Chatting About Book Bans With The Library’s Librarians

In recent years, school and public libraries around the nation have grappled with attempts by individuals and coordinated groups to restrict community access to certain book titles they find objectionable.

As Banned Books Week draws to a close, we had the opportunity to discuss censorship and intellectual freedom with our selection services librarians, the people responsible for developing and maintaining The Seattle Public Library’s collection of books and other materials.

The Library believes in an individual’s right to read and to access information. Every person has the right to decide what materials they chose to read, to explore new viewpoints, and to think for themselves. Parents and caregivers have the right to guide their children to materials that best serve the needs of their families. As such, the Library does not and will not remove, relocate, label, stigmatize or otherwise restrict access to books in its collection in response to complaints about their content.

Read more about how our Selection Librarians select and retire materials below.

Censorship is on the rise in the United States, with new book banning efforts being reported all the time. Have people been trying to ban books at The Seattle Public Library? If so, how does the Library respond?

Libraries nationwide are facing coordinated efforts to ban books, but we have not had the same experience at The Seattle Public Library. While the Library periodically receives comments from patrons who are concerned about a book in the collection or, more rarely, formal requests that a book be removed from the collection, these comments and requests come from patrons across the political and cultural spectrum.

We do not and will not remove or restrict access to the materials in our collection based on comments and requests like these. That would be contrary to everything public libraries stand for. It’s also important to note that the majority of people across the county oppose book bans, as found in a 2022 survey conducted on behalf of the American Library Association.

Our patrons often read and support books that are censored or banned in other areas of the country. For example, “Gender Queer” by Maia Kobabe has been challenged in a number of community libraries across the country. In Seattle, however, it is currently one of the most popular adult nonfiction books in our collection, and we have purchased additional copies this year to meet the demand.

Most recent efforts to ban books are centered on children’s literature. How does the Library determine which books should be in the children’s section? Why is it important that children, students and others have access to the books people are trying to ban?

Collections librarians develop and maintain the Library’s children’s collection to support the educational and recreational needs of children and their families, and to reflect the incredible diversity of perspectives and experiences in our community and the larger world.

Library collections evolve over time as new books are selected and existing books are removed (or “weeded”) according to the guidelines of our Selection and Withdrawal of Materials Policy and the goals outlined in our Collections Plan. When selecting or weeding books from any Library collection, we consider factors such as community interest, positive or negative reviews, timeliness, accuracy, historical significance, audience appropriateness, diversity of viewpoint and more.

As a government agency, The Seattle Public Library does not and should not remove or restrict access to books based on politics. It is not our role to decide what Seattle residents should be allowed to read, and, in fact, doing so would be a violation of Library policy, contrary to our professional values, and in conflict with the First Amendment.

Providing access to a full range of viewpoints makes it easier for the public to understand our world, critically evaluate beliefs, explore and discover new ideas and perspectives, engage with others, and participate meaningfully in civic life.

The same considerations apply to the use of Library meeting rooms, computers and other public services. When it comes to constitutionally protected speech, we don’t censor what people can say in our meeting rooms or view on our computers, even if some find that speech objectionable or offensive.

With many distinct viewpoints represented in our libraries, Library staff are mindful to foster safe and welcoming spaces for all who visit. Our Rules of Conduct discourage disruptive behaviors, harassment, intimidation and other unwanted conduct so that everyone has the opportunity to learn and grow at the Library.

How does the Library deal with the works of controversial authors?

The Seattle Public Library will always have controversial books on controversial topics by controversial authors, and will defend your right to read them. It is up to each person to decide whose work they will or will not read. We also uphold our patron’s right to privacy with their reading habits.

Has The Seattle Public Library ever removed books from its collection because of complaints from patrons or internal discussions?

The Library has not removed an item from the collection in response to complaints from patrons or staff. Years ago, we removed a children’s book of science experiments when it was brought to our attention that some of the instructions were potentially dangerous, but these instances are very rare. We remove items from the collection based on our regular collection review and weeding process.

In general, if a book in the collection is no longer being checked out, if it has become outdated or inaccurate, if it is in poor physical condition, or if it is taking space on the shelves that could be filled with another book that better serves the needs and interests of the community, then there are good reasons to weed it from the collection.

What are the main differences between public and school libraries?

Public libraries serve the general community with collections that cover a wide variety of subjects for all age levels. School libraries support the needs of the K-12 students, staff and curriculum at that particular school, and the collections within are shaped by teachers, teacher-librarians, school library media specialists and, to some extent, administrators and school boards. Resources and materials for school libraries are selected to support curricular and instructional needs, complement course work, and support reading.

While different in scope and scale, public libraries and school libraries complement one another and often work together toward the same goal of supporting community education and personal growth. A local example is The Seattle Public Library’s Library Link partnership with Seattle Public Schools, which provides instant access to all of our online resources and digital media for Seattle Public School students and staff using their student or staff ID.

What can we do to resist book banning efforts?

The best thing Seattleites can do is to read banned books! Frequently banned books can be found in our collections, and are often promoted by Library staff through book displays and book lists. Reading a banned book supports authors, libraries, and the fundamental right to read.

Those with concerns can also voice support to their elected representative for libraries, school libraries, library workers, intellectual freedom and the freedom to read. The American Library Association has more information and calls to action in their Unite Against Book Bans Toolkit.

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