Monday, April 24 was “Right to Read Day”- the first day of National Library Week and a national day of action to defend, protest, and celebrate the right to read in the United States. The issues of having access to a wide range of information and the idea that each individual is able to make their own choices are important. A core value of librarianship is intellectual freedom and currently, that value is under attack in spite of the fact that most U.S. voters and parents oppose book bans. Thus, there is a need for community members who believe in the right to read to take action no matter the day. Every day should be a “Right to Read Day”!
Senator Reed and Representative Grijalva Reintroduce the Right to Read Act
To help us in ensuring that every day is “Right to Read Day,” Senator Reed (D-RI) and Representative Grijalva (D-AZ) introduced the Right to Read Act 2023 respectively in the US Senate and the US House on Thursday, April 26. You can read Senator Reed’s press release here and ALA’s press release here. This bill is intended to increase equity of access for all students to effective school libraries staffed by state-certified school librarians. It supports recruitment, retention, and professional development for state-certified school librarians. The legislation also protects the Constitutional rights of students to access information and school libraries and would extend liability protection to all education staff including school librarians. Finally, the Right to Read Act improves the federal collection of statistics about school libraries.
The bill is endorsed by the American Library Association (ALA) and the American Association of School Librarians (AASL) as well as the National Education Association (NEA), American Federation of Teachers (AFT), National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), and PEN America.
The issues included in this bill: equity of access to school libraries staffed by certified school librarians and supporting our students’ right to read are interconnected. Certified school librarians are vital in ensuring that students have access to diverse and inclusive information and in establishing and following policies that support intellectual freedom in schools.
Rise in Censorship Attempts and Book Bans
The American Library Association (ALA) recently released data that there were 1269 reported attempts to censor library books and materials. This is almost double the reported number from 2021 which was already a record number of attempts to censor since ALA began collecting data on censorship more than 20 years ago. The graph below represents this rise.
Of these reported book challenges, 58% targeted materials in schools. PEN America has also reported that in the first half of the 2022-2023 school year, there has been a 28% rise in books that have been banned. ALA has also seen this trend for 2023, reporting that the highest percentage of requests to the ALA Office of Intellectual Freedom has been for assistance with book challenges in schools.
School Libraries and School Librarians
Certified school librarians are vital teachers in their school that work with the entire school community. The ALA Committee on Library Advocacy developed the infographic “Students Reach Greater Heights with School Librarians” which details the ways school librarians impact and support students including teaching information literacy, leading impactful technology integration, positively impacting student achievement, providing a safe space and providing resources appropriate to their needs
School Librarians have the professional education and expertise to curate quality, diverse, inclusive, and relevant resources that support the mission and curriculum of their schools as well as supporting our learners’ interests and independent reading. School librarians work to make sure that all learners can find materials in their school libraries to see themselves and learn about their community and the larger world. The concept of providing “Windows, Mirrors, and Sliding Glass Doors” as per Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop is important. School librarians understand that providing learners with such access helps to increase their achievement levels, support student well-being, and build critical thinking as well as empathy skills. The Unite Against Book Bans report “Empowered by Reading” provides the details of how access to a wide range of materials is vital for learners.
School librarians do believe in parent rights. We believe that each parent has the right to help guide their own child in selecting reading materials. However, we also believe that one parent or a small group of parents should not dictate what reading materials are available for all children. In the past, school librarians would directly receive inquiries from a parent about their own child and a book they checked out. For instance, a parent contacted me saying that their child had checked out a ‘scary’ book and then had a nightmare. The parent and I agreed that the parent would speak to the child about their choices and I would also help guide the child to find a book that would still interest them but not be scary. We worked together.
Now, there are community members going directly to the school board with lists of books and demanding that they be removed so that no student can access them. These efforts are about more than just an individual parent being concerned about their own child. They are coordinated attacks against the freedom to read. PEN America reports that of the 1477 titles banned in schools in the 2023 school year, “30 percent are about race, racism, or include characters of color, while 26 percent have LGBTQ+ characters or themes.” School librarians are very concerned about their learners in these communities and the impact of these bans upon them.
Take Action Against Censorship
AASL is very thankful to Senator Reed and Representative Grijalva for introducing the Right to Read Act; however, it is not a substitute for the need for local community action against censorship.
A March 2022 survey found that 71% of voters oppose book banning. In addition, 90% of voters and 92% of parents have favorable opinions of public and school librarians.
It is important for community members who believe in the right to read and who support librarians to take action in their communities. The Unite Against Book Bans website provides recommendations for actions to take and talking points to use. Specifically – to oppose censorship in schools, important actions to take include speaking at school board meetings or writing the school board. We have seen instances where community members have shown up to oppose censorship and support the right to read at school board meetings, and it “turned the tide” in local book-banning efforts.
In addition, community members need to pay attention to bills being introduced to restrict access to information. They should contact legislators and let them know that they oppose such efforts. Finally, voters should also pay attention to local elections including school board elections. They should investigate candidates and be sure to vote for those that support the right to read.
Thus, this is a call to action. The larger community needs to get involved, support school librarians (and all librarians), speak up, and make sure that every day is a “Right to Read Day.”