Notes on a Banned Books Class

Last semester, I taught my first semester-long class at the community college where I work. Many community colleges offer both credit courses and classes that are for continuing education, workforce training, and recreation — my class was one of these, based on a class that a previous librarian taught.

That librarian presented a series of discussions of literary classics, largely ones that were banned in the 1960s-1980s. When I took over the class, I focused on recent examples of books that have been targeted by book challenges and bans, since that has been a relentless topic in the news. I selected most of my titles from the past few years of ALA’s Top 10 Most Challenged Books lists. I had about 10 students, most of whom were older members of the community from the surrounding county.

I explained the difference between challenges and bans, and we looked at the landscape of book bans in the United States — where challenges take place (mainly school and public libraries) and who initiates them (until recently, individual and small groups of parents). We also discussed how the process to investigate challenges works in different types of libraries and the role that public comment and citizen advocacy can play in resisting book bans and other types of censorship.

Infographic from ALA's Censorship by the numbers
Censorship by the Numbers, ALA

By covering titles that are on current lists of challenged books, our conversation felt urgent and relevant to the lives of my students. We talked about the troubling trend of challenging books that feature LGBTQ+ characters or themes, as well as discussions of race and racism. 

Banned in the USA: The Growing Movement to Censor Books in Schools, PEN America

We began each class period with a discussion of each book’s themes and literary or storytelling merit. When it came time to evaluate the reasons each book was banned, students frequently found these book-ban objections to be cherry-picked and politically motivated.

Respectful debate is possible
In the first class period, we discussed “ground rules” for a civil exchange of ideas in this classroom. I was bracing myself for heated conversation, since we were reading books that addressed sensitive topics. But I found my students to be open-minded and respectful, and that spending time with these characters increased empathy and curiosity about different perspectives. It was gratifying to find that people in a small, safe environment were willing to be vulnerable and open with each other. 

It’s OK to over-prepare…
Like any first-time teacher, I over-prepared for this class for sure, but I quickly found a groove. I brought a lot of statistics (thanks to the incredibly detailed reports from PEN America and ALA), which helped contextualize specific examples from different school districts and public libraries in the US. I tried to resist the urge to enthusiastically “info-dump” or guide students toward the conclusions I was entering the classroom with. 

…but leave lots of room for where the conversation can go.
I remember for my first class, where we discussed Melissa by Alex Gino (a middle-grade novel about a transgender girl in 4th grade), I expected a lot of questions from my students about gender-affirming healthcare for children and adults. Instead, students honed in on the different types of allies in the book, and a rich discussion emerged on how to be a good ally and make spaces safer wherever we go.

When I first encountered Banned Books Week as a new librarian in 2015, book bans felt like a quaint, relatively nonthreatening relic of history to me. I remember making making simple book displays with imagery of fire or prison bars (lots of red and black construction paper), highlighting the “silly” reasons people challenge books. And I’ve heard critiques of Banned Books Week as being a complacent celebration of individual classics, that takes the focus away from the pressing issue of coordinated censorship attempts going on right now. PEN America’s Banned Books 2022 report sums it up well:

Many Americans may conceive of challenges to books in schools in terms of reactive parents, or those simply concerned after thumbing through a paperback in their child’s knapsack or hearing a surprising question about a novel raised by their child at the dinner table. However, the large majority of book bans underway today are not spontaneous, organic expressions of citizen concern. Rather, they reflect the work of a growing number of advocacy organizations that have made demanding censorship of certain books and ideas in schools part of their mission.

Banned in the USA: The Growing Movement to Ban Books

The banned books game has changed, and it’s more important now than ever for librarians and library users to be able to clearly articulate just what is so harmful about this phenomenon. Even in academia, where we are more confident in our academic freedom of speech, we need to be vigilant about the right to read. It’s an issue of democracy, diversity, and freedom for all of us.

I adapted this excellent Bookriot article into a one-page handout with specifics on how community members can resist book bans and other censorship attempts on a local level: Combating Censorship in Your Community. Please feel free to continue to adapt and share this resource if it is relevant to your academic library!

Our TBR Lists

Summer is often the time where we hope we can dig into the articles and books we’ve put off reading during the academic semesters. In this collaborative post, ACRLoggers share what they have been reading, watching, or listening to and what’s on their TBR list for the summer.

Things we have read, watched, or listened to

Hailley: A colleague in my department was part of a learning community this spring where they read Creating Wicked Students: Designing Courses for a Complex World by Paul Hanstedt. She recommended I read it, especially as I was preparing to teach a five week credit course this summer. As soon as I started reading, I was hooked! I appreciated the way Hanstedt talked about course creation and how we can design authentic projects for our students to encounter in a course. While I was reading it with my eyes on credit-course design, I still think this book is relevant for folks not teaching a full semester long course. 

Alex: I’ve been reading Writing from These Roots by J. M. Duffy (2007) for my summer M.Ed. class on literacy and its intersections with culture, identity, and language. It’s not directly library-related, but it details a unique case of literacy: the Hmong people. It has really broadened the way I look at how not only literacy happens and what it is, but how information is shared in different cultures.

Justin: I’ve been reading up on information literacy instruction, specifically in the sciences since I was recently hired as a Science librarian at the University of Manitoba. In mid-June I attended ACRL’s Sciences & Technology Section’s annual program, where they presented a draft of a sciences companion document to the ACRL Framework. Some really good examples were shown of how the Framework was adapted and being used for sciences students – I’m looking forward to using this in my own instructional sessions. I also found Witherspoon, Taber, and Goudreau’s recently-published article “Science Students’ Information Literacy Needs” really helpful in providing evidence for when to introduce specific info lit concepts throughout a science student’s program.

As I’ve been developing some new sciences-focused library presentations, I’ve been rereading Bull, MacMillan, and Head’s article on proactive evaluation, published last summer. I’m trying to figure out where to put and how to frame proactive evaluation and other evaluative frameworks in my sessions for sciences students.

Stephanie: I’m often listening to podcasts, and one that is currently in rotation is 99% Invisible. I greatly enjoyed their recent episode, Meet Us by the Fountain, which focuses on the heyday of indoor shopping malls. As someone who began working in a mall when I was a sophomore in high school and continued working there until I graduated from college, the mall holds a place in my heart as a place where I discovered who I was, from my clothing likes and dislikes to my social circle and extended group of friends. Listening to the episode reminded me that it’s hard for me to imagine what my life would have been like if I hadn’t worked at the mall for nearly six years; returning to my shift on a regular basis kept me grounded during an age and time of much uncertainty. The episode also shines insight into the gravitational pull of the mall and the history of suburbia in general. 

Jen: I’ve become more and more interested in the idea of storytelling as a pedagogical technique–allegories, analogies, anecdotes, case studies, memes, real-world problems–to make abstract or technical research concepts more accessible to students, facilitate students’ recall and meaning making, and/or provide general interest in the classroom. So reading about how instructors in a wide range of disciplines use storytelling and to what effect–things like Frisch and Saunders’ “Using stories in an introductory college biology course”–has been helpful so far.  This exploration has led me into a bit of research on how instructors think about their teaching and how they make changes. Articles like Kirker’s “Am I a teacher because I teach?: A qualitative study of librarians’ perceptions of their role as teachers” and Baer’s “Academic librarians’ development as teachers: A survey on changes in pedagogical roles, approaches, and perspectives” have been helpful here. Both of these areas have started to lead me to think about these concepts in other contexts: storytelling as a tool to improve clarity and connection in communication in other arenas (say, administrative) and also what contributes to openness to change in other parts of our professional (not to mention personal) lives. 

Things we hope to read, watch, or listen to this summer

Hailley: I’m hoping to spend some time reviewing the recorded presentations from CALM this spring. I wasn’t able to attend the virtual conference at the end of April, but I’m excited many of the sessions were recorded. I recently watched (and loved) “Flying the Plane While You’re Building It: Cultivating a New Team Through Organizational Change” from Mea Warren and (fellow ACRLogger) Veronica Arellano Douglas so I can’t wait to learn more from those who presented!

Alex: I’ve barely started it, so I don’t count it in the “have read” section, but I’m looking forward to working my way through A Place for Everything, by Judith Flanders, because who doesn’t want to read a history of alphabetical order? (That’s a little adjacent to library work, but probably has some interesting insights into shelving schemes, if nothing else.) I also have a lot of driving ahead of me this summer (we’re talking 7 hours at a time) so I’d like to get into some podcasts to pass that time more quickly: The Librarian’s Guide to Teaching, Dewey Decibel, and Book Club for Masochists have all caught my eye (ear?) recently. Even though a lot of library podcasts are focused on public libraries, I think there’s a lot for an academic librarian to learn there.

Justin: A couple of my colleagues are really into Anne Helen Petersen’s writing and recommended her book, co-written with partner Charlie Warzel, Out of Office: The Big Problem and Bigger Promise of Working From Home. I switched from working-from-home back to working on-campus in February of this year. I think a lot of us have been moving towards this over the past year or so. I’ve heard Warzel and AHP’s book layout ideas for a healthy work/life balance, rethinking what your real work means, and getting more involved in your community, so I’m looking forward to reading it. (Also: if you haven’t seen it, AHP’s CALM keynote is shared here, which I highly recommend reading, The Librarians Are Not Okay.)

I just finished up a research project on relational-cultural theory and Canadian academic librarians, and now that that’s done, I’m hoping to do some reading into LIS mentorship programs and other supports for librarians to start up a new project; articles like Malecki & Bonanni’s “Mentorship Programs in Academic Libraries” and Ackerman, Hunter, & Wilkinson’s “The Availability and Effectiveness of Research Supports for Early Career Academic Librarians.”

Stephanie: Following up on the 99% Invisible episode I was listening to earlier, I’m eager to pick up the book the episode is based on: Meet Me by the Fountain: An Inside History of the Mall by Alexandra Lange. While I haven’t started reading the book just yet, I’m looking forward to gaining more insight on how malls have both become something we remiscenice about while also being something we also malign. I’m drawn to social histories in general, and I appreciate that this book focuses on how malls played a vital role in creating and maintaining suburbs, and how towns are faring during the ongoing reinvention of the mall.

Jen: Geez, there’s so much I’ve been meaning to catch up on. What isn’t on my to-be-read pile is perhaps a more accurate question for me. But I’m thinking here especially about some synergies in a few projects I’m working on related to open pedagogy and the “students as partners” movement and information literacy. So I’m adding things like “A systematic literature review of students as partners in higher education” to the pile to round out some of my foundational understanding in these areas. 

Leisure reading collections in the academic library

Here’s my honest opinion: I wasn’t a big fan of collection development during graduate school. When I was supervising the residence halls libraries at Illinois, putting new books in my virtual cart was always at the bottom of my to-do list. I didn’t have a good system of finding new books and once I found something cool, usually one of my colleagues had it in their cart. For me, I was always more interested in using my time to support the student employees or plan programming with residence life than I was in spending my time building a collection. The work of collection development felt like a chore.

Needless to say I was jazzed when I started at Penn State and had zero collection development responsibilities. I could go back to just me requesting the books for myself I heard about on podcasts or read in the many email newsletters I subscribed to. I “escaped” collection development for two years and this fall, the Leisure Reading  collection in the Pattee & Paterno Libraries fell on to my plate of responsibilities.

Leisure reading collections (also known as recreational reading, browsing collection, or popular reading collections) were first started in academic libraries in the 1920s and 30s, when a core value of academic librarians was to promote reading. These collections became less prevalent in the 1940s and 50s, when war impacted library budgets and people found it less important to have these collections (Dewan, 2010). It wasn’t until the 1990s that academic libraries started to create leisure reading collections again and publish on the importance of these collections. These collections continue to get pushback from the academic library world; some consider the collection not within the mission of an academic library; others talk of tight budgets and space limitations (Alsop, 2007); there is even an assumption that faculty, staff, and students do not have or any interest in reading for leisure (Van Fleet, 2003). However, more recent studies have shown the benefits of reading for leisure, including a correlation with higher academic achievement (National Endowment for the Arts, 2004), promotion of critical thinking, and improvement of reading comprehension and developing one’s own writing voice (Rathe & Blankenship, 2006; Trott & Elliott, 2007). But just like anything done well, building this sort of collection takes time, energy, and resources.

The decision to put the Leisure Reading collection on my work plate was strategic — pivot the collection to take a student engagement approach, leverage the talents and energy of our student engagement intern and part time student employee to help with the vision and maintenance of the collection, and tie the collection more closely with our outreach work in order think about how we highlight and promote this collection. During the first few weeks where the collection was now “mine,” I drew inspiration from UCLA’s Powell Library, who worked with students and student clubs in a variety of ways to help build a student-driven collection (Glassman, Lee, Salomon, & Worsham, 2017). I felt like I was sort of stumbling through the dark those first few weeks, just trying to understand what the collection was, and where we could take it. Luckily, I wasn’t tackling this project alone — the Leisure Reading team is up to five: 3 full-time library employees, and two student employees.

I definitely took for granted the system that the residence halls libraries had set up for collection development. As a small system, we didn’t have too many other people to work with in order to keep the collection up and running. Here at Penn State, there’s 10+ people or groups interacting and supporting the Leisure Reading collection in some way. This meant that any changes we decided to make, had to be communicate clearly and often to all those involved. These folks also gave us some of the best feedback on the collection; their sometimes daily interaction really helped the new team wrap our heads around the current situation and see potential ways forward that would make the collection easier to find and use for both staff and patrons.

Our collection is mostly leased; something I hadn’t really considered before. In doing some research about recreational reading collections in academic libraries, I learned that academic libraries have been talking about leased collections since at least 1976 (Cushman) and people are interested in the pros and cons of having this type of collection, especially when considering if these popular books are “worthy” to keep for a long time (Odess-Harnish, 2002). Part of our lease agreement is that we get to keep a percentage of the books we lease, giving a new option to the research already out there about leased collections. Our monthly weeding gives us the chance to think about what we should keep and starts to give us a better sense of how our patrons are using this collection.

A big challenge that the Leisure Reading team tackled in the first few months was wayfinding and discoverability. Our collection is shelved in the Library of Congress classification, which can make it confusing to figure out where the new book by Phoebe Robinson or Tana French is going to be. As Pauline Dewan says so succinctly, “The Library of Congress classification is not an effective scheme for browsing fiction” (2010, p. 44). Our two student employees helping with the collection learned first hand how difficult the classification system can be when creating new signage to help people discover new items in this collection. But, we are working on it — trying things knowing they might fail and also trying to get as much feedback as we can from the people actively using the collection. The collection is constantly a work in progress.

As we look towards 2019, there are big plans on the horizon for this collection. Our spring will be devoted to tying the collection more closely to programming, making a stronger connection between our leisure reading and viewing (DVD) collection, and assessing if the things we are doing are actually impacting circulation and patrons who use the collection. The past several months, I’ve come to love this collection; it’s tough and challenging but it’s fun to collaborate with others and try to build a dynamic, usable, interesting collection.

Do you have a leisure reading collection in your library? Do you help maintain the collection? If you are in charge of this collection, what are some challenges you face and what are exciting elements of this sort of collection in an academic library?

References:

Alsop, J. (2007). Bridget Jones Meets Mr. Darcy: Challenges of Contemporary Fiction. The Journal of Academic Librarianship, 33(5), 581–585. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.acalib.2007.05.004

Cushman, R. C. (1976). Lease Plans– A New Lease On Life For Libraries? Journal of Academic Librarianship, 2(1), 15–19.

Dewan, P. (2010). Why Your Academic Library Needs a Popular Reading Collection Now More Than Ever. College & Undergraduate Libraries, 17(1), 44–64. https://doi.org/10.1080/10691310903584775

Van Fleet, C. (2003). Popular Fiction Collections in Academic and Public Libraries. The Acquisitions Librarian, 15(29), 63–85. https://doi.org/10.1300/J101v15n29_07

Glassman, J., Lee, S., Salomon, D., & Worsham, D. (2017). Community Collections: Nurturing Student Curators. In S. Arnold-Garza & C. Tomlinson (Eds.), Students Lead the Library: The Importance of Student Contributions to the Academic Library (pp. 77–92). Chicago, IL: ACRL.

National Endowment for the Arts. (2004). Reading at risk: A survey of literacy reading in America. Retrieved from https://www.arts.gov/publications/reading-risk-survey-literary-reading-america-0

Odess-Harnish, K. (2002). Making Sense of Leased Popular Literature Collections. Collection Management, 27(2), 55–74. https://doi.org/10.1300/J105v27n02_06

Rathe, B., & Blankenship, L. (2006). Recreational Reading Collections in Academic Libraries. Collection Management, 30(2), 73–85. https://doi.org/10.1300/J105v30n02_06

Trott, B., & Elliott, J. (2007). Academic Libraries and Extracurricular Reading Promotion. Reference & User Services Quarterly, 46(3), 34–43. https://doi.org/10.5860/rusq.46n3.34

Recommended Reading: White Fragility

I spent most of last weekend home sick with a cold, sniffling under blankets and cats, though the unexpected bright spot was the time to finish a book that was so fantastic that I can’t not recommend it. White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk about Racism, by antiracist educator Robin DiAngelo, floored me with its honest discussion of the role that we white people play in maintaining the racist systems in our society.

From the first page of the first chapter DiAngelo pulls no punches: “White people in North America live in a society that is deeply separate and unequal by race, and white people are the beneficiaries of that separation and inequality. As a result, we are insulated from racial stress, at the same time that we come to feel entitled to and deserving of our advantage.”

DiAngelo makes a compelling case for why white people must push through our discomfort and learn to talk about race. She reviews the history of racism and white supremacy, and points out that the focus on individual acts of racism as perpetrated by bad actors sets up a binary that prevents white people from discussing racism at all. Throughout the book DiAngelo shares examples from her work in antiracist trainings to highlight the ways that white people — including herself — behave in conversations with people of color and conversations about race. Most importantly, she reminds us that “the antidote to guilt is action” (p. 143), and shares concrete suggestions to help white people resist white fragility and white solidarity, and to push back against racism in our society.

I feel strongly that this book should be required reading for all white librarians. As has been much discussed in recent years, librarianship remains over 86% white, despite years of advocacy and efforts to attract and fund students of color in LIS programs and hire librarians of color. And while librarianship remains predominantly white, the undergraduate population in the U.S has only continued to diversify. I work at a large public college that primarily serves New York City residents, and our student population is reflective of the city we’re in. It’s critical to my work that I learn about and practice antiracism. I’m also a chief librarian, and I want to especially urge my fellow white library directors and managers to read this book; we are responsible both to our campus communities and our library colleagues to interrupt our white fragility and strive for a more inclusive workplace.

There are lots of ways to learn about racism and antiracism. I am still learning, though I can share what’s been helpful to me. A few years ago I attended a three-day antiracism workshop that was a good place to start with both learning more about the structural racism of U.S. society and to begin having conversations about race. I also read a lot (probably not a surprise!) — as librarians, we are terrific at doing research, finding resources, and extending our learning. Searching online for antiracist resources should bring up numerous lists of resources on race and racism generally. Twitter has afforded me the opportunity to listen and learn from people of color in librarianship, academia, and activism. I also attend a white antiracist discussion group which I find incredibly valuable because, as DiAngelo demonstrates so well, talking about race is hard for white people, and we need to practice in order to get comfortable with our discomfort.

This is so important — if you’re a white librarian I hope you’ll take the time to read this book, too. At just over 150 pages it’s a quick read, and DiAngelo is a clear and thoughtful writer. And if you’d like to get familiar with her work before diving into the book, I recommend this video:
Deconstructing White Privilege
and this article:
White People are still raised to be racially illiterate. If we don’t recognize the system, our inaction will uphold it.

Hack the Stacks: Outreach and Activism in Patron Driven Acquisitions

As many others have said more eloquently than I could, everyday in libraries we make decisions about how to spend our resources: time, space, attention, but perhaps most obviously, money. In 2015, the average library expenditures for collections at doctoral institutions was over 5 million dollars. What we choose to spend that money on is an inherently political act. Recognizing it as a form of activism, students at the University of Virginia used our purchase request system to ask that the library add more materials by underrepresented voices to our collections.  I’ll describe the background, logistics, and outcomes of an event we organized to encourage and facilitate these requests.

As a subject librarian, collection development is a surprisingly small part of my job. A centralized collections team manages our approval plans and once a year subject liaisons review them to make sure they still align with departmental interests and priorities. We also have an automated purchase request system that patrons can use to request items for the library. These requests get sent to the collections team and the subject librarian in the area and we passively approve them (unless there’s a glaring reason not to purchase it, it goes through). Beyond those two responsibilities, my involvement in collection development is minimal.

UVA isn’t alone in changing the way it handles collection development from the selector/bibliographer to an outsourced model. Along with this operational shift, we’ve experienced a more philosophical one: budget and space constraints mean that we can no longer try to collect everything, and have had to refocus our efforts towards providing material as patrons explicitly need them, which is the same paradigm shift of “just-in-time” to “just-in-case” that many libraries are experiencing. We rely upon patron purchase requests to tell us when there’s a gap that needs to be filled, but sometimes students don’t know about that feature of the library website or how to use it.

A few weeks ago, a graduate student in the Music Department approached me about co-organizing an event to teach people how to use the purchase request feature while simultaneously requesting books by marginalized authors and independent presses be added to our collection. (Thank you to Aldona Dye of the UVA Music Department and Matthew Vest of UCLA who came up with this idea.) We decided to call it Hack the Stacks and partnered with the Graduate Student Coalition for Liberation, an interdisciplinary group formed  “with the goal of creating a campus environment where resources  for learning about and combating white supremacy (such as discussion forums; visiting scholar and activist talks; syllabi; direct actions; trainings; and safe and accountable spaces) are readily available.”

Prior to the event, we circulated a Google Doc and asked people to add books and presses they thought should be added to the library’s collections. The day of the event, we gave a presentation covering the library’s current method of collection development, emphasizing that purchase requests are the best way for patrons to influence what they think we should own, how to submit a purchase request, and describing what happens after a request is submitted. From the patron perspective, our collection development process is opaque and this discussion made it a lot more transparent. We posted large print-outs of the list on the wall and asked participants to check off items when they submitted a request. We also brought a blank sheet of paper for participants to add to if they submitted a request for a book that wasn’t on our list. Participants filtered in and out during the two hour event, with some staying and submitting multiple purchase requests and others dropping in to submit one or two. 

Our collections and acquisitions teams helped facilitate this event on the backend. Before the event, we talked about whether our normal purchase request budget would be sufficient to cover an event like this, and I shared the list with them in advance to give them a rough estimate of the number of requests to expect. During the event, I encouraged participants to track down the link to purchase the title they were interested in to make it easier on the acquisitions team and to use the “additional notes” field to justify the purchase, which is a practice our collections management team encourages for requests to be fulfilled more reliably. We also added a designation to each item that was requested so that the acquisitions team could track which requests were coming in as part of the event.

All told, we ended up submitting purchase requests for close to fifty items. Those requests are still being processed, so I can’t yet say how many will be added to our collection, but I’m hopeful that most of them will be purchased. Building diverse collections is, as AJ Robinson pointed out, imperative if we want to be the inclusive and welcoming institutions we strive to be. We need to have books by and about people from historically marginalized groups if we want them to feel as though the library is for them, too.  Having these materials on hand also means that more people will engage with them. We are undergoing the beginning of a renovation right now and through a series of preparatory focus groups and meetings many people have emphasized how essential browsing is to their research processes. Hopefully, by having these books in our catalog and on our shelves, faculty and students will be more likely to use them in their courses and research. This event also revealed gaps in our collection, particularly in disability and indigenous studies. I hope we can use this knowledge to revisit our approval plans to see how we could collect more intentionally in these areas.

This was my first experience doing outreach to encourage patron driven acquisition and using it as a tool to encourage more inclusive collections. I’m hopeful we can turn it into a larger effort to tap into patron expertise as we make decisions about how to allocate our limited resources and to incorporate what we learn into our long-term collections strategy.