A series of book challenges across Connecticut last year has led librarians to ask for state laws protecting librarians and to make it more difficult to challenge books in library collections.
Over the last two years, parents, community members and a first selectman have challenged, attempted to remove, and limit access to books in school and public libraries in their towns. Protests against several books have erupted in Darien, Colchester, Guilford, Old Lyme, Fairfield, Brookfield, Newtown and Westport.
Ellen Paul, executive director of the Connecticut Library Consortium, told CT Examiner that librarians recently presented legislators with three ideas for future legislation designed to codify procedures for handling complaints against books, affording protections to librarians under the First Amendment and the Civil Rights Act, and prohibiting book removals based on things like sexual orientation, race or politics.
“We want to ensure that everyone in the state of Connecticut has the freedom to read. We want to ensure that everyone feels welcome in our libraries. That you can walk into any library across the state of Connecticut and you can find yourself in a book. That you know that you belong,” Paul told legislators during a forum on Tuesday.
Sarah McCusker, president of the Connecticut Library Association, told legislators that 2,000 library items had been challenged across the country between January and August 2023, the highest year on record. She also said Connecticut was one of 10 states where over 100 different materials had been challenged during that time.
Asked whether book banning had been an issue in their towns, about half the people at the hearing raised their hands.
Katie Huffman, director of the Phoebe Noyes Griffin Library in Old Lyme, discussed two letters the library received regarding books available in the library’s teen-tween section, with a particular focus on the books “You Know, Sex” and “Let’s Talk About It.”
“Among the 135 signers were multiple elected officials, including two of the three Board of Selectmen, the Old Lyme Board of Finance chair, a member of the Board of Finance, and two members of the Board of Ed,” Huffman said. “News of the challenge quickly became public news, and the Library Board and staff found themselves the center of intense, sometimes vitriolic, public debate.”
Paul Freeman, Superintendent of Schools in Guilford, recounted how a parent challenged five books in Guilford Public Schools’ library, including “Lawn Boy,” “Flamer,” “It’s Perfectly Normal,” “Me, Earl and the Dying Girl” and “The Bluest Eye.”
Freeman said when he went to check the books out of the library, he discovered he was the first person to check out “Flamer,” which had been available for a few months. The same was true for “Lawn Boy.” He said he presented all the Board of Education members with copies of the five books to read over the summer, and then explained the district’s rationale for including each one in the library or the curriculum.
In Guilford and Old Lyme, library and school officials decided that the books should remain in the chosen sections of the libraries.
But Huffman said the disturbing part of the outcry against these books was not the challenge, but the way it happened. According to Huffman, the people who argued against the books circumvented normal policies, did not talk to the professional library staff, and tried to “provoke a response driven by emotion rather than a duly established policy,” she said.
“Many members of the public fundamentally misunderstand the library’s role in the community,” Huffman said. “The idea that the library should reflect community values not only sets an impossible standard, for no single understanding of community values exists, but it stands in the way of providing collections that represent the broad range of human experience.”
Huffman also noted that the majority of books targeted included subjects related to the BIPOC or LGBTQ+ communities, which she said could hurt students within those groups.
“Especially for youth who identify as LGBTQ, this process calls into question their right to access information relevant to them, their right to belong, and their right to be seen in their own community,” Huffman said.
Freeman agreed, adding that the uproar had effects on library staff as well.
“There were insinuations, there were suggestions, and there were direct attacks about the character of the media specialists who were monitoring those collections and who had brought those texts into the collection,” he said.
Freeman said parents should be aware of what their children are reading and viewing on the internet, but that the responsibility for choosing what books should be used in classrooms or stored in libraries should fall on education professionals — teachers, librarians and media specialists.
He also noted an unintended consequence of the complaints.
“Those five titles are probably the most read books in Guilford at this moment in time,” Freeman said.
One of the three legislative concepts that librarians brought forward is known as the Libraries for All Act, a proposal developed by the EveryLibrary Institute. The proposal would make public library policies subject to the 1964 Civil Rights Act, meaning these libraries could not remove a book based on the race, gender identity or sexual orientation of the book’s characters.
“Incorporating civil rights principles into library policy would shift the focus from a book’s appropriateness to its relevance for a protected class,” the proposal reads.
Paul told CT Examiner this law would make librarians responsible for presiding over collections that do not discriminate.
A second model is a piece of legislation from Pennsylvania, which requires school districts to have a clear policy regarding how books are reviewed or removed from circulation. It also states that a book cannot be removed from a library based on the race, gender identity or sexual orientation of the author or any of the characters, the personal views of the person filing the complaint, or “partisan approval or disapproval.”
Paul told CT Examiner she had spoken to school libraries in different parts of the state, and that many of these districts hadn’t updated their policies since the 1990s.
The third model is the federal Right to Read Act, proposed in the U.S. House of Representatives, which requires the government to ensure that low-income, minority students have a functioning school library, includes digital literacy and information literacy under possible uses of federal funding, and recognizes school libraries as protected by the First Amendment.
State Rep. Jeff Currey, D-East Hartford, chair of the Education Committee, said that Connecticut, “the land of steady habits,” was made up of “169 fiefdoms” and that “we can’t see beyond our own borders.”
“That is to our detriment oftentimes, but I think access to information is a universal policy,” he said during the hearing. “I think we would definitely be interested to see what librarians have proposed for model policies that we may be able to discuss amongst other things moving forward.”