Massachusetts isn’t known for its number of book bans, but David Leonard, President of the Boston Public Library, warns that “it’s not zero.”
The American Library Association (ALA) has tracked an uptick in book challenges in the state, recording 45 challenges in 2022. Compared to data from other states, Massachusetts had the fourth highest number of book restriction attempts last year.
“We want to encourage everybody who lives in Massachusetts or goes to school here or works here to be vigilant and to get involved in their local library,” said Leonard.
But what does getting involved look like, and how does involvement defend against censorship? Leonard met with The Boston Globe via Zoom to share some tips and advice.
How can Massachusetts residents get involved in the fight against book bans and censorship?
“The best way to participate is honestly to borrow books and read them, and to use libraries for what they’re designed to be,” said Leonard.
On Sept. 28, the Boston Public Library joined Books Unbanned, an initiative started by the Brooklyn Public Library in response to rising rates of literary censorship in public and school libraries. Under this initiative, United States residents ages 13 to 26 can apply for a free Books Unbanned eCard — a digital library card that comes with access to the BPL’s free collection of challenged eBooks and eAudiobooks.
“At the most basic level, a strong library is a used library,” said Leonard.
He encourages community members to introduce themselves to their librarians and library staff as well.
“Check in with your librarian or library worker and say, ‘thank you for what you’re doing’ or ‘how can I help?’ All of this is local at the end of the day.”
What can people do on a national level?
“Make your representatives, make your senators — whether they’re at the state level or at the federal level — aware of your feelings and your opinions on this,” said Leonard. “Give them the support they need to get these bills passed that will protect the right to read, the right to access information, and support the library workers.”
Along with calling and e-mailing state representatives and other government officials, Leonard also recommends that people keep an eye on organizations like the ALA, Urban Libraries Council, and EveryLibrary, three national library organizations active in book ban opposition.
Is there legislation regarding book bans to watch out for?
Leonard highlighted some legislative actions in Massachusetts, such as Massachusetts State Senator Jake Oliveira and State Representative Aaron Saunders’ proposal to pass legislation against book bans. State Senator Julian Cyr has also proposed a bill protecting school libraries. On the national level, the US Senate Committee on the Judiciary held a full committee hearing on book bans on Sept. 12.
How can people prevent book bans from encroaching on their community?
Leonard encouraged people to pay attention to what might be happening with local school boards and boards of trustees for their local library, noting that a community that better understands how their local library is funded and operated is less likely to foster an environment where book challenges turn into bans and restrictions.
“[Book bans are] less of a problem in areas where the library staff, the funding entity, and the community are in deep dialogue and in deep discourse. If they trust each other, then we’re not going to have these problems at the same level that we’re seeing today.”
In addition, he said, it’s important that “we trust the library workers.”
“Whether they’re in public libraries or in school libraries … [they have] expertise and experience. In many cases, they have degrees in library science. They know how to pick the right materials for their community.”
“We all want to continue to allow parents and caregivers to be the ones to determine what their children, particularly young children, can read. Not everyone matures at the same age, not everybody has the same environment,” said Leonard. “But what we don’t want to see happen is one person deciding what somebody else’s children should have access to or be able to read.”
Elena Giardina can be reached at email@example.com.