Book bans and attempted bans at public libraries across the country are increasing, and not just in conservative-leaning states. Even in Massachusetts, some libraries have been challenged by groups that want to restrict access to what books and other materials are available.

The American Library Association says it recorded 695 challenges to library materials and services through the first three months of 2023. During the same time period in 2022, that number was 681.

The library association also found that public libraries are now being targeted at the same rate as school libraries. This surge in challenges prompted state legislators to propose several bills to prevent local elected officials from forcing librarians to bow to public pressure.

One Senate bill, An Act Regarding Free Expression, would block efforts to ban books from school and public libraries. It would incorporate the ALA’s Library Bill of Rights and direct that materials should not be “selected, proscribed or removed because of doctrinal or partisan disapproval.”

A similar Senate bill would protect against attempts to “ban, remove, or restrict” access to library materials. It also would require local libraries to adopt and offer guidelines consistent with ALA’s standards. This would include — but not be limited to — its Library Bill of Rights.

First adopted in 1939, the Library Bill of Rights has been amended several times, most recently in 2019. Additionally, the proposed legislation would establish a separate fund, the Book Access Fund, that would be allocated to cities or towns that have challenged the banning of books.

Several local library directors said this proposed legislation is needed to protect libraries from special interest groups. Guy McLain, director of the Westfield Athenaeum, said these groups feel that “their values are superior” to other groups and that they should be the ones to determine what their community can read and can access.

“Many of these special interest groups do not recognize the right of every individual to make their own choices of what to read,” said McLain. “Librarians are dedicated to the principle that every person walking through our doors should be able to access information that they need and that we shouldn’t make value judgments about those choices.”

McLain said the proposed legislation would not only protect librarians from undue harassment while doing their jobs, but also would protect the rights of all individuals to access any book they would like to read.

“This will ensure that we remain a diverse society that respects the rights of others,” he said.

Eileen Chapman, director of the West Springfield Public Library, said the proposed legislation would “pre-emptively” guarantee access to stories the public wants to read while providing “an open exchange of ideas and greater empathy” toward one another.

“As a whole, librarians recognize that every story has its place and its audience. No library can own every story, but as a network, we can and should provide and protect the stories that describe varied life experiences, real and imagined,” said Chapman.

Nancy Siegel, director of the Agawam Public Library, said if these bills pass as proposed, all librarians will be allowed to follow the guidelines of their individual library’s collection development policy.

She said the section of Agawam’s policy that references the library’s collection philosophy and responsibility acknowledges the subjective range of interests and respects the users’ rights to access materials that may be “unorthodox or even controversial” to others.

The policy also states that while the library attempts to provide a diverse collection, it’s not the role of the library to make judgments on the appropriateness of the materials. It also clearly recognizes that parents and guardians are the “sole authority for their child[ren’s] access” to library materials.

McLain said there have been some people who have questioned the Athenaeum about certain titles, but it hasn’t received any formal requests to remove or restrict a particular book. He said his agency’s underlying philosophy is to provide the Westfield community with books and information resources they want and need.

“We don’t choose books based on our own interests, but on the interests of our patrons. Our library staff utilize a variety of sources and strategies to choose books, DVDs, CDs, databases and other information sources we provide to our patrons,” said McLain. “We try our best to not make value judgments about particular books. It’s our belief that if a person in our community wants a book, it’s our job to provide it.”

He said if any patrons feel a particular book shouldn’t be in the library, they are asked to fill out a form that identifies the book and the reason they think it should be taken out of circulation. The request is reviewed to determine what course of action should be taken.

Chapman said West Springfield’s library has had few complaints about its books or materials.

“This may suggest residents, by and large, believe families should make these decisions for themselves,” she said.

However, Chapman said anyone with a WSPL library card can submit a Request for Reconsideration form to the library’s board of trustees. That board is a six-member panel appointed by the mayor.

Siegel said there have been times when library patrons have voiced questions or concerns about an item in the Agawam library’s collection.

“It often concerns the choice of cover photography on magazine issues,” she said. “Sometimes patrons tell us they didn’t like a particular book, but most recognize that personal taste does not imply that the book is bad or shouldn’t be part of the collection.”

In the 25 years she’s worked as a professional librarian, Siegel said she’s never witnessed anything like what’s currently happening in some public and school libraries. She believes the majority of these issues can be viewed through “the long lens” of history.

“What makes the book banning of today different from all past attempts at book banning? Not much, in my opinion. Since humankind started to print books for wide distribution, there have been attempts to control who has access to those books,” said Siegel.

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