The Canary in the Coalmine

Back before modern technology rendered such practices obsolete, miners used to take canaries down into coal mines with them. The reason they took them down was not so the miners could enjoy the singing of the birds while they worked, there was a darker reason…

Being considerably smaller and lighter than the average miner meant that the canary would be affected faster by the toxic gasses that built up in mine shafts. When the canary stopped singing and fell off its perch in the cage this would usually give miners enough warning to get out before they too, were overcome.

Libraries both Public & School are the canaries in the coalmine of society. Whenever the poisonous ideas of fascist thought bubble up, it is in libraries and schools that we see the early warning signs of what is to come. One of these signs is an uptick in challenges to books by and about people in certain communities usually (but not limited to) People of Color, LGBTQ+ and other minority groups.

Challenges to books in school & public libraries are nothing new, these have been going on for decades. The American Library Association runs annual lists of the most challenged books in US Libraries.

What is happening now goes beyond such standard challenges. I believe that Texas currently leads the nation in the sheer industrial scale of attempted and actual book bans. Matt Krause a Texas lawmaker compiled a list of over 800 books that he feels could make (white) readers feel uncomfortable. The majority of these books focus on sexuality, racism and US history.

To date the largest splash has been made by the banning of the teaching of the Pulitzer-Prize winning graphic novel Maus, created by Art Spiegelman the son of two Holocaust survivors, it details the experiences of his parents before and during WW2. According to the McMinn County School Board, who voted 7-0 to deny teachers the opportunity of teaching the book due to a single panel of nudity and some bad language that (allegedly) made them feel uncomfortable. This has made the 40-year-old graphic novel a cause célèbre in the current discourse around book banning and also the number one selling item on Amazon. While many commentators have celebrated the Streisand Effect that has made this book more well-known than ever before, the fact that students are being denied the opportunity to critically engage with the text while studying the Holocaust is nothing to be happy about.

Other books that have had banning attempts made against them across the US include Maia Kobabe’s memoir Gender Queer, This Book is Gay by Juno Dawson, Lawn Boy by Jonathan Evison, Out of Darkness by Ashley Hope Pérez – all for celebrating LGBTQ+ & queer themes  making them in the eyes of the adults that wish to control what young people read, unsuitable in some way for a teen audience.

It is not just books about the Holocaust or explorations of young people’s sexuality that are targeted; Stamped by Ibram X. Kendi & Jason Reynolds, The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas and New Kid by Jerry Craft and other similar texts have all faced accusations of containing critical race theory, being anti-police or just books that upset white readers.

The right-wing coopting of school boards has allowed many of them to blatantly ignore or rewrite policies and procedures that were established to deal with challenges, and instead just pull books from their shelves; in some cases, this has been done to prevent complaints and accusations of criminality or worse. Often the censorship is preemptive, with school library workers just not purchasing materials they know will garner complaints, this is not a criticism, I know from first-hand experience how terrifying accusations of carrying pornography or being a criminal just for having certain books on your library shelves can be; but the effect is just as insidious – it is also harder to identify or push back against, or to even identify such practices.

It is not only school boards that are at risk of right-wing takeover, more recently it is being recognized that Library Boards are becoming enticing targets of conservative ideologues. The recent take-over of the Niles-Maine District Library Is a damning example of how destructive the influence of a board hostile the very nature of a public library can be!

In Mississippi, the mayor of Ridgeland, Gene McGee is withholding $110,000 of funding from the Madison County Library System, demanded that the system initiate a purge of LGBTQ+ books before his office releases the money. The mayor is alleged to have said that the library can serve whoever they wanted, but that he only serves the great Lord above. Which, if accurate seems to be a fundamental misunderstanding on his part of what the role of civil servants in society actually entails.

On a related note, the Furry subculture, having heard about Mayor McGee’s homophobia, has stepped up and has spent the past week rallying around the Madison County Library successfully helping raise funds for the Library .

Library workers in the Campbell County Public Library of Wyoming have faced legal charges for having books on sexuality, gender identity and LGBTQ+ issues in their teen section although the sheriff’s office declined to investigate them and the Library Board backed the Library and did not direct them to remove the items facing the challenge.

There are thousands of these reactionary fires burning across the US and it is easy to become dispirited as the task of pushing back against and extinguishing them may seem too vast to accomplish.

An effective way to fight against this is to research your local school and library boards to discover where they stand, if their actions align with your views then stand behind and support them when it comes time for local elections. If however they have started down the slippery slope of blatant and unconstitutional bans you can organize friends, family and neighbors and stand for school & library boards and local elections or find someone who is already running and support them! If you are unable to stand for local elections then where possible attend board meetings and make your support for uncensored access to reading materials known to the boards and where possible encourage others to do the same.

If you believe in the public library service and schools then it is important to make your voice heard, because if you don’t – who will?

Coda: I had finished working on this when I saw the news that Greg Locke a Pastor in Tennessee had held a book burning just outside Nashville. Included in the burning event were copies of Harry Potter and Twilight books. It brought to mind the words of the German poet Heinrich Heine: “Where they burn books, they will also ultimately burn people.”

Related links:

How to Fight Book Bans and Censorship: https://bookriot.com/how-to-fight-book-bans-and-challenges/

How to Support Libraries in times of Increased Censorship: https://bookriot.com/support-libraries-against-censorship/

What’s It Like to Be the Target of A Book Banning Effort? School Librarian Martha Hickson Tells Her Story. https://www.slj.com/?detailStory=from-the-breaking-point-to-fighting-anew-school-librarian-martha-hickson-shares-her-story-of-battling-book-banning-censorship

Banned: Books on race and sexuality are disappearing from Texas schools in record numbers https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/texas-books-race-sexuality-schools-rcna13886

‘We’re Preparing For a Long Battle.’ Librarians Grapple With Conservatives’ Latest Efforts to Ban Books https://time.com/6117685/book-bans-school-libraries/

Save Niles Library https://www.nilescoalition.org/savenileslibrary/

Schools are banning my book. But queer kids need queer stories. https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2021/10/29/schools-are-banning-my-book-queer-kids-need-queer-stories/

LGBTQ Books Are Being Banned. Their Authors Are Fighting Back. https://www.thedailybeast.com/lgbtq-books-are-being-banned-their-authors-are-fighting-back

Book bans in schools are catching fire. Black authors say uproar isn’t about students. https://www.nbcnews.com/news/nbcblk/book-bans-schools-are-catching-fire-black-authors-say-uproar-isnt-stud-rcna10228

NCAC Coalition Statement on the Attack on Books in Schools https://ncac.org/news/attack-on-books

The push to ban books in Texas schools spreads to public libraries https://www.wfaa.com/article/news/education/texas-schools-public-libraries/285-fdacc918-48a2-4c94-8ef7-8ae5f8d344b1

Kansas district orders 29 books removed from circulation https://www.kshb.com/news/local-news/kansas-district-orders-29-books-removed-from-circulation

How a Small School District Became a Focal Point in the Battle Over Texas Book Censorship https://www.snopes.com/news/2022/02/01/texas-school-district-book-bans/ GOP Legislators Target Librarians for Prosecution, Fines Under new Bill https://iowastartingline.com/2022/02/04/gop-legislators-target-librarians-for-prosecution-fines-under-new-bill/

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