The Burning of America's Library

amidst wide concern over the rise of the right wing "book ban," a reality check, an exploration of the activist librarian, and a question: have we lost america's neutral public spaces?
Kat Rosenfield

Few images capture the American imagination like the burning book. We’re a nation that loves freedom, and core to the concept of “freedom” is speech, itself instantiated in words. Over the last year, with battles across the country, the notion America’s right wing is obsessed with banning books has become a favored talking point among our press… which itself demands censorship of speech online. Problem? In the first place, the war on books is absolute, with both of our major political poles ferociously engaged. In the second, banning books is close to impossible in the age of the internet. So what are we really talking about?

In today’s Sunday feature, Kat Rosenfield explores the “ban saga,” with the suggestion this culture war drama is not about books at all, but rather where they live — the library. Americans aren’t arguing over any one or several texts, or even the value of speech. We’re arguing over the public space, which is supposed to be neutral.

-Solana

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Perhaps you have heard: the book banners are at it again.

One of the biggest narratives of the summer, if not the entire year, goes something like this: all across America, and particularly in deplorable redneck enclaves like [checks notes] the entire state of Florida, precious books are being torn wholesale from the hands of innocent schoolchildren. The reporting makes clear that we should understand this as the literary equivalent of a hate crime — many of the targeted books contain either LGBT or racial themes (subtext: for exactly the reasons you think) — and the perpetrators as a cabal of puritanical bigots dressed up as PTA moms. Fascism is on its way to a library near you, buried in the belly of a Trojan horse known as the "parents' rights movement."

Alas, here our aspiring culture warrior encounters a problem, as the villain he's so desperate to battle doesn't actually exist. And the book banning epidemic gripping the country, which has spawned hundreds of headlines, thousands of tweets, and an open letter from former President Barack Obama?

Yeah, also not real.

It's hard to overstate how bad the coverage of this issue has been, and how misleading. This article is an attempt to illuminate what's missing from the conversation, and how the fight about "banned books" acts as a smokescreen for the actual issue at hand: an existential power struggle to politicize the few remaining ideologically neutral spaces in the country.

It’s not a ban when we do it

If the headlines are to be believed, book banning is exclusively the purview of the political right. The restriction of the graphic Holocaust memoir Maus at a school in Tennessee; the reshelving of Amanda Gorman's inauguration poem, "The Hill We Climb," for middle school instead of elementary school readers at a school library in Florida; the ongoing imbroglio over the graphic memoir Gender Queer, which features a strap-on blowjob scene that is simultaneously too boring to qualify as pornography yet also too explicit to be shown on television: every one of these incidents became a global news story, fueled by a media class that is heavily invested in the narrative of a national censorship crisis, and even moreso in the idea of a slavering mass of would-be book burners rioting in MAGA gear on the steps of every library in America.

It's true that incidents like these tend to be initiated by conservatives concerned that the content of certain books is inappropriate for children — although in many cases, it's more like one conservative for whom trying to get books removed from the library has become something akin to a weird hobby (one analysis found that 60 percent of challenges from the 2021-2022 school year were initiated by just eleven people). But this isn't the whole story when it comes to the removal or restriction of books that someone finds morally objectionable. For every parents' rights group demanding the removal of Gender Queer from the school library, members of the political left have their own, no less ideology-driven ways of restricting access to books. The only difference is there's no oversight, and no media outcry. 

Every year, librarians and educators quietly purge their shelves of titles they've deemed outdated, irrelevant, or offensive in a process known as weeding. This is standard practice in school and public libraries across the country, and just as reflective of political pieties as the highly-publicized challenges to books like Gender Queer. Like so many other professions, library science has become increasingly preoccupied with progressive politics in recent years, while the notion that the library should remain apolitical is increasingly unpopular among those who work there. In 2016, librarians donated to Hillary Clinton's campaign over Trump's by a ratio of 419 to 1. The annual conferences of the American Library Association (ALA), the oldest and largest professional consortium of librarians, are packed with DEI-related programming, and librarians are instrumental in the DisruptTexts and Decolonize Your Bookshelf movements designed to steer readers away from the problematic classics written by straight, white men. Even the Dewey decimal system has been declared racist.

The archetypal librarian ingrained in the American imagination (and whom many of us still remember from our youth) might have shushed you for talking too loudly, but she'd happily connect you with any book you wanted. Today's librarians, on the other hand, often see themselves not only as custodians of literature, but gatekeepers, educators, and activists, and they've been as instrumental as anyone in turning the library from an ideologically neutral space into a political battleground.

Once a book has been deemed "harmful" — that is, guilty of one of the -isms or -phobias — it's not unusual for librarians to look for ways to keep it out of children's hands, if not pull it from the shelves entirely. There are many ways to suppress a library book when you're the one in control of which titles get displayed, promoted, and included on reading lists (just this week in the UK, a "best practices" guide for librarians reportedly advised keeping books by "transphobic" authors out of sight and off recommendation lists lest the reading public become distressed). As one blog post on the American Library Association website coyly explains, "While I’m not saying you need to out-and-out remove Tikki Tikki Tembo, Dr. Seuss or Little House on the Prairie from your library, what I am saying is we all — most especially white librarians — need to be more conscious of the messages our recommendations send to our public, and the lessons children are learning from those recommendations. If a classic isn’t circulating the way it used to, if it no longer meets the criteria set for inclusion in your collection — maybe it’s time to weed."

In other words, we're not saying you need to remove this book. We're saying, you should do everything in your power to stop people from reading this book, and then remove it because people aren't reading it anymore… for some strange reason.

Needless to say, this brand of content suppression rarely makes the news, nor do the people doing it want to admit that they're engaged in their own culture war over books they perceive as morally objectionable. When Sherman Alexie's works were removed from the curricula at various high schools after allegations of sexual misconduct on the part of the author, educators insisted this was a completely different thing from, e.g., the comparable removal of Maus from that eighth grade curriculum in Tennessee: "I would argue that removing a book from a course syllabus is not the same as censorship. The book is not banned. It is still for sale, and still in the library," one wrote.

Similarly, when the Dr. Seuss estate announced the discontinuation of several titles by the author on the basis that they contained racially insensitive imagery, a librarian writing on the site Book Riot instructed librarians everywhere to pull those books from their collections, while also tying herself in knots to explain why suppressing these particular titles on moral grounds was absolutely nothing like those nasty Republican book bans:

"It’s not censorship. It’s responsible collection curation. It’s not censorship. It’s being accountable to your community, which is comprised of people from a myriad of backgrounds.

It’s not censorship. It’s accountability."

Banning? Censorship? Ha, ha! No, that's what the other guy does. Us? We're just decolonizing our bookshelves. Nothing to see here.

But hypocrisy aside, there's a point here:

Nobody is actually banning books

The ubiquity of the term, "book ban," elides the fact that book bans as such don't really exist anymore. Like compact discs and video cassettes, the book ban as originally defined — that is, the widespread suppression of a work of literature by representatives of the government — is an artifact of the pre-digital era. What could be destroyed, and hence suppressed, in the age of physical media is now not only impossible to constrain but infinitely reproducible. Consider what happens when people try to enact one of these OG book bans, as the Dr. Seuss estate did in 2021 when it decided to discontinue his less-enlightened works. The publisher stopped printing the books, eBay started delisting resales of McElligott's Pool as if it were Nazi paraphernalia… and absolutely none of it mattered. Complete PDF downloads of the offending texts were already (and remain) ubiquitous online.

This is the reality of content suppression in the digital era. "Burning" used to be the thing you did to eliminate a book from the public sphere; now, it's the thing you do to create one more copy of a forbidden file — or one million more. Every book that Republicans have allegedly banned within the past year has been broadly accessible throughout, in various spaces both on and off the internet. In cases where a book has been removed from the curriculum at a given school, the "banned" book often even remains on shelves in the school library.

Indeed, in the digital age, the only way to even come close to a true-blue book ban is to stop it at the source, by preventing the book from being written or published. By the time you're talking about limiting its distribution in a library setting, you're not really fighting about the book anymore. You're engaged in a bigger, uglier power struggle for the soul of the library itself. Which brings us to this:

It's not about the books

This is perhaps the most important context missing from the "book banning" discourse: absolutely none of this is about the books themselves. This is also the good news: despite the efforts of folks on both sides of the political aisle, and despite the enormous amount of ink spilled about the scourge of book bans, the actual content of most school libraries — even the ones in Florida — remains truly and wildly diverse in the original sense of the word. For every explicitly ideological YA book aimed at gender-questioning or LGBT youth, there's a slew of ordinary coming of age novels, faith-based books about troubled Christian teens, and no shortage of deeply unwoke heterosexual smut for the brazen few who are both nerdy and horny enough to go digging through the stacks for Flowers in the Attic or Clan of the Cave Bear (a.k.a. every school library's true, albeit silent constituency).

Instead, this is a conflict centered on the library as a public institution — and more specifically, on what happens when one of those institutions abandons political neutrality as a core value. We've already seen how this has played out in media and academia, how the perception of political partisanship leads to a catastrophic loss of trust. As the columnist Megan McArdle notes, "It turns out that if you treat your profession as an explicitly political project, people will extend your profession the same trust they extend politicians."

People also begin to see your institution as reasonably subject to the rules of representative democracy. Politicize the library, and people will demand a vote. After all, who does the library belong to? Who is it for?

There was a time when the answer to that question was unequivocal. To quote a poster that used to hang on the wall of the public library in my upstate New York hometown, "Everyone is welcome at the library!" But today, with libraries operating as part-time political provocateurs, hosting drag queen story hours and staging exhibits of violence-tinged and explicitly ideological art, the answer is more like a riff on Orwell: Everyone is welcome at the library, but some are more welcome than others.

This is the source of the angst and the anger, and the reason why individual stories about individual book bans are such a worthless distraction. When parents lobby to restrict titles like Gender Queer, what many are responding to is the sense that this book's presence on the shelf symbolizes something, the same something symbolized by, e.g., the national conflict over whether schools can assist in the social transition of minor children while keeping said transition secret from their parents. At the end of the day, this isn't really about the world's most unerotic illustrated strap-on blowjob; it's about the uneasy sense — if you are a conservative parent — that the institution to which you've entrusted the care and education of your children seems to be going out of its way to advertise that it views you, and your values, with utter contempt. 

Of course, those values are not my values, and as someone who once found it highly entertaining to offend the sensibilities of pearl-clutching conservatives at the tail end of the Satanic Panic (I once triggered a concerned call to my parents by doodling a pentagram on the back of my eighth grade science test), I understand the impulse to thumb one's nose at these people and tell them to cry harder. But that impulse is petty and destructive and needs to be resisted. If there's a certain amount of fun to be had in triggering the squares, it's the kind of fun best left to edgy 13 year-olds. It's really not the kind of thing you can indulge in as a public servant whose salary is paid by those squares' taxes.

The challenge of serving a truly diverse constituency, as opposed to the imaginary progressive-left version in which people all look different but think exactly the same, is you cannot appear to be in the bag politically for the most radical people on one side. You cannot welcome one group in a way that intentionally provokes and alienates another. Inclusivity, real inclusivity, requires moderation.

This is what the coverage of Republican-led book bans (or, if you're watching Fox News, the liberal quest to forcibly inflict pornography on innocent children everywhere) studiously ignores. This conflict has never been about reading, or censorship, or whether teenagers will be harmed by the presence on school property of painfully earnest woke sex ed books (which, let's be honest, none of them are reading anyway). This is a war for the political soul of American public spaces, being fought by the worst authoritarian control freaks on both sides. And if you care about living in a diverse and tolerant society — one in which people have the freedom to read, and vote, and raise their children as they please — you should be doing whatever you can to ensure they both lose.

-Kat Rosenfield

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