September 30, 2023

Kerry Cavanaugh: A children’s librarian on why book bans are wrongheaded

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Kerry Cavanaugh, assistant editorial page editor for the LA Times, kicked off the newsletter with some thoughts about book bans.

These are difficult days for America’s librarians, who’ve been dragged into the latest culture war battle — book bans. Public and school libraries are increasingly being targeted by conservative and “parental rights” groups that want to remove or restrict access to books they deem obscene or dangerous to young minds. In the first nine months of the year, the American Library Assn. tracked efforts to censor more than 1,900 books. That was a 20% increase over the same period in 2022, which had the highest number of challenges since the association began tracking censorship attempts 20 years ago. Most of the targeted books were written by or about a person of color or a member of the LGBTQ community.

The book censorship movement came to Huntington Beach over the summer, with the City Council voting to adopt a system that would rate certain books as obscene or inappropriate and ban anyone under 18 from accessing them without parental permission. That was too much for Barbara Richardson, who was a children’s librarian for the city’s public library for 32 years until she retired in 2020.

“I’ve never, not once, had anyone come up to me and say, ‘You know what, my child’s life was ruined because of a book they checked out from the library,’” Richardson said in the latest installment of The Times’ Hear Me Out video series based on letters sent by readers.

Of course no one has complained about being harmed by a library book. Book banning is about fearmongering and control over what other people are allowed to think. Such efforts to censor or restrict books must be deeply frustrating for librarians, who specialize in creating judgment-free spaces for people to read, explore and learn. And if these activists think library censorship is shielding young people from mature or risqué topics, they’re fooling themselves. Kids are growing up in a world where every imaginable — and unimaginable — topic is readily available by search on a computer or smartphone. Library offerings are tame and sanitized by comparison.

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