How Illinois Librarians Are Waging War on Literary Censorship

Amid the highest rise in book challenges that the United States has ever seen, Illinois has become the first state to pass a law banning book bans in state-funded libraries. Librarians across the state have long been preparing for and fighting against literary censorship, and this proactive legislation is just the first step in progressing the intellectual freedom cause. Cover graphic by Ruth Chang for Midstory.

“Of Mice and Men,” “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “The Catcher in the Rye.” They have more in common than being household classics of American literature — they are also among the most banned books in the United States since 1990.

But one Midwestern state has interrupted a national pattern of book banning. On June 12, 2023, Illinois’ Gov. J.B. Pritzker officially passed a bill to place a ban on book bans. The law prevents censorship and celebrates diversity of thought by mandating that libraries will lose state funding if they attempt to ban books or fail to adhere to the American Library Association’s Bill of Rights. The legislation, which is the first of its kind, will come into effect on January 1, 2024. 

Literary censorship has a rich and troubling history in the United States and can be traced back to colonial America when religious disputes were a topic of high controversy. Later, in the 19th century, slavery caused another wave of censorship in literature of the South. Books have been banned for various reasons: some challenged long-standing social standards, some carried problematic political beliefs and others contained material deemed overly explicit.

Now, schools and libraries have become a battleground for the war on books, with books being challenged at a more rapid pace than the country has ever seen. PEN America found 1,477 instances of individual books banned in the first half of the 2022-2023 school year, a 28% increase from just six months prior.

According to Dr. Emily Knox, associate professor at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and author of “Book Banning in 21st Century America,” the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020 was a catalyst for the recent book-challenging movement.

“A lot of parents hadn’t known what was going on at school,” Knox said. “I think this made a lot of parents very nervous about what their children were learning [and] what was being taught.”

A book ban protest held in 2022. Image courtesy of John Ramspott via Wikimedia Commons.

But out of the challenges and subsequent legislature, a hero emerges: the librarian. As public and school librarians come under fire for their book selections, their role in fighting literary censorship takes on new significance. In fact, this is exactly how the bill came to be.

The ban on book bans initiative was spearheaded by Illinois Secretary of State Alexi Giannoulias, who also serves as the state librarian.

“When people ask me about Alexi Giannoulias, I tell them that he is a library fanboy,” Cynthia Robinson, executive director of the Illinois Library Association, said. “He loves libraries, and he understands libraries. He served on the Chicago Public Library Board; he takes his children to the library. He understands that libraries are at the heart of democracy.”

Librarians across the state agree with Giannoulias’ sentiments — the Illinois Library Association asked their members to submit a slip to indicate their support of the legislation.

“We ended up having over 1,100 members sign it,” said Robinson. “The response was so positive for my members. People were very, very excited.”

Part of the excitement for Illinois’ librarians stems from the freedom to continue their collection development knowing they are backed by the state if an instance of challenge should arise.

“You can’t censor-proof your library. Someone’s gonna get upset about something in your library,” Dr. Knox said. “But I do tell librarians to make sure your administration is on your side.”

Avoiding book challenges is a tricky path for librarians to navigate. Dr. Knox emphasized the importance of written collection development policies for individual libraries’ needs.

“If you are developing collections for the school, an elementary school, that is not the same thing as developing a collection for a large metropolitan public library. They have different missions. They have different obligations to their constituents,” Dr. Knox said.

Selection policies supported by administrative boards are preventative measures for combating attempts of censorship. But for Dr. Kristina Weber, school librarian and intellectual freedom chair for the Association of Illinois School Library Educators (AISLE), there are concerns about the residual consequences of book challenges.

“What all of these book ban threats are doing is it’s making schools, school librarians, maybe other librarians, scared,” Dr. Weber said. “I worry that what that’s going to do is create kind of a perfect environment for self-censorship, and for people to just make collection development decisions that they deem as safe.”

While the state ban on book bans liberates librarians from some responsibility, the selection decisions ultimately remain in their hands and may therefore be impacted by biases or threats of censorship.

Librarians also have the option to ignore the legislation as there is no punitive measure in the law; a withdrawal of state funds may be of little consequence for libraries that rely on funding from sources other than the state. But, as Robinson noted, Illinois’ public and monetary backing of intellectual freedom is more than just a legal move.

“This legislation is a reminder to trustees that they have a role to serve the entire community,” Robinson said. “A library should serve its whole community … communities are going to be different, but you can’t remove something that has been selected.”

Lincoln Public Library, Lincoln, Illinois. Image courtesy of Nyttend via Wikimedia Commons.

So how are books selected? Or how should they be? And what happens when they’re challenged?

Mike Starasta has a long career in library and public sector roles and is currently the director of Lincoln Public Library in Lincoln, Illinois. He explained that understanding the community’s needs is an essential factor of library collection curation.

“We also try to have a collection that is very diverse, that can reach people who have a variety of interests and needs,” Starasta said. “And try to look at the needs of the community as well … We’re a town of 12,000 people and it’s small enough that you can get to know people fairly well.”

Along with familiarizing himself with his library users, Starasta also acknowledged the need for formal preemptive processes in response to challenges.

According to Starasta, the Lincoln Public Library is currently designing plans for how their library would deal with a book challenge. Although they have not faced a challenge themselves, their decision is a response to the rise in ban threats faced by other Illinois libraries. 

Collaboration between public and school libraries across Illinois is integral to the state’s battle against literary censorship. Dr. Weber explains how this is a core part of AISLE’s mission and services following the challenge movement.

“We’re working on putting together a rapid response team made up of members of the different library organizations around the state,” Dr. Weber said. “So that if a public school or institutional library is dealing with a book challenge, there can be volunteers in that particular area of the state ready to help and just come to their aid.”

AISLE operates in chapters across Illinois, connecting librarians in local areas to foster collaboration, networking, professional development and advocacy. They also provide intellectual freedom resources for librarians preparing to face a challenge, as well as a reporting form to provide support if a challenge is made.

“We’re trying to be as proactive as possible, and to make sure that everyone has the information that they need, the support that they need, and also the legislative backing that they need so that we don’t see the same kind of issues that you’re seeing in other states,” Dr. Weber said.

Where some states like Georgia are making it easier to file complaints about library books, Illinois librarians are swimming against the tide — and using their state’s innate passion for freedom to do so.

“Illinois is really a place that is not into keeping people from reading or doing things,” Dr. Knox said. “Illinois is a rather ‘live and let live’ state.”

While other states, such as New Jersey, are already discussing laws of a similar nature and using Illinois as a blueprint, Dr. Knox emphasized that the law is just a start — and that states must work harder to increase funding for libraries, raise staff salaries and provide more resources for libraries. 

Nonetheless, experts agree that it’s an important start for this and subsequent generations.

“[Children] are still making decisions about who they are as readers, and they’re learning about their world, and they need to be able to go to books to learn about the world,” Dr. Weber said. “They need to be able to see themselves and others and build empathy … And if we take away that ability — I don’t want to see that.”


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