By The Herald Editorial Board
The display at Everett Public Library’s downtown branch for Banned Books Week, which begins today, is disconcerting, baffling — “Charlotte’s Web”? —and might seem self-contradictory at first; books with a history of being banned or removed from shelves elsewhere carry a label that invites library users to “Read Banned Books,” but the difficulty faced by some to do so is reflected in the yellow paper band that keeps each book’s covers shut; until you dare to slip the band off and check out a “forbidden” tome.
That’s the warning and the celebration that is being marked this week by Everett Public Library and Sno-Isle Libraries at its 23 locations in communities throughout Snohomish and Island counties.
It’s a condemnation of efforts to suppress books and publications, but it also honors the freedom of speech and thought that Americans enjoy, said Abigail Cooley, who will mark five years as the director of the Everett Public Library’s two branches this November.
“Banned Books Week to me is like one solid week to really bring attention to intellectual freedom and censorship and the books that have been challenged,” Cooley said in an interview last week. “But intellectual freedom and access to books is at the forefront of what we do every day. In some ways we celebrate that every day.”
Everett and Snohomish and Island counties can seem far removed from the controversies elsewhere in the country as schools and public libraries face challenges from those who demand particular books be sequestered or removed from shelves. Yet the instances of such challenges are growing in the US
PEN America, an interest group promoting the freedom to write, in a report this year, “Banned in the USA,” found that for the nine months between July 2021 and March of this year, at least 1,145 titles by 874 authors and 198 illustrators were removed from school libraries or banned from classroom use, either by challenges by parents, educators, administrators, school board members or in response to laws passed by state legislators, affecting 86 school districts, 2,899 schools and 2 million students in 26 states.
And the challenges in schools have spread to public libraries. The director of the county library district in Bonners Ferry, Idaho, announced her resignation recently, amid a campaign to recall four of the five library trustees who balked at demands to remove books, particularly from a list of 400 titles, many meant for young adult readers with LGBTQ characters, sexual content or occult story lines, NBC News reported. The fact that the library had none of the listed titles didn’t end the campaign, with activists hounding the director from her job when she defended the First Amendment rights of library patrons.
In Texas, county commissioners voted to suspend one county library system’s electronic book service, OverDrive, because, they said, it lacked sufficient parental controls, The Washington Post reported. The move cut off access to all e-books for seniors and people with disabilities unable to visit library branches.
Thankfully, libraries here aren’t seeing the same demands to remove books or restrict access, Cooley said; still it’s chilling to see in any community librarians losing jobs and boards challenged and threatened with recall for defending books and intellectual curiosity.
This is not to say that librarians at Everett or Sno-Isle ignore concerns about particular books when parents and others bring questions to them.
Parents have every right to information, Cooley said, when they’re uncertain about material and whether it’s appropriate. A lot of the conversations, she said, are a chance to guide parents to material that they will find appropriate for their children.
“We support and encourage parents to make decisions for their child but then to leave that right for the other parents and not make decisions for other children,” she said.
Jessica Russell, assistant director for collection services for Sno-Isle Libraries, agrees; she and the libraries’ staffs encourage those conversations to help patrons find the books they’re looking for.
“The important thing for our customers to know is that we serve a wide range of readers and very diverse communities, so we are always looking to have a book for every reader. But we recognize that not every book is for every reader, and that’s OK,” said Russell, who has been with Sno-Isle since 2019.
Sno-Isle is using the week to emphasize that effort to encourage exploration of its libraries’ collections, which in total includes some 1 million items, not including what is available as e-books on its own OverDrive service.
Rather than a Banned Books Week focus, Sno-Isle is launching its “Freedom to Read” week with book groups and story times at each branch library and a listing of staff picks and other resources on the Sno-Isle website.
“We are celebrating in all kinds of library ways,” Russell said. “We have some hand-picked book lists and our digital OverDrive page, emphasizing books for everyone in the community. Our community libraries have displays up, and are helping customers find the right book.”
Everett Public Library, along with its regular schedule of programs and story times is pointing patrons to links to a series of virtual conversations with authors, librarians and others regarding young adult literature, fighting book bans and defending access to books in libraries.
That emphasis on matching reader and book is reflected in how both library systems approach their collections and how they consider new books for addition to the libraries.
Everett, Cooley said, relies on its section librarians — who each have a masters in library science and have been trained in assembling collections — to comb through recommendations, best-seller lists and reader requests when adding titles. Sno-Isle, Russell said, does much the same at the individual library level, noting in particular books that readers request but that aren’t yet available at its libraries.
While the approach in marking the week by each library system differs a bit, the message is the same; to assure that a diverse selection of books is on shelves and online and to connect the right title with each reader.
“Reading is about joy,” Russell said. “If what you’re reading does not make you joyful, close it up and let’s find you a different book. There’s an endless supply of stories out there and there’s a story for every reader.”