As the granddaughter of a librarian and a lifelong reader, I sometimes joke that loving libraries is in my blood. To me, library workers have always been a type of hero. Even if my grandma hadn’t been one, I suspect I would have grown up revering them anyway; they’re stewards of some of the world’s most valuable resources. Information. Imagination. Ideas.

I had a unique opportunity to appreciate librarians earlier this year, at LibLearnX: an annual professional development event the American Library Association hosts in different cities each year. Nearly 2,000 library workers came to Baltimore to hear popular authors, connect with library professionals near and far, and celebrate both books and one another.

And, this year especially, to stand together in solidarity.

At a panel early on in the conference, while surrounded by so many heroes, I didn’t feel awestruck like I expected I would; I felt tense. It seemed like we all did — and there were a lot of us. We were in one of the larger rooms at the Convention Center downtown, and even then there weren’t enough seats for everyone. People stood along the perimeter of the room and sat on the floor by the door and the corridor. We were waiting for a panel about censorship to start: a troubling topic at the best of times, but especially given the recent nationwide surge in book bans.

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Just days before, the Carroll County Public Schools Board approved a more restrictive policy on the kinds of books allowed in middle and high schools — a reminder that our First Amendment right is at risk everywhere.

The panel, presented by staff at the Office for Intellectual Freedom, began with statistics: as recently as 2020, the number of books challenged nationwide didn’t surpass 200. The following year, the number skyrocketed to 1,858. In 2022, the number rose to 2,571. Last year saw the highest number of challenged books ever: 4,240.

In that moment, I understood for the first time what it meant for blood to run cold. I thought about the Russian poet that a professor in college told me about — a woman whose words threatened the government so much they forbade her from writing. To circumvent this, she invited people to her home. There, she whispered her poems to them, which they would then share with the public. The written word is powerful, and it’s dangerous for access to it to be taken away.

Which is why I’m grateful that, during my career as a Baltimore City Public Schools high school English teacher, no books were ever banned in our district. My students, my lovelies, could read without restriction. They read “Milk and Honey” and “The Perks of Being a Wallflower.” Books that, in other parts of the state and country, students are not allowed to access. Books that, in my classroom, made my lovelies eager to read and feel grateful to be seen.

I should note that the Maryland legislature passed the Freedom to Read Act this session. The act sets standards for school libraries that prohibits books from being excluded or removed because of the author’s background and prevents library workers from being disciplined for following the standards.

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Still, the number of book challenges across the country warrants an outcry. My memory of first hearing those numbers and seeing the graph’s impossibly steep incline was somber silence. Everyone attending this presentation — the most crowded, by far, of any I’d go to all weekend — already knew how grave this situation is. They see it firsthand. Hear about it from colleagues. Agitate to stop it from getting any worse.

Illustration shows several open books flying upwards from bottom left of the image to top center, with light rays radiating from the topmost book. On the right side of the image, the background becomes dark and three books fall from the sky.
(Laila Milevski/The Baltimore Banner)

Throughout the conference, I saw the same phrase over and over. It was on posters and stickers, tote bags and t-shirts. It is the slogan of the Freedom to Read Foundation, the legal organization that protects libraries’ right to collect information. It is a principle that, the more I think about, the more committed to it I become.

Free people read freely.

The folks who challenge books argue they do so with good intentions, like protecting children from material that isn’t age-appropriate. But in practice, it means failing to meet their responsibility as guardians to monitor what their children read and to discuss the content of those books. It means refusing to trust qualified professionals to curate collections within libraries. Folks who challenge books don’t just impact their own households; they also limit the options, the access, the freedom of others.

Each successful book challenge is its own transgression of our First Amendment right. When a book is banned, it violates the authors’ freedom of speech and minimizes creative expression, including meaningful critiques of social and political authorities. Every banned book limits the autonomy of the public, restricting our choices of the material we consume, and therefore narrowing the ideas we use to shape our personal worldviews. Banning books prevents us from accessing information that we need to form knowledgeable conclusions or opinions.

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I keep coming back to how many books people sought to ban last year. 4,240 different stories and textbooks and resources. 4,240 different opportunities for readers to find themselves represented on pages, to be entertained or educated, to be exposed to experiences different from their own.

4,240 attempts to obstruct our right to decide, and speak, for ourselves.

Free people read freely: an ideal that America is fortunate our librarians uphold. I witnessed their commitment all weekend long at that conference. Among the many things they addressed were how to respond to threats against library patrons and staff: which procedures to have in place to minimize the risk of violence from people protesting specific books or events, and what to do if things become dangerous anyway. They shared resources about how to protect and care for themselves while their mental and physical well-being is at risk. They focused on ensuring that free people will continue to read freely.

To me, library workers have always been a type of hero. But I wish so much that it wasn’t like this.

Kerry Graham is part of The Baltimore Banner's Creatives in Residence program, which amplifies the work of artists and writers from the Baltimore region.

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