Guest Column
Book banning isn’t a ‘culture war’ | Column
I cannot think of an institution more democratic than the public library, founded by Benjamin Franklin in 1731. Here’s why they’re in danger.
Books are displayed at the Banned Book Library at American Stage in St. Petersburg in February.
Books are displayed at the Banned Book Library at American Stage in St. Petersburg in February. [ JEFFEREE WOO | AP ]
Published May 30

In 1985, at age 22, I stood before a library reference counter holding several call slips for books and scientific journals, each of which contained the word “transsexual.” I handed the slips to a librarian, who looked them over and, without a trace of judgment, said, “Wait here.”

This occurred at the main branch of the New York Public Library, though it could have occurred at any branch of any library in the country. Librarians everywhere stand ready to help anyone find information on any subject, regardless of their own personal or political views. I don’t know of a professional group more impeccable, ethical or in love with what they do.

Diana Goetsch
Diana Goetsch [ Provided ]

And I cannot think of an institution more democratic than the public library, founded by Benjamin Franklin in 1731 to “improve the general conversation of Americans” and make “tradesmen and farmers as intelligent as most gentlemen from other countries.” People come daily to libraries with questions about their government, their gardens, their genealogy. Young people come there hoping to see their experiences reflected in a book, hoping to find heroes.

As we know, America’s libraries, particularly those in red states, are under siege due to a highly coordinated book banning crusade. Mysteriously funded national groups have created hundreds of local “chapters” (73% of which were formed after 2020), where one or two individuals carry out missions to remove hundreds of books at a time from libraries. The groups bear pristine names like “Moms for Liberty” and “Parents Defending Education,” though their agenda has little to do with parental concern — and a lot to do with white supremacy. According to PEN America, of the more than 4,000 instances of books banned in the last two years — including over 2,000 titles — the majority involve people of color or LGBTQ+ themes and authors.

They are banning books about Rosa Parks, Jackie Robinson, Jim Thorpe, Aretha Franklin, Martin Luther King Jr., Frida Kahlo and Anne Frank. They are banning books by Muslim, Jewish, Latino and Asian American writers, books about civil rights, women’s rights, and the holocaust. Children’s book writer Cheryl Lewis Hudson says the trend challenges “the actual existence of people of color in a democracy.”

They are calling librarians “groomers” and pedophiles, threatening them with felony charges and violence. The groups have teamed with red state governors and lawmakers to craft legislation that is purposefully broad (that is, “harmful to minors”), to pressure librarians to cave to book challenges, or pre-emptively remove books themselves, or quit.

Spend your days with Hayes

Spend your days with Hayes

Subscribe to our free Stephinitely newsletter

Columnist Stephanie Hayes will share thoughts, feelings and funny business with you every Monday.

You’re all signed up!

Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.

Explore all your options

Book banning isn’t a “culture war” — any more than cross burning. Last fall the American Library Association notified the FBI about a proliferation of bomb and shooting threats, on the heels of increased targeting of librarians.

When Amanda Jones, the 2021 School Librarian of the Year, spoke up at a Livingston Parrish Library board meeting, the head of “Citizens for a New Louisiana” launched a social media smear campaign that included Jones’ photo with a red target drawn around it. She stayed hidden in her house for weeks. Then she filed a lawsuit.

At that library meeting Jones said, “All members of our community deserve to be seen, have access to information, and see themselves, in our public library collection.” In 1985, I could not see myself in any of the books on gender that librarian returned with. It wasn’t due to censorship, but rather to a culture and scientific community that had yet to understand transgender people.

I have since seen myself in a lot of books, by many superb trans authors. My own book, “This Body I Wore,” was selected by the American Library Association for its 2023 Notable Books List. I wound up writing the book I was looking for at 22, and now it’s in libraries across the country. Unless it gets banned.

Seventy-five percent of Americans oppose book banning. An equally high percentage, I suspect, are deeply appreciative of their libraries and librarians, who have been so helpful for so long. It’s time we repay the favor.

This summer I am embarking on a Red State Library Tour. I have been in touch daily with red state librarians, and sticking pins in the map. I plan to start in Arkansas, Missouri and Kansas next month and come to Florida in the fall. I’ll be giving book talks, free of charge, to support librarians, targeted minorities, and the institution Ben Franklin founded.

Diana Goetsch is a poet and essayist, author of eight collections of poems, and the memoir “This Body I Wore.” For 21 years she was a high school English teacher.