More to come on the book ban data, as responses are slow and there's a lot to dig through.
Today, however, I have a republication of a piece by Worcester librarian and library advocate Matthew Noe, originally published in Bill Shaner's Worcester Sucks and I Love It. Shaner's indispensable newsletter is ostensibly about the City of Worcester, but features topics and reporting that reverberate throughout Central Massachusetts. He, along with the newly founded Worcester Community Media Foundation, are leading an independent media revival in a region decimated by Gannett, and I thank him for the opportunity to share this editorial.
Worcester Candidates on The Right to Read and Book Challenges
By Matthew Noe (@noethematt)
Disclaimer: I am writing as a citizen of Worcester and a librarian and my words represent only myself, not any organization or role I am affiliated with.
TL;DR This article explains the ongoing surge in challenges to books in libraries across the US, provides an overview of how City Council and School Committee impacts library services in Worcester and shares answers from candidates running for office in the 2023 general election about their views on the right to read and uses of the library in Worcester.
At this point, unless you have been living under a rock, you are probably aware that libraries, schools, universities and the people who make those institutions run are facing an unprecedented surge in book challenges. In fact, in 2022, the American Library Association (ALA) recorded the highest number of attempted book bans since they began compiling this data more than two decades ago. ALA is just one place people are going to report challenges–others include EveryLibrary and Pen America, among others. That linked Pen America report is a good place to begin for an overview on what is going on. Many challenges to library books go unreported altogether, challenge counts are often functionally miscounts (ex. a book removed from New York Public Library and a book removed from Millbury Public Library would be counted the same) and these counts don’t include the surge in self-censorship from library workers fearing challenges.
While policies and procedures can vary, the process for formally challenging a book in a library is largely the same regardless of location. A potential challenger will ask to fill out what is known as a “request for reconsideration” form, which requires information about the book being challenged (title, author, etc.), reasons for the challenge and contact information about the individual filing the form. From there, the book is usually evaluated by library staff to determine if the challenge has merit and a decision is made, usually by the library director or a small committee of library staff. Worcester Public Library’s policy on requests for reconsideration can be found as part of their collection development policy. Mistakes in library selection and shelving can happen, and community input on a public good is always welcome. These procedures are commonplace, and challenges have always happened, but typically with less fanfare and frequency.
It would take longer than I have here to describe all of what is going on in our new, not-so-normal times, but the short of it is this: an incredibly small minority of individuals, with significant outside financial support, are fighting to erase queer and BIPOC voices from library shelves. The most visible of these groups is Moms for Liberty and their numerous localized offshoots (including recognized chapters in Middlesex and Plymouth counties here in Massachusetts). They claim to be fighting for “parents rights,” which in the case of libraries, basically means they want to be able to dictate what books libraries are allowed to loan and what programs they are allowed to offer. They often frame the issue as trying to prevent minors from seeing pornographic materials or from being exposed to any of a myriad of things, including “cultural marxism,” “critical race theory” and even “social emotional learning.” They try to achieve their goals by encouraging like minded individuals to get on local school and library boards, where they can influence or control policy decisions.
All this to say: libraries are in a rough spot right now and it is getting rougher. I haven’t even covered half of it here—it would take thousands and thousands of words. A good way to keep up with what’s going on in this space is to follow Kelly Jensen. Kelly is an associate editor at Book Riot, former librarian and an author who unfortunately has firsthand experience with the surge in book challenges. An easy link to the coverage on book challenges in Book Riot is here and frankly they have done a better job of it than any of the national outlets.
You may find yourself thinking, “but isn’t this all just a southern, red-state problem?” and if so, you are wrong on multiple counts. First, the whole red-state/blue-state thing is reductive and harmful. I’m a transplant from Kentucky and if you want to have a whole discussion about the issue with this framing, we can do that over a beer. Second, and more relevant, is that the surge in book challenges is happening nationwide. In terms of raw numbers, yes, places like Florida and Texas are in far worse shape than Massachusetts—but challenges are certainly happening here. Last fall we even had a Secretary of the Commonwealth candidate running around claiming Gender Queer is porn and harassing libraries about it, even though that position has no authority over library policy. (This didn’t stop her from shoving it in people’s faces, which is a weird thing to do with something you think is porn…)
What does all of this have to do with Worcester’s November election though? Well, quite a lot. Since we are dealing with both a public library system and schools with libraries in them, let's split this up a bit.
The Worcester Public Library (WPL) is a complex mixture of both municipal department and independent library, with funding coming from the city, the state, trust funds, donations and grants. For our purposes, what matters is that WPL is overseen by an Executive Director who reports to a Board of Directors. The WPL board is composed of 12 individual members, ideally representing all five Worcester districts, and serve six-year terms. These individuals are elected by the Worcester City Council every December (two new members each year) from a pool of candidates who self-nominate themselves via an application to the City Clerk. The board’s responsibilities include managing the Executive Director, setting library policy, managing the library’s endowment, and working with city leadership to ensure the library is meeting the needs of the city. In addition to their responsibility for WPL, the Executive Director is a member of the Worcester City Manager’s Cabinet.
This means that, in addition to budget, a major reason to care about who is elected to City Council from a library standpoint is that they are the ones who choose the people who oversee library policy. It may be at a step removed—unlike some municipalities where council exerts more direct control over library policy—but it still has potential ramifications. Want to make sure that WPL is a safe place for every community in our city? Make sure you vote for councilors who are going to prioritize that.
School libraries in Worcester are complicated. Some schools have in-house libraries, some have full-time librarian staff and others have one or neither depending on the school’s infrastructure. As Aislinn Doyle covered back in March, elementary school libraries haven’t really existed in Worcester for a long time, with those students being covered by a mixture of Worcester Public Library’s One City, One Library branches and visits from Libby and Lilly, the WPL’s bookmobiles. Our middle and high schools maintain libraries and their highest level policies are set by the Worcester School Committee. This makes it vital that School Committee members, including the mayor, who serves as chair of the committee, be committed to the right to read—and it’s especially vital that they believe that right exists regardless of age.
At present, both Worcester Public Library and Worcester Public Schools have policies that outline how library materials are evaluated for inclusion, as well as clear policies on how requests for reconsideration (re: challenges) are handled. I can speak from personal knowledge that the WPL policy was recently updated with this surge in challenges in mind. From my own experience with library policy, both policies include valuable elements in preventing mass challenges and misguided removal of materials—most importantly, requiring the submitter of a challenge to be a verifiable part of the Worcester community and limiting how often a single title will be reconsidered in a given period of time. There is a push within the Massachusetts legislature to require libraries to adopt the American Library Association’s Library Bill of Rights in collection development policies, to adopt language that prohibits banning books on specific topics, and may require these policies in order to receive state library aid. House and Senate versions of the bills will be heard during a Joint Committee on Tourism, Arts and Cultural Development hearing on Monday, October 30th.
Phew, how’s that for some background information? I apologize for needing to frame so much up front, but it is vital to understanding why I decided to get answers from this year’s candidates. It was my hope that in at least one of the debates going on throughout the city, the issue of book bans would have come up— but they didn’t and that is unfortunate. While WPL has not faced any formal challenges in recent memory, they do periodically receive complaints (and vague threats) via email and social media about books on display. Not to mention recent (now-deleted) posts on NextDoor and at least one candidate (Kathleen Roy for School Committee District E) who is running explicitly on “parent rights” and opposition to comprehensive sex education. It is safe to say this issue is simmering under the surface in Worcester.
This brings us to three weeks ago. During Banned Books Week, I decided to email every candidate on the November ballot—one of many actions ALA encourages people to take during this annual event. I had initially intended for replies to go into a long Twitter (sorry, X) thread, but quickly realized that was going to be (1) unwieldy and (2) reach fewer people than it would have in the past. The email opened as follows:
“My name is Matthew Noe. I'm a resident of Worcester and I am writing to see if you would be willing to answer the below questions in advance of the November election.
To date, this issue has received minimal attention in this year's Worcester election cycle and I hope to better understand where you land on this issue. I do anticipate sharing answers with fellow voters, though I am not a journalist (to be clear). Scroll to the numbered points below if you wish to see the questions before the context.
As you may know, this week is Banned Books Week - an annual event that seeks to raise awareness about the dangers of censorship, highlight titles under fire in libraries today, and remind everyone about the fundamental right to read. All across the country, including right here in Massachusetts, libraries (including school, public, and academic) and their staff are facing challenges to books, to programs, and to funding itself. These challenges are being driven largely by opposition to queer stories (and people themselves), followed closely by challenges to books by and about Black people, Indigenous people, and people of color (more stats here).
It is my belief - and my profession's ethical stance - that all readers have the right to read, that they have the right to find themselves in the books libraries make available, and that libraries must be a safe place for all. The actions of these banners and challengers are in direct opposition to the values of librarianship - and dare I say, the free speech we strive to enshrine in the United States.
With all of this in mind, and keeping in mind that at the state level there are efforts to prevent book bans moving their way through the legislature, I hope that you can respond to the following questions…”
From there, the questions differed slightly based on whether they were a candidate for city council or for school committee. For council candidates, questions were:
“1. Do you believe in the right to read, for all people, and would you defend that right against attempts to remove books from libraries in Worcester?
2. What role do you see for the Worcester City Council in ensuring the rights of all residents to discover, access, and engage with information? What actions would you take as an elected city council member to fulfill this role?
3. In addition to preparing for challenges, Worcester's librarians are facing increasing strain across the city, in large part because of larger systemic failures that all roll downhill onto the most vulnerable among us. As one of, and often the only, places someone can go inside, safely, for free, in our city (and most cities), the library needs additional resources if it is going to serve as the catch-all social service that it has become. What do you think this council can do to aid in ensuring the library can fulfill its primary mission and what will you do as a councilor to help?”
For school committee candidates, questions were:
“1. Do you believe in the right to read, for all people, and would you defend that right against attempts to remove books from libraries in Worcester?
2. What role do you see for the Worcester School Committee in ensuring the rights of students to discover, access, and engage with information? What actions would you take as an elected school committee member to fulfill this role?
3. Knowing that there are infrastructure constraints at play, what (next) steps would you take to move Worcester toward having a full-time, professional librarian in every school?”
I sent the email to all candidates on October 3rd, then a follow-up email was sent to non-respondents on October 12th. In an effort to get as many replies as possible, I also sent one final reminder to non-respondents via their campaign social media pages on October 20th. As of this cut-off, I have received answers (in some fashion) to these questions from 15/21 council candidates and 5/12 school committee candidates.
Answers from candidates are available in full in this Google document and I would encourage you to read each candidate’s response in full. Some takeaways for me include:
- Sue Mailman’s one word response to Question 1 of simply “Yes.” is really all anyone had to say on that and I love the simplicity in it. I appreciate the detail some others went into though!
- The only response to Question 1 that gives me pause is Moe Bergman’s. He says he believes all books should be available, that the library has the right to make books available but then adds in a caveat about “age appropriateness.” WPL serves patrons of all ages, so while the library does make efforts to shelve books in ways that will help guide patrons to books they may appreciate, it isn’t a library worker’s place to decide what is and is not appropriate for any given reader. That is up to that reader.
- Many candidates noted an interest in getting more staff for WPL, and staff of different backgrounds, in order to help address the ongoing use of the library as a catch-all for social services in Worcester. This is refreshing, and I can only hope this response signals that if the library comes to the city with a budget request for additional staff, the request will be granted.
- The best response from council on Question 3 comes from Etel Haxhiaj, stating, “We cannot and should not continue to choose the WPL as the preferred social service catch-all.” A response like that makes my librarian heart sing. Public goods and social services have eroded endlessly over the last 40 years, leaving the library as one of the only remaining places you can be, for free, without any questions—and as basically the only viable public restroom in downtown Worcester. This is an unsustainable situation, has been for decades and is only getting worse as more and more people struggle to survive.
- There are a range of ideas from council candidates on what Council can do to ensure the rights of Worcester residents to access information, including advocacy and resolution passing (Guillermo Creamer, Domenica Perrone), expansion of public technology and accessibility (Khrystian King, Robert Bilotta), outreach/information campaigns (Johanna Hampton-Dance, David Peterson, Jenny Pacillo).
- Etel Haxhiaj and Jenny Pacillo both mention that Worcester needs to adopt paid family medical leave for library staff!
- Jermoh Kamara made me so happy by citing a children’s rights document (UNICEF). THAT is what it is about to me—children having rights and parents having responsibilities, none of this “parents rights” stuff.
- “I think librarians need libraries, which is of course the infrastructure constraint.” Tracy O’Connell Novik with an interesting framing here. A library isn’t a library without a librarian is something we often remark on, but we don’t often put it the other direction. I think there is a ring of truth to it though. It seems the primary constraint for getting libraries back in schools isn’t about staffing—it is about physical space.
- Molly McCullough gets a shoutout here for both being the only uncontested candidate to respond and the one to reply with a key answer: “I would defend this right by working to ensure that the selection of library materials is guided by professional librarians and educators rather than influenced by external pressures.” We have expert knowledge—let us use it!
- It is worrisome that two Mayoral candidates (Joe Petty and Donna Colorio) did not respond, given that the Mayor in Worcester has a role in both council and school committee. Also notable that they, along with Kate Toomey and Candy Mero-Carlson, are all incumbents who didn’t respond.
- And, finally, the non-response that confuses me most comes from School Committee District C candidate Dianna Biancheria, who responded to my email asking me where I live and when I told her, simply said “okay thanks.” No follow-up, no answers to questions, nothing. Oh and for the record: I live in her district, so…
All told, I can’t say that I am terribly surprised by any of the responses. I would have been shocked if any candidate had responded “no, I don’t believe in the right to read,'' or had taken a negative stance on the library. The library is, generally, one of the only parts of government left that everyone but a fringe few believes is a good thing. I believe the answers here are important however. How a candidate responds to questions about defending the rights of their constituents reveals a lot about how they operate and about what role they believe the office they are running for plays. I know the responses (or lack thereof) shored up who I will be voting for come November 7th and I hope they help you too.
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