How can Little Free Libraries allow more access to banned books?
Author: Megan Jessop
It should be no surprise at this point that banned books and censorship are just as prevalent today as ever. Banned books are not something that we should only talk about for one week in September or October each year and then move on. In fact, just this past month there have been seven state legislatures proposing laws that would shape school curricula and limit what their libraries can carry. Many of the books that have been challenged are those that represent minority groups such as LGBTQ+ or BIPOC authors, characters, or experiences. While it seems obvious that these complaints derive from oppressive viewpoints, many of the legislatures proposing the bills assure that the goal is to “encourage” kids to use the libraries and allow parents more transparency as to what is being taught in schools. Yet, I have a hard time seeing how making books inaccessible to kids would encourage or even enable them to use the libraries when many of those books that might be representing others like them are being removed from the shelves. I am of the opinion that if parents want to know more about the books their kids are reading, then they should read those books themselves and make informed decisions based on that. We cannot be educated and empathetic humans in regards to the experiences of others unless we are willing to read those stories and put ourselves in their shoes. Censorship puts a block on those stories and silences the voices that our history has already had a messy track record of silencing.
Through the course of my research for my graduate thesis regarding book deserts, I recently interviewed Portland author and Little Free Library steward, Melinda Crouchley in an effort to gain a better understanding of the vision of the Little Free Libraries (or FLFs) and what they are doing to help provide access to books for those who might not otherwise have it, especially among children and young adults. As one can imagine, the idea of censorship came up in the conversation. Crouchley, who has a background in both libraries and journalism, expressed her goal in curating her LFL to be as diverse as possible. While many other LFLs carry small numbers of books, and even fewer from diverse perspectives, Crouchley has included not only book resources but food, hygiene supplies, clothing, and housewares as well. Although many LFLs operated as food pantries during the pandemic shutdowns of Covid-19, Crouchley’s setup continues to operate with the intent of providing those resources to those in need within her neighborhood and community. She said that her Portland neighborhood in Powell Butte has a school district where the demographics are 60% minority, 44.6% are considered economically disadvantaged, and 24.8% have a first language other than English. When it comes to providing books for these demographics, she tries to curate a collection of books in foreign languages, diverse representation—Including LGBTQ+ and BIPOC authors and characters, and an abundance of children’s and YA books. The goal of the LFL vision is to provide access to books within communities that might not otherwise have access to libraries or bookstores. This was prevalent during 2020 when many were quarantining since many businesses, schools, and libraries were closed as a result of the Coronavirus. Crouchley has also noticed an increase in the traffic of her LFL during the summer months for similar reasons—schools are closed and public libraries or bookstores are not always accessible.
As we discussed the events of the past couple years and their effects of the LFLs, the topic of more recent or current events came up as well. Crouchley mentioned her ability to have more freedom in how she curates the books that she provides in her LFL than she did even within her experience in other libraries. It occurred to us that LFLs can, in many ways, serve as an act of resistance in the face of censorship and other social justice driven work. The ability to provide food and supplies to houseless individuals, as well as print access to those and other economically disadvantaged persons, is an act of resistance in the face of capitalism and oppressive systems. By providing diverse book options, it is an act of resistance in the face of other oppressive systems meant to silence or erase the voices and experiences of LGBTQ+ and BIPOC, or other marginalized groups. If you have access to diverse books that you can donate to the LFLs in your neighborhood, then I encourage you to give these kids access to books written by and about people who look like them and have similar experiences as them. I cannot stress enough the value of the power of the written word, and even more so the power of that written word when it speaks to the core of its readers and not only reflects their experiences but gives them permission to exist as they are. Current legislative proposals send the message that these individuals and experiences are somehow criminal just for existing. It’s time we do what we can to change that narrative.
I leave you with this quote from an INSIDER interview with Vera Eidelman, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union: “Freedom of expression protects our right to read, learn and share ideas free from viewpoint-based censorship. Book bans in school and public libraries—places that are central to our abilities to explore ideas, encounter new perspectives, and learn to think for ourselves—are misguided attempts to try to suppress that right.”
You can read more from that interview and find more about what these bills include here.