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Book Bans on the Rise in Pennsylvania

Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh
Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh

Challenges to reading materials are nothing new. Attempts to restrict books date back to the Puritan days, but what may be surprising is that book banning challenges have increased exponentially over the past few years. What may be even more surprising is that Pennsylvania is third in the nation in numbers of book challenges, at least as of 2021, according to PEN America, a nonprofit that protects freedom of expression.

PEN America defines a school book ban as “…any action taken against a book based on its content and as a result of parent or community challenges, administrative decisions, or in response to direct or threatened action by lawmakers or other governmental officials, that leads to a previously accessible book being either completely removed from availability to students, or where access to a book is restricted or diminished.”

Christine Porter
Christine Porter

Often, in schools, the book challenges revolve around content. Christine Porter, an attorney with Education Law Center, a Pennsylvania nonprofit with the mission to ensure access to quality public education in Pennsylvania, said that books featuring Black and brown people, along with books dealing with LGBTQIA+ issues, comprise a large percentage of challenges. In fact, the most banned book in the country, according to PEN America, is Gender Queer: A Memoir by Maia Kobabe.

“We’re here to fight to protect the rights of students and parents and to try to make sure that every student has access to a public education, and all students should feel like they belong in their public schools. When schools ban books with Black and brown and LGBTQIA+ characters, they don’t just deprive students of important learning, they can undermine students’ self-esteem as these students are being treated as unwelcome. For those reasons, we do advocate against those bans,” said Porter.

She added that while school boards can have policies allowing certain books to be challenged and removed, they cannot have policies that allow those books to be removed from school libraries for political or religious views or because people don’t like the ideas in those books, as that would violate the First Amendment.

Porter stressed the critical importance of school libraries. “They are there to prepare students for critical thinking, to explore academic and personal questions, and we need to make sure we are not restricting students’ access to different viewpoints and ideas,” she said.

One recent attempt was made at Pine-Richard School District, when some parents challenged 14 titles in the school library, many because of alleged explicit sexual content. A committee was formed to review the challenged materials; all but one book was recommended to stay in the library, though there was a split vote concerning one book, Push by Sapphire. Last month, Superintendent Brian Miller, who read all of the books, determined that all 14 books would remain in the library, concluding that all of them have literary, societal and/or artistic value. At a board meeting on April 8, Miller said, “The library is not the classroom” and noted that there was a wide range of students at all levels within the district. He said, “There is opportunity within this topic and many other topics for ongoing conversations at home between parents and their children. Nothing prevents parents and their children from engaging in discussions at home about library book selection. In this regard, parents can impart their values and beliefs to their children and establish expectations for library book selection. Students can log into their own library accounts from home. Parents can see any book activity.”

Amy Anderson
Amy Anderson

Although school districts are often in the limelight, challenges are made at the public library level, too. In Allegheny County, there are 46 independent library systems, including the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh. “Most public libraries have the collection development policy which outlines how they go about selecting materials, and as part of that is a request for reconsideration process,” said Amy Anderson, CEO of the Allegheny County Library Association.

Adventures in Lifelong Learning book club at La Roche. Photo credit Holly Anne Conti
Adventures in Lifelong Learning book club at La Roche. Photo credit Holly Anne Conti

Because these library systems are independently run, they have their own processes as to how to deal with challenges, which usually starts with a review committee. “Normally it is very rare to have a book completely pulled from the system and removed from circulation,” said Anderson. Often, the challenge is that a book may have been placed in the wrong section, such as an adult book that ends up in the young adult section.

“We are public, meant for everyone; we do not act ’in loco parentis,’ on behalf of the parent. We encourage parents to join their children in the library. Every family has their own standard as to what they find acceptable. We want families to go to the library together and make selections about what is important to their family,” added Anderson.

Most Allegheny County libraries celebrate Banned Book Week each October, with tables comprising books that have been banned or challenged over the years. Anderson said that if anyone questions a particular book that is available at the library, to speak to a librarian about it. “Our librarians are professionally trained in how to select materials and the placement of those materials. We can answer those questions, and have a good conversation about it,” she said.

Natasha Garrett, Director of International Student Services, International Student Services Adjunct Faculty, International Studies at La Roche University, leads a reading group through the Candace Introcaso Center for Lifelong Learning. “I think books should be challenged but in a way that it creates a space for discussion and an exchange of ideas. I don’t think we should all agree on things. Even the mildest fiction book invites different interpretations. It is in the nature of a good book to create that opportunity and be challenged. But book banning goes beyond that. Often, an idea gets taken out of context and gets repeated again and again, and people think it’s dangerous,” she said.

Although book banning usually does not happen at the higher education level, banning books at the K-12 level can potentially affect a student’s readiness for college. “A lot of the book banning activities are all about having a single point of view or understanding of life. I feel like higher education teaches you that there are many ways people experience life,” said Garrett.

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