Other’s Opinion: Freedom to read under attack — again

Published 6:08 pm Tuesday, August 29, 2023

Getting your Trinity Audio player ready...

Minneapolis Star Tribune, Aug. 19, 2023

These are not good-faith efforts to protect children. They’re part of a greater endeavor to quash freedom of expression.

Public libraries are a boon to our communities. They provide easy access to reading materials, a venue for neighborhood events and a welcoming third place for people of all ages.

Email newsletter signup

But these book lenders, community centers and safe havens are increasingly coming under threat. A recent example out of Indiana — it would seem imprecise to write “most recent,” as new challenges to libraries and books pop up every day — is the Hamilton East Public Library Board’s decision to relocate hundreds of young adult titles, including John Green’s bestseller “The Fault in Our Stars,” to the adult section per a new policy that casts a censorious eye on mature themes in books for teenagers.

Following public outcry and a letter from the author, the board backpedaled Monday and reshelved “The Fault in Our Stars” in the teen section. Laura Alerding, president of the library’s board, told the Indianapolis Star that the book was removed in error, which she blamed on the library’s director and staff. Alerding did not respond to an email from a Star Tribune editorial writer inquiring whether the library plans to reshelve other moved titles as well.

While Minnesota’s blue lean may lead us to worry less about censorship in our libraries (and indeed, they’re in good shape ), that doesn’t mean this state is immune to the nationwide trend of libraries becoming yet another political arena.

“There’s still a lot of areas in the state where challenges to books are being made,” Minnesota Library Association President Julia Carlis told an editorial writer. Some estimate that Minnesota libraries see between six and 12 challenges made to books every year.

And book-related events can see challenges as well. In June, a video of a woman confronting employees at a Chaska store over their planned drag story time event went viral. Thankfully, the event went off without a hitch — for the most part. About 55 Proud Boys, far-right militants known for political violence, turned up, but they were outnumbered by parents, children and supporters.

The involvement of a group as repugnant as the Proud Boys in the movement to censor and sanitize the reading experience is telling: It demonstrates these are not good-faith efforts to protect children; they’re part of a greater endeavor to quash freedom of expression and diversity of opinion. And, while relocating young adult titles to the adult section may not seem extreme, making books less accessible runs contrary to the mission of a library.

“That is, to me, just as detrimental as removing it from the library altogether, because the people who need this book are going to be less able to find it,” Carlis said. “If there’s one thing I know from my experience in the library, it’s you want to make things as accessible for people as you can. And that doesn’t include tucking it away from the target audience.”

Ease of access is especially important for young readers, who, as many parents can attest, can be difficult to encourage to read in the first place. For some, young adult books like “The Fault in Our Stars,” a love story about two teenagers diagnosed with cancer, sparked their enjoyment of reading all those years ago.

“’The Fault in Our Stars’ was the first young adult novel I read,” Bex Williams, a student at Minnesota State University, Mankato, told an editorial writer. “It really resonated and made me excited to keep reading and to find more books that made me feel that way.”

On top of interfering with young adults as they’re learning to love to read, some worry that sheltering teens from mature themes might set them up for failure in the future.

“If you shelter kids from information their whole lives, when they encounter issues, they won’t know how to react,” Heather Biedermann, head librarian of South Central College and chair of the Minnesota Library Association’s Intellectual Freedom Committee, told an editorial writer.

Carlis added that reading books with mature themes can be a safe way for teens to learn more about the world without putting themselves in harm’s way. And reading these books doesn’t mean teens will feel a need to emulate what they see.

“There’s adults that get really into true crime,” Carlis said. “That doesn’t mean they’re going to turn around and become criminals.”

While this state’s libraries and bookstores have so far been successful in combating challenges to the freedom to read, Minnesotans should remain vigilant, as not all our Midwestern neighbors have been so fortunate. Libraries are valuable assets to any community, and especially to their younger members, who may have just begun to appreciate a good book.