of challenges shows what people in society are thinking about and what disruptions are taking place, based on what’s been banned most at a given time. 
  • Policy development: libraries must have and update policies regularly, including for reconsideration requests and other challenges. 

She then outlined four Rs of censorship: redaction (marking information out in a text); restriction (requiring permission to read); relocation (moving a book, i.e., from one section of a library to another); and removal (removing a book from a collection entirely). Redaction can influence a person’s experience with and interpretation of a work. Restriction can ignore a work’s intended audience. Relocation does not necessarily place a physical barrier around accessing a work. Removal is what most think of as censorship. Dr. Knox suggested considering where a book is being removed from – i.e., a curriculum, a library, a summer reading program, or elsewhere – and what people are really asking for when requesting removal. She also considers how library workers can “censor passively,” perhaps by not selecting a work out of fear that others will censor it, or due to personal bias. 

People use different justifications to apply the four Rs, based on relationships between power, identity, and the nature of knowledge. Book challenges can be interesting because people on both sides can become so passionate, with challengers sometimes reading excerpts aloud or bringing enlarged images they find especially troubling to public meetings (which has happened in Indiana and Michigan). In fact, book banning can be futile given how many ways there are to get a book. What are people really trying to accomplish when they say they don’t want a book in their community? 

In her work on reading practices, Dr. Knox focuses on how a text’s meaning doesn’t reside within it, but rather that we each read from our own perspectives and our interpretation creates meaning for us as individuals. Reading is also social, as we recommend books to each other and can form community around interpretations. This is complicated by the concept of “difficult knowledge,” i.e., that people are worried about knowledge that many adults find challenging to address in their own lives, but especially with children. Will children who have less critical distance from text automatically interpret it one way and “do what the text says” (e.g., if a child reads about different ideas of gender, will they develop different ideas for themselves and change their gender)? How do people grow from being “innocent” (however defined), and how do we give them vocabulary to discuss their own lives? This topic prompts me to also ask for whom which knowledge is most difficult and why, for whom which text may have a “harmful effect” and according to whom, who claims power over which knowledge for whom, and how all of that does and should manifest in collection decisions libraries make for different audiences. 

Dr. Knox suggested that censorship attempts are often harmful because they deny children both agency and vocabulary to describe their own bodies and lives. She cited the example of a Moms for Liberty challenge to Ruby Bridges Goes to School, which includes photographs (and images by American artist Norman Rockwell) depicting racism, which author Ruby Bridges experienced directly and includes in telling her story. She questioned how those who would request reconsideration for The Hate U Give “see no literary value” in a book about a person grieving the death of a friend and the movement in support of Black lives. 

The concept of difficult knowledge may lead some to raise a question about a reader’s comfort level reading a text out loud to others, or at all, and whether a school should require or even include that text in a library collection. Could a student opt out of reading The Bluest Eye and read something else for a comparable learning experience without exposing them to uncomfortable, difficult knowledge (i.e., in terms of words in ALA’s Censorship By the Numbers infographic)? Should a curriculum require parental permission to read certain books, and offer alternative works to “protect children?” Which stories are acceptable, and to whom? If censorship is a response to a sense of societal decline and moral drift, who is “on the right side of morality?” Which parents are doing a “good job,” and which are “falling down on the job?” Are public institutions doing a “good job helping those who are falling down?” 

Finally, Dr. Knox suggested things library workers can do to support intellectual freedom:  

  1. Read a banned book (e.g., from the Krause List). Read something outside your comfort zone, and ask yourself: 
    • Why does it make you uncomfortable? 
    • What do you think about it? 
    • Why might someone be upset about it, and what does that mean for other people who want to think through the book’s ideas? 
  2. Be prepared. All library collections may become scrutinized for the information they provide, especially if supported by taxpayers. 
  3. Review your policies frequently, and update them. 
  4. Know who’s in charge of your library at the highest level, and what their politics are.  
  5. Identify supporters who would show up for you if there’s a challenge. 
  6. Organize (for example, via coalitions including MI Right To Read) and get involved in local politics. 
  7. Look to the Freedom To Read Foundation, PEN America, and their partners and others for ways to respond. 

Dr. Knox closed by taking questions from the audience (answers paraphrased below): 

  • Will the current book banning frenzy settle down eventually?
    Yes, but no time soon, especially following decades of social change. The U.S. is moving toward being a majority-minority country by 2040, and it is difficult for some people to talk about that. How will we respond, and be prepared? 
  • Do academic libraries have a false sense of security around all of this?
    Imagine living in “stop woke” Florida – these issues start with academic freedom. Will New College look at its library’s collection and budget? No public institution is immune from scrutiny now. Heather McGhee’s The Sum of Us addresses disinvestment in public goods including schools, colleges, and universities as non-whites have gained access.  
  • What should we be counting in terms of book bans?
    As much as possible! It would be great to have a consolidated bibliography, including all data on bans we can gather (not limited to books, and also including databases, art exhibits, and more). Collect as much information as you can, and then decide what to include. 
  • Book and intellectual freedom challenges aren’t just conservative, there are also liberal challenges. What similarities and differences do different value systems have around banning books?
    Conservative and liberal challenges alike center around the ideas that reading a book changes people, and/or that a book will harm someone if they read it. Librarianship is a classically liberal profession that focuses on the individual and their information needs. The only way to think about censoring something is to consider how it is going to hurt a group (rather than an individual the librarian serves). A group identity loses the individual and what they need and are trying to understand. Western culture sees books as important, and we read so we can change our knowledge structure and wrestle with ideas. Read The Sum of Us, and think through McGhee’s arguments. How can you argue with McGhee if you haven’t read her work? 
  • How can we protest events such as New College’s president being fired and replaced, including through statements?
    By the time events like that happen, it’s too late. We need to elect candidates who support academic and intellectual freedom. Statements are good, but librarians need to be more comfortable with political processes and speaking up. We need to get comfortable with difficult knowledge, which is hard. Also, laws around diversity, equity, and inclusion don’t work because a state doesn’t have a shared definition of what those concepts look like. Take any statement you write to the ACLU of Michigan, who can advise on whether it will inflame someone. 
  • Where can we submit challenges?
    Send information to ALA, EveryLibrary Institute, PEN America, MLA’s MI Right To Read form, or Dr. Knox directly. 
  • What advice do you have for teachers/educators who want to teach banned books and the history of book bans?
    Make sure your administration supports you doing it, and consider how much risk you are willing to take. Think through how much you want to discuss history (for example, around January 6). 
  • Are there organizations, libraries, or communities who are responding well against challenges?
    Yes. The students of York, PA, and groups in Florida and Texas are doing good work. People against intellectual freedom are better organized than people who support it, and show up like supporters don’t. 

I was struck by Dr. Knox’s point that a book is much more than just a mass market object – it is an object that contains truth, and its words have power. Ultimately, that is why people try to ban books. Following the lecture, I read the commonly-banned graphic novel Gender Queer, in which author Maia Kobabe describes a personal journey to discovering and defining identity as an individual. I as an individual interpreted it to be a brave and compelling account of a person’s struggle to grapple with gender and sexuality, which could help others who share in that struggle as they reach adulthood. I came away from reading the book feeling compassion and empathy toward a person whose lived experience is very different from my own as a straight cisgender man. As Dr. Emily Knox suggests, I’ll keep reading banned books (including The Complete Maus). I hope you do, too.   

Want to organize an event for libraries throughout our region? MCLS can help. Contact me with your idea at