The children’s section at north suburban Lincolnwood Public Library has become the most contentious space in the building.
Library director Josephine Tucci said in the past year, parents have increasingly wanted titles removed from the library completely, while others come to board meetings and suggest moving them out of children’s eyesight.
“No matter which shelf — and we only have three shelves,” Tucci said. “I’m short and they come up basically to almost my shoulder. So there is nowhere to put these books in question.”
First, it was The Hips on the Drag Queen Go Swish, Swish, Swish by Lil Miss Hot Mess, a book that plays off the children’s song “The Wheels on the Bus.” Ever since a librarian read it to children at a story time in a local park last summer, Tucci said conservative parents have been trying to get it banned.
But they’re not the only ones with contentions over titles at the library — a progressive parent asked the library to remove Johnny the Walrus by Matt Walsh, a book allegorically comparing being transgender to pretending to be a walrus.
In Lincolnwood, the issue is not the number of books patrons want to ban, but rather the intensity with which some parents want to remove certain titles. Stories like The Bare Naked Book by Kathy Stinson keep coming up in board meetings.
“It shows people from the waist up, and different body types. And they’re naked from the waist up. Some of our more conservative families felt that was a really inappropriate illustration to have in this book,” Tucci said.
Tucci insisted on keeping all three titles in the space, and they remain available for checkout.
“The First Amendment is a double-edged sword. And it’s being used as a sword right now. Instead of a right, it’s used almost as a weapon to silence other people. And that is very worrisome,” Tucci said. “Most people still think of libraries as a place with books, you can hang out, it’s quiet. That’s not what libraries are anymore. Now they’re becoming a battlefield for the First Amendment.”
Libraries have historically been battlegrounds for freedom of speech. While some people see them as innocuous, small- and large-scale libraries across the Chicago area are engaging the public on the issue of censorship. As some libraries field requests to remove books, librarians are asking themselves why people want to remove those books.
These fights are why the Chicago Public Library (CPL) introduced and is promoting the idea of book sanctuaries — spaces where books of all kinds are protected and made accessible to all people. Since battles over which books to make available to the public are not happening in the city’s libraries, library Commissioner Chris Brown said his library system has more freedom to respond to the issue than many nearby.
He said anyone can make a sanctuary.
“It can be in your house, it can be in a community center, it can be in a school and also a library,” Brown said.
People are catching onto the idea — Brown said more than 1,300 people viewed and downloaded materials CPL made available online last fall to help them get started. The library is not keeping track of who specifically is downloading the kits. He said protecting challenged titles is part of Chicago’s legacy.
“We had vanguard librarians like Charlemae Hill Rollins who in the ‘40s was writing letters to the American Library Association (ALA) saying, ‘We need more representation in our children’s books for African American kids,’ ” Brown said.
The issue goes beyond Chicago and its surrounding suburbs — according to the ALA, there were 67 attempts to ban books last year in Illinois. That was up 38% in 2021, when there were 41 book ban attempts.
ALA said the number of book ban attempts has climbed in recent years. There were 681 attempts to ban books across more than 1,600 titles throughout the U.S. in 2021.
This is the most attempts the association has seen since it began tracking these numbers 20 years ago. According to ALA statistics, 44% of challenges to books happen in school libraries and 37% happen in public libraries. The No. 1 reason for banning books is sexually explicit material.
ALA executive director Tracie Hall said the increase in book ban attempts could be due to a heightened and growingly polarized political climate in the U.S. She said there’s a focus on books representing the lives and experiences of people of color and LGBTQ people.
“The way that power is hoarded, sometimes the way reading is politicized is an attempt to get to something that’s much deeper than just a joy of reading,” Hall said. “It’s really trying to restrict political, economic and social access.”
The most popular resource the association shares is the Top Ten Most Challenged Books list — half the books on the most recently published list in 2021 were banned for their LGBTQ content.
Hall said a sign of totalitarianism is the withdrawal or withholding of information, and that people advocating for censorship are weakening America’s democracy.
“Reading continues to occupy a central place in our lives and how we form opinions. That is why I think books and literature are being called out,” Hall said. “Because they are still today how we form opinions that really inform the way that we think.”
Over at Glenview Public Library, director Lindsey Dorman said introducing the suburban patrons to a variety of viewpoints is important. Her library is not a book sanctuary because there hasn’t been a need.
“The community understands that there are going to be different viewpoints,” Dorfman said.
Even though Glenview is not experiencing tension over censorship, Dorfman wants to get ahead of the controversies by lifting the veil on how libraries operate. She knows the library’s patrons are seeing news stories about censorship across the country. She wants to fight censorship by teaching the community how and why it purchases certain materials.
“One of our talented e-services librarians also created a class for parents to teach parents about different tools that they can use to find books that are right for their children,” Dorfman said.
The class during Banned Books Week last year taught parents how to look up professional reviews for different books and how to see if books have won awards.
After the class was offered, more patrons started to ask about the materials discussed. Glenview is working on hosting another workshop of the same kind this year.
Adora Namigadde is a metro reporter for WBEZ. Follow her @adorakn.