Book bans and politics: Not just a school issue, public libraries see surge in challenges

Illinois libraries receive 44 challenges to books so far this year after reported challenges more than doubled last year

Jolie Duncan, info services manager at the Arlington Heights Memorial Library, stands in front of a display highlighting banned and challenged books. Libraries across the country marked Banned Book Week this month.

Challenges to books in schools libraries have led to heated debates across the suburbs, from Antioch in far northern Lake County to Barrington in the northwest suburbs and Downers Grove in DuPage County.

Now the debate over what’s appropriate for the shelves is shifting to public libraries, where advocates say they’ve seen a surge in requests to remove or restrict access to controversial books.

According to the American Library Association, reported book challenges to public libraries in Illinois more than doubled – 21 to 54 – from 2021 to 2022. There have been 44 challenges so far this year, putting the state on pace to top last year’s number, according to association data.

Those figures reflect national trends, where challenges at public libraries in the first eight months of 2023 were up 20% from the same period last year. Nationally, there have been 695 reported challenges to 1,915 titles, according to the association.

Challenges at public libraries are quickly catching up to those at schools. About 49% of all recorded challenges so far this year have been at public libraries, compared to 22% over the same time frame in 2022.

“That’s a pretty big shift,” said Jolie Duncan, info services manager at the Arlington Heights Memorial Library and a member of the Illinois Library Association’s Intellectual Freedom Committee.

Many come from one individual challenging multiple titles, library advocates say.

“There is an increase in the number of challenges, but they’re coming from a very small amount of people,” said Elizabeth Lynch, who chairs the Illinois Library Association’s Intellectual Freedom Committee. “We are seeing political groups sharing lists of books, asking people at their local public library or in their school district to request the removal of these books.”

Often the library won’t have the book that’s being challenged, added Lynch, a librarian with the Addison Public Library.

The rancor toward public libraries has gone beyond book challenges. Last year, the Downers Grove Public Library canceled a planned drag queen bingo event in the wake of threats. And in recent weeks, numerous libraries across the suburbs – including Aurora and Crystal Lakehave been the target of bomb threats.

“It was very frightening for our staff to have to evacuate the building and see the bomb squad come with dogs going through to sweep our building to make sure that we were safe,” said Addison Public Library Director Mary Medjo Me Zengue.

Far from having an agenda or trying to expose anyone to dangerous content, she said librarians have a rigorous process for evaluation of materials.

“We do make sure that things are age-appropriate,” she said.

“There is an increase in the number of challenges, but they’re coming from a very small amount of people.”

—  Elizabeth Lynch, chair of the Illinois Library Association’s Intellectual Freedom Committee

“Public libraries are really good at having policies in place and systems in place to handle challenges,” Duncan said. “It’s nothing new to get a challenge, and it’s not necessarily wrong to get a challenge.”

The rise in book challenges comes as libraries across the nation last week marked the 41st annual Banned Books Week. Launched in 1982 by a coalition that included the American Library Association, Banned Books Week calls attention to attempts to censor books and other library materials and the need to preserve the freedom to read.

To celebrate, the Arlington Heights Memorial Library hosted a “Freedom to Read” Pop-Up at farmers market, where visitors could read from their favorite banned book.

The Gail Borden Public Library District in Elgin offered patrons a chance to take a picture with challenged books, such as George Orwell’s “Animal Farm,” in front of a green screen.

Despite the increase in challenges, Cyndi Robinson, executive director of the Illinois Library Association, said the large majority of the public strongly supports their local libraries.

“When someone turns up with a challenge, they make a lot of noise,” she said. “But the reality is that an overwhelming number of Americans don’t believe in banning books or removing books from the library.”

Steve Zalusky - Daily Herald Media Group

Steve Zalusky is a reporter for the Daily Herald