“It’s dangerous and we have to step up for our libraries and librarians.” That’s what Alexi Giannoulias, Illinois Secretary of State, tells CBS News in a recent interview about legislation he spearheaded to halt a troubling national trend: challenges and restrictions to books in schools and public libraries. Illinois has taken the unprecedented step of banning book banning, becoming the first state in the nation to do so.
“We need people to step up and fight back,” Giannoulias says about House Bill 2789, which amends the Illinois Library Systems Act. The new bill both promotes the sharing and cooperation of resources—including digital resources—among different types of libraries; and supports the “freedom of public libraries and library systems to acquire materials without external limitation and to be protected against attempts to ban, remove, or otherwise restrict access to books or other materials.”
Through the use of funding, the state will prohibit attempts to ban books. In order to receive state funds, Illinois libraries must now adopt an anti-book banning policy. As the bill states, “to be eligible for State grants, a public library or library system shall develop a written policy prohibiting the practice of banning books within the public library or library system.”
The Year in Book Banning
PEN America reports that “[t]he 2022-23 school year has been marked to date by an escalation of book bans and censorship in classrooms and school libraries across the United States,” noting an increase in book bans in the fall 2022 semester, higher than in the previous two semesters. New laws in multiple states have gone into effect, building upon 2021’s book banning movement. In addition, “[b]road efforts to label certain books ‘harmful’ and ‘explicit’ are expanding the type of content suppressed in schools,” according to Kasey Meehan and Jonathan Friedman, authors of the PEN America report.
Much of this censored or restricted content concerns books with characters or authors who are queer or people of color. At particular risk of banning, as Meehan and Friedman write, are books that include “topics such as race, gender, American history, and LGBTQ+ identities.” In 2022, the American Library Association noted 1,269 challenges to books and resources in libraries, “the highest number of attempted book bans since ALA began compiling data about censorship in libraries more than 20 years ago.”
As reported by ALA, the 10 most challenged books of 2022 include the memoirs Gender Queer: A Memoir by Maia Kobabe and All Boys Aren’t Blue by George M. Johnson, along with classics such as the novel The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison.
Gender Queer: A Memoir, a book about the author’s journey from adolescence to adulthood as someone who identifies outside of the gender binary, was banned by two school districts in Illinois during the 2021–2022 school year. The bestselling young adult novel The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas, a prize-winning book about a Black teen who witnesses her best friend’s shooting death at the hands of police, was also banned by an Illinois school district.
The Library Bill of Rights
“This scourge of censorship has a chilling effect on our democracy. These efforts have nothing to do with books. Instead, they are about ideas that certain individuals disagree with.”
Giannoulias, who in addition to serving as the Illinois secretary of state is also the state librarian, says while he supports parents’ making individual decisions as to what reading materials are appropriate for their own children, “I could never fathom telling someone else what books their kids should and should not read. It literally goes against the freedom of speech. It’s dangerous, and we have to step up for our libraries and our librarians.”
In a statement released in March 2023, Giannoulias said, “This scourge of censorship has a chilling effect on our democracy. These efforts have nothing to do with books. Instead, they are about ideas that certain individuals disagree with and believe no one should think, or be allowed to think.”
The statement goes on to say that under the new bill, the Secretary of State’s office would issue state-funded grants to libraries only if the libraries either “demonstrate that they adhere to the American Library Association’s Library Bill of Rights indicating reading materials should not be removed or restricted because of partisan or personal disapproval,” or if libraries issue their own statement “prohibiting the practice of banning books or resources.” Libraries that fail to follow these anti-censorship measures would be ineligible for state grants.
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The ALA is both the largest and oldest library association in the world, founded in 1876 at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. Its mission is to support leadership in the field of libraries and to “ensure access to information for all.”
“Materials should not be excluded because of the origin, background, or views of those contributing to their creation.”
In 1939, the ALA Council first adopted its Library Bill of Rights, which has since been revised over the years, most recently in 2019. The Library Bill of Rights states, in part, “Books and other library resources should be provided for the interest, information, and enlightenment of all people of the community the library serves. Materials should not be excluded because of the origin, background, or views of those contributing to their creation.”
The Library Bill of Rights continues: “Libraries should challenge censorship in the fulfillment of their responsibility to provide information and enlightenment.”
Giving Librarians Support
Librarians have been at the forefront of resistance to book bans and challenges, despite sometimes facing legal threats. The Washington Post reported that at least seven states have passed laws in the last two years threatening school and public librarians with criminal prosecution should librarians provide access to books deemed obscene, sexually explicit, or “harmful.”
“Banning books takes crucial resources away from those who need them.”
These are subjective categories that overwhelmingly target books about LGBTQ+ issues and issues of racial justice, Black history, and culture. As Keith Gambill, president of the teachers union in Indiana, told the Washington Post, laws such as the obscenity bill passed in Indiana, “will make sure the only literature students are exposed to fits into a narrow scope of what some people want the world to look like.”
According to the statement from the Illinois Secretary of State’s office, in 2022 there were 67 book ban attempts in Illinois, an increase of 26 from the previous year’s 41 attempts. Cynthia Robinson, executive director of the Illinois Library Association, is quoted in the statement as saying, “Public libraries are committed to serve their communities with books and resources, programming, and other services. . . . Banning books takes crucial resources away from those who need them.”
Despite opposition (all Republicans in the Illinois Senate voted against it), HB 2789 cleared the Illinois Senate and Governor J.B. Pritzker plans to sign it. The law would go into effect in January of 2024, giving librarians the crucial support they need to resist censorship attempts.
As Giannoulias told CBS News, “Freedom includes the right to learn, the right to share ideas.”