Michaela Haberkern figured a bomb threat at Aurora Public Library would happen sooner or later. It did on Tuesday.
“I knew that [bomb threats were] happening across northern Illinois over the past six weeks or so,” said Haberkern, the library’s executive director. “We made sure that our emergency procedures were up to snuff, we made sure all the staff had recent and up-to-date training and so that they would know what to do. So when it happened, I don’t really know that I had any feelings. I was just like, ‘OK, we’re doing this.’”
The threat ended up being unfounded, but it speaks to the climate around the region as libraries are frontline defenders of free speech. The American Library Association reported that in 2022 there were 1,269 demands to censor books nationally — a record number. The books tend to be challenged for race and LGBTQIA content. In contrast, Illinois officials want the state to be a haven for access to books. Gov. JB Pritzker signed a ban against book bans in June, and it will take effect Jan. 1. It’s the first legislation of its kind in the country.
But that doesn’t mean the state is immune, as evident by the spate of threats. On the day Aurora and other libraries received threats, Illinois Secretary of State Alexi Giannoulias testified at a U.S. Senate hearing about the state’s efforts to protect libraries and readers.
In addition to Aurora, Addison Public Library and Evanston Public Library received threats this week. Most recently, the Chicago Public Library fielded threats Tuesday and Thursday that forced it to search or temporarily close all locations, including the main Harold Washington Library Center branch downtown.
This recent smattering of bomb threats came just several weeks after a different string of threats to other Chicagoland libraries, including the Oak Park Public Library and Wilmette Public Library.
As the state’s librarian, Giannoulias said these attacks moved him to testify in Washington earlier this week.
“I can’t speak to why it’s happening here specifically. I will tell you that it’s a very troubling, disturbing, terrifying trend,” Giannoulias told WBEZ. “At the same time I’m testifying as to why we should step up for our librarians, back home libraries are being forced to evacuate again because of these horrendous bomb threats. It’s gotta stop.”
CPL officials say they don’t want to embolden bad actors or make decisions based on unfounded threats. But they are developing plans to account for the stress and anxiety employees are experiencing.
Meanwhile, patrons continue showing up to their local libraries. The first bomb threat and ensuing evacuation at the Addison Public Library interrupted patron José Valazquez’s plans to catch up on local sports teams.
“It wasn’t ‘til about three hours later my neighbor told me about the incident, that there was a bomb threat there. So once again I go, ‘Why the library?’”
He was back the next day.
“I found out it was just a hoax probably, and now I’m going back to the library,” Valazquez said.
Addison Public Library Director Mary Medjo Me Zengue said the incident made her proud of her staff’s commitment to serving the community. Her library received bomb threats Tuesday and Thursday.
“At the national level, people have said horrible things about librarians. The people that want to ban books are accusing librarians of wanting to harm children and being pedophiles and being groomers and just terrible things,” Medjo Me Zengue said. “Even if it’s not directly said to me or directly, we read those articles, and we feel it.”
Medjo Me Zengue is among suburban librarians who say they understand that threats to libraries are a part of the current landscape. Haberkern attributes the rise in attacks to a mix of political turmoil, social change and pent-up negative emotions people experienced during the pandemic. They have not received challenges to books recently.
Librarians want to see the threats end, but Haberkern said they may be indicative of a more fundamental issue.
“We are public servants, and we work on the frontlines of all kinds of issues that people never think about when they think about libraries,” Haberkern said. “This is where the doors are open to everyone.”
Adora Namigadde is a metro reporter for WBEZ. Follow @adorakn