What do “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “Captain Underpants,” “Harry Potter,” “The Holy Bible” and “Gender Queer” have in common? They’re among the most challenged and banned books in libraries and schools, according to annual lists provided by the American Library Association (ALA) Office for Intellectual Freedom.
Each year, these titles and dozens more are lifted up as examples to inform the public about attempted censorship during “Banned Books Week,” a celebration launched in the 1980s by a national coalition that includes the ALA, the Freedom to Read Foundation, the National Book Foundation and others.
Traditionally, local libraries, bookstores and schools across the nation provide programming dedicated to the freedom to read and the importance of opposing censorship, which often includes displays of books that have been challenged.
Breaking from that tradition this year, the ImagineIF Libraries in the Flathead Valley will not be promoting Banned Books Week, slated to run Oct. 1-7 with the theme, “Let Freedom Read.” The local decision not to observe the annual event follows a recent directive by the public library system’s board of trustees to avoid divisive programming, as well as moves over the past year to distance the library from the ALA.
“As current Chairman of the Board of ImagineIF Libraries, I have implemented the will of the board as I understand it regarding ‘Banned Book Week,'” Trustee David Ingram wrote in an email to library staff and patrons. “Until instructed otherwise by the board, I have instructed the director to follow the current policy of celebrating the library and its functions while remaining nonpartisan and avoiding any potentially divisive, exclusionary or indoctrinating events.”
In response to Ingram’s message, ImagineIF Library Director Ashley Cummins sent out an email to library staff with the announcement that ImagineIF would forego participating in all programming related to the celebration this year.
“I realize that this is a concerning topic for many of you on staff,” she wrote. “While it is your individual right to freely express your opinion and to stand up for any cause you believe in, I would advise staff that any acts of advocacy or expression of support for the ALA should happen off of the clock and outside of the library.”
At her previous library in Alabama, director Cummins said she always celebrated Banned Books Week with her staff.
“I’ve always loved educating the general public about how some of the most-loved books have been challenged. It’s always fun for me to see that lightbulb go off when people realize it could happen to titles they read as well,” Cummins told the Beacon. “Book bans often come in waves based on the hot-button topics of the day. I also find it important to acknowledge that.”
According to Cummins, the nomenclature surrounding the annual celebration can be misleading, as the phrase “Banned Books” brings starker imagery to mind than phrasing like “intellectual freedom” or the “right to read.”
Upon receiving the directive from Ingram, Cummins and senior library staff discussed whether they could promote anti-censorship, the freedom to read and the fact that ImagineIF has never banned a book without referencing the ALA; however, they ultimately decided not to offer any programming, rather than provide a watered-down version or risk opposing the board.
“Given our recent history, it’s definitely controversial for this area,” Cummins said. “We want to look forward, not keep rehashing things.”
Over the last two years, the ImagineIF Board of Trustees has emerged as a divisive governing entity for the award-winning library system, with trustee actions prompting an exodus of senior staff, funding losses, and creating a tense environment among those who remain.
Led by Ingram and trustee Doug Adams, the board revised several ImagineIF policies last year to remove any reference to the ALA, which Adams denounced as having a “radical leftist agenda.” Current library policy does include the ALA’s Library Bill of Rights, but without attribution.
Further unsuccessful attempts have been made to remove all language challenging censorship and the “abridgement of free expression and free access to ideas” from policies, ideas at the heart of Banned Books Week.
Adding to the potentially divisive nature of highlighting book challenges is the fact that ImagineIF has undergone four separate materials challenges of its own since 2021. Among the challenges were “Gender Queer” and “Lawn Boy,” which ranked as the No. 1 and No. 7 most challenged books in 2022.
Many nationwide book challenges have centered on LGBTQ+-themed titles, including “Gender Queer,” an award-winning graphic memoir by Maia Kobabe. Carmen Cuthbertson, currently an ImagineIF Trustee, was one of the original complainants who stated at the time that “challenging a book is not a bad thing. A challenge is a good thing because it leads to a discussion.”
The trustees have never voted to remove a book from the library’s collection, but did indefinitely suspend discussion over “Gender Queer,” with Adams and Ingram expressing concern that removal would invite possible litigation.
Ingram wrote in an email to the Beacon that the elimination of Banned Books Week furthers the board’s directive to distance ImagineIF from the ALA and “avoid divisive events,” and that the board is ultimately responsible for all activities in the library.
While Ingram mentioned that the ALA promotes the week-long celebration and provides lists of challenged books and other activities, he did not respond to a question about whether the board directive included all ALA-adjacent activities. The national organization sponsors multiple “holidays” and celebrations throughout the year, including marking September as “National Library Card Sign-Up Month” since 1987. ImagineIF did hold library card sign-up events this month, including a “Get Carded” event at Bias Brewing.
In July, the Montana State Library (MSL) Commission voted 5-1-1 to withdraw from the ALA, citing a Tweet by the incoming organization president where she self-identified as a “Marxist lesbian.” In a letter sent to the ALA, the commission wrote that “our oath of office and resulting duty to the Constitution forbids association with an organization led by a Marxist.”
ImagineIF Trustee Cuthbertson sits on the state library commission and voted to withdraw, and Ingram gave public comment during the July meeting.
“Instead of pursuing the long-term viability of future libraries and supporting the traditional role of acquisition, preservation and circulation, ALA desires to inject the library into the vanguard of the culture wars,” Ingram said.
In a response, the ALA reiterated it is a “non-partisan, non-profit membership organization that develops, promotes, and improves library and information services and the profession of librarianship in order to enhance learning and ensure access to information for all.” The response states that in the last two years, the ALA has distributed more than $218,000 to Montana libraries, in addition to advocating for federal funding for the state library which has increased 24% since 2019 to $1.4 million.
While the MSL withdrew from the national organization, individual libraries across the state are at liberty to make decisions about the voluntary membership, as well as programming.
Missoula Public Library Director Slaven Lee said their library always features displays and social media outreach during Banned Books Week to advocate for the Freedom to Read.
“It’s really important to expose people to different ideas and backgrounds that can create empathy and understanding,” Lee said. “The banned book language is important to have because in some places, these titles are literally being removed from shelves. It’s good to let people know that the freedom to read is just like any other freedom you’d advocate for, and to me that’s just so Montana.”
The Whitefish Community Library (WCL), which separated from ImagineIF more than a decade ago, is still a member of the ALA and includes the Freedom to Read statement and the Library Bill of Rights in its policies.
WCL director Mary Drew Powers said that the ALA needs to be considered as a whole entity, rather than characterized by a single person’s social media presence.
“All those statements were put together by committees that received feedback from all sorts of librarians. They were never put together by a single person with an agenda,” Powers said. “I really feel that those policies, and the ALA, have got my back.”
Powers said that the Whitefish library will likely have some form of display for Banned Books Week, though she said the library is short-staffed and won’t be doing much additional programming around it.
“It’s just not a big deal,” she said, adding that she didn’t view the week as a celebration. “It’s to promote awareness that free speech can come under attack and show that the ways people seek to justify doing so don’t pass muster. Free speech is free speech.”
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