The Library Book, By Susan Orlean
The Library Book, By Susan Orlean. Credit: Barth Keck / CTNewsJunkie
Barth Keck

Summertime is for leisure reading, especially for teachers like me whose reading during the school year is dominated by student compositions and classroom texts. So, I began my summer like I usually do; I visited my local library.

As I surveyed the stacks, one book caught my eye: “The Library Book” by Susan Orlean. A nonfiction account of the devastating 1986 fire that ravaged the Los Angeles Public Library, Orlean’s book is also a paean to all public libraries:

“All the things that are wrong in the world seem conquered by a library’s simple unspoken promise: Here I am, please tell me your story; here is my story, please listen.”

I checked out “The Library Book,” eager to begin my summer reading. And then, as if on cue, a news story broke regarding a library in a nearby town.

“A group of citizens has asked the Old Lyme public library to remove two adolescent-focused sex-education books from the library’s tween-teen section, Director Katie Huffman has confirmed,” reported the Hartford Courant on June 27. “The books, both graphic nonfiction, are ‘Let’s Talk About It: The Teen’s Guide to Sex, Relationships and Being a Human’ by Erika Moen and Matthew Nolan and ‘You Know, Sex: Bodies, Gender, Puberty and Other Things’ by Cory Silverberg and Fiona Smyth.”

The story was not overly surprising, considering how similar controversies have recently besieged public libraries in Connecticut, including those in Fairfield, Suffield, Colchester, and Glastonbury. As of April, there were 35 active book challenges in the state’s public and school libraries, according to the Connecticut Library Association – a statistic reflecting a nationwide trend that saw 1,269 demands to censor library books in 2022.

Author Orleans would see such challenges as an infringement on individual rights, as she quotes UNESCO’s 1949 Public Library Manifesto:

“The library is a prerequisite to let citizens make use of their right to information and freedom of speech. Free access to information is necessary in a democratic society, for open debate and creation of public opinion.”

To be fair, the aim of two separate letters from Old Lyme residents – signed by 23 and 135 people, respectively – was not on “advocating banning any books but concerned about age-appropriate content within the teen-tween world,” explained librarian Huffman. The main objection was the placement of the books in the “teen-tween” section of the library. That said, the focus on these two particular books does raise some eyebrows, considering they are among the very books at the center of a controversy initiated by the national group Moms for Liberty.

Founded in 2021 to fight quarantine policies during the pandemic, Moms for Liberty “has expanded its activism in local school districts to target books it says are inappropriate or ‘anti-American,’ ban instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity, require teachers to disclose students’ pronouns to parents, and remove diversity, equity and inclusion programs from schools.”

While Moms for Liberty says it’s fighting for “parental rights,” the group appears oblivious to the glaring irony of that claim. What about the parents who actually want their kids to have access to such books – like the 400+ individuals in Old Lyme who responded to that town’s controversy with their own letter “reject[ing] the requests of the censorship supporters”?

In particular, the letter notes how removing the books “to a place where access is difficult, embarrassing or populated primarily by adults, may defeat their purpose.” In other words, these books – which have been positively reviewed by Kirkus Review, Publishers Weekly, The New York Times, and the School Library Journal, among others – offer a literary “safe space” for teens with questions about sexuality. Or, as Susan Orlean writes:

“In times of trouble, libraries are sanctuaries.”

Goodness knows, these have been troubling times for the LGBTQ community. Between June 2022 and April 2023, the Anti-Defamation League documented more than 356 anti-LGBTQ+ extremist and non-extremist incidents in the United States. Connecticut has not been spared. Several Middletown residents who flew pride flags last month discovered feces smeared on their houses and cars. Also, an Enfield church service dedicated to Pride Month was interrupted two weeks ago by two men screaming at the Rev. Greg Gray for “promoting sexual activity among his parishioners.”

These public expressions of hate directed at the LGBTQ community will only grow, as groups like Moms for Liberty promise to escalate their anti-LGTBQ messaging. Currently, this group of self-proclaimed “joyful warriors” features 80,000 members in 35 states – including two chapters in Connecticut.

As Moms for Liberty and similar groups succeed in limiting the availability of certain books, libraries will no longer be “sanctuaries,” especially for the marginalized – a circumstance that runs counter to the very purpose of public libraries. As Orlean notes:

“The publicness of the public library is an increasingly rare commodity. It becomes harder all the time to think of places that welcome everyone and don’t charge any money for that warm embrace. The commitment to inclusion is so powerful that many decisions about the library hinge on whether or not a particular choice would cause a subset of the public to feel uninvited.”

It would be criminal, quite frankly, if anyone – particularly teens seeking information about personal identity and sexuality – were made to feel uninvited by their local public library.

Barth Keck is in his 32nd year as an English teacher and 18th year as an assistant football coach at Haddam-Killingworth High School where he teaches courses in journalism, media literacy, and AP English Language & Composition. Follow Barth on Twitter @keckb33 or email him here.

The views, opinions, positions, or strategies expressed by the author are theirs alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions, or positions of or any of the author's other employers.