By KENZIE TERPSTRA
Capital News Service
LANSING – Shelves laden with row upon row of books fill public libraries with stories of history, fantasy and anything in between.
Whether they are new books with gleaming spines or used ones creased from being held open for hours, the stories within remain the same.
Now the Michigan Library Association is pushing an initiative it calls MI Right to Read. It’s intended to educate the public and oppose legislation that may infringe on First Amendment rights to access and intellectual freedom amid a surge in censorship.
Though censorship is nothing new, according to Deborah Mikula, the association’s executive director, the quantity of attacks has grown dramatically.
“It’s unprecedented –- the volume of attempted censorship and the intensity of the conversations right now at our school boards and library boards,” she said.
Mikula said that since about 2021, the number of books challenged in the state has multiplied from hundreds to thousands. Most challenged books are by LGBTQ+ authors or have race-related or gender-related content.
The most challenged book title of 2022 was “Gender Queer: A Memoir” by Maia Kobabe, a book challenged for its LGBTQ+ content, according to the American Library Association.
The association marks October as Library Appreciation Month, which includes a Right to Read Week and highlights how libraries serve their communities.
In addition, the American Library Association promotes a Banned Book Week every October, which it says celebrates the freedom to read and brings communities together to support their libraries.
In one Michigan incident last year, residents in Jamestown Township, Ottawa County, defeated a millage that would appropriate the majority of their public library’s budget after the library refused to take LGBTQ+-related books off the shelves.
The millage will be on the ballot for the third time this November.
In April, a Cass County commissioner proposed an ordinance to criminally punish librarians for making “sexually explicit material available for children.” The proposal was later withdrawn after a backlash from librarians and their supporters.
The library association’s Mikula said, “We want to keep educating every individual in Michigan about the importance of having access to these public institutions.”
Earlier this year, a statewide survey that the association commissioned by the research firm EPIC-MRA found an “overwhelming” 83% majority of those polled said they support legislation to protect the public’s right to read what they wish in public libraries “and not have books banned.”
“It confirms the significance that we’re on the moral and just side of upholding the constitutional promise to protect intellectual freedom,” Mikula said.
The survey also found that 70% of those polled said librarians are “very or mostly capable and trustworthy to decide which books and reading materials should be included” in local libraries.
“We have qualified and trained librarians across the state, who all have master’s of library and information science degrees,” Mikula said. “If they’re in a school, they also have teaching certificates. They’re highly educated, and we’re proud of that.”
Across the country, almost 2,000 books were challenged or censored between Jan. 1 and Aug. 31 of this year, according to the American Library Association. That’s an increase of 20% compared with the same period last year.
A challenge is a formal submission to the library asking to have a title pulled from the shelves, prompting an internal review of the book. Once a challenge is processed, the library board or school board decides whether to ban it.
According to a study by the American Library Association, there were 27 attempts to restrict access to books in Michigan and 40 titles challenged during those attempts between Jan. 1 and Aug. 31 of this year.
Michigan is below the national average rate of 38.3 titles attempted to be challenged during that period. Texas led the nation in the number of titles challenged with 1,120, according to the study. “Groups are trying to make it more labor-intensive to mess up the system so that the library just quickly wants to comply,” said Scott Duimstra, the executive director of the Capital Area District Libraries. “Instead of submitting just one challenge, these groups are submitting hundreds at a time.”
Duimstra said, “We use our collections to ensure that all members of our community feel reflected in the collection of books, and feel that the library is a safe space for them as well.”
The state association’s poll found that 80% agreed with the statement that “individual parents can set rules for their own children, but they do not have the right to decide for other parents what books are available to their children.”
According to Mikula, having a choice is important.
“We recognize that individuals have the right to make decisions about what materials are suitable for themselves and their own families,” Mikula said. “But there is not a right to make rules restricting what other people read, or to make decisions for other families.”
Mikula and Duimstra agreed that a strong vocal minority is behind the upturn of attempted book bans throughout the state, and that supporting local libraries is key to protecting the right to intellectual freedom.
“We need to let the general public know this is going on and that it’s a threat to your freedom,” Duimstra said. “For libraries, it’s an awareness of the values of the library to protect that First Amendment access.”
Mikula said, “We’re asking the public to take action. We want them to join a coalition that advocates against censorship. We want them to post on social media. We want them to be vocal about it.”