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Archive for the ‘libraries’ Category

2 Pennies: Amy Sonnie on ALA’s ‘Most Frequently Challenged’ List

In censorship, intellectual freedom, LGBTQ issues, libraries, library associations, library profession, open access on April 19, 2011 at 5:23 pm

I’m reposting this interview I did today with my current publisher, Melville House. Read the full original post on their very cool blog MobyLives, covering all things literary, popular, unpopular, intellectually notable, common sense, illogical and … you get the gist.

Jason Bennett/MobyLives: Last week the American Library Association (ALA) released their Top Ten List of the Most Frequently Challenged Books of 2010. As we mentioned in our report, Melville House author, librarian, blogger, and activist Amy Sonnie (Hillbilly Nationalists, Urban Race Rebels, and Black Power: Community Organizing in Radical Times) was #9 on the list for her book Revolutionary Voices, which was originally published by Alyson Books in 2000.

Curious about what all this means–and excited I could talk to someone who’s both a librarian and an author on this list–I decided to ask Amy a few questions about free speech in libraries, how books are “challenged,” and how it feels to keep company with Stephenie Meyer.

What does this list say to you about the state of free speech in this country and libraries’ ability to circulate books with sensitive topics?

It tells us something very profound: People either love or hate vampires and gays, especially those wayfaring penguins. Oh, and true stories. People either love or hate the truth. This year was an especially bad year for reality with my book and Ehrenreich’s exposé on minimum wage work causing such controversy.

But more seriously, I don’t think we should look for reliable social data in a list like this, but I do think ALA’s annual roll call provides a useful pulse-check. First, it reminds the majority of us who oppose censorship that there are real challenges in our own backyards. Most people I talk to don’t know this happens.

Second, the list and Banned Book Week give people a chance to really talk about democratic principles and action. To ask: freedom to do what, for who and where? Most people say they oppose censorship, but they apply ‘free speech’ and ‘open access’ differently, with children vs. adults for example. Many books on the annual list, like mine, are geared toward teens. This opens a needed debate about youth rights and free expression. Our society is pretty inconsistent in how we treat young adults. Courts debate this everyday when they sentence juveniles to adult prisons or let schools limit students’ Internet access. So why not gather the controversies and raise the issue for public debate? More importantly, why not ask young adults themselves? In my work with teens, that’s exactly the discussion I used this list to generate even before I was on it. Oops, I just revealed my bias toward young people having rights. (Gasp!).

What do you think about your own book’s inclusion?

I was shocked actually. I knew about the local challenges, but it was surprising because the book is ten years old! Why now? One obvious reason, I think, is the growing backlash to the small gains of gay rights advocates over the last 15 years. And I really mean small. We have a long way to go. It was kind of cool, though, to be on the same list as The Hunger Games. Those books are amazing. I wonder what Katniss would say about all this?

If ALA weren’t drawing attention to this issue by publishing an annual list, do you think libraries would be more likely to cave to advocates who want these books banned?

I guess it’s worth mentioning here that I am a librarian, in addition to an author/editor. I enjoy kind of a great vantage point. Do I think libraries would cave to the pressure without it? Some would. Most, I hope, would not. I have faith in libraries’ commitment to strong professional ethics. I know librarians who faced incredible odds to stand up for those values. My optimism shows here, though. In one of the cases involving my book, it was a library director who removed it from the shelves. Concerned local residents and librarians got the word out and turned up the pressure for a while. ALA’s public education just assures a broader audience finds out so they might be better prepared if a challenge comes their way.

With all the fanfare surrounding the ALA’s Top Ten List of the Most Frequently Challenged Books of 2010, I think a lot of people (myself included) are confused about exactly what it means for a book to be challenged. Can you explain a bit about the process and why it’s significant when a book is officially challenged?

Challenges are significant because they intrinsically elevate the objection of one person to the level of community-wide muzzle. What one parent objects to, another may not. If a public library removes the book, they remove it for everyone. This makes any challenge an issue of broader public concern regardless of whether it results in a ban.

Most libraries have a process for community members to state their objection to a particular book, movie, etc. This is usually a written “Request for Reconsideration of Materials.” It is what it sounds like — a resident or parent asks the library to reconsider keeping something on the shelf. Libraries typically take the removal of an item very seriously. Most often, there are already policies in place to guide what they purchase and keep. This policy is informed by broader professional standards, like the Library Bill of Rights, as well as localized needs, such as an explicit commitment to maintain multilingual materials, or — in the case of schools – a focus on educational value and age appropriateness. These can be fuzzy areas to apply and that’s where many challenges gain ground. Separately, if the library has a process outlined for reconsideration requests they are supposed to follow it. This may involve a committee meeting to weigh the needs of the broader community against one person/group’s request to restrict access.

Based on what’s reported to ALA, we know that most decisions uphold libraries unique role as a place of free, unfettered inquiry. But sometimes the materials are actually removed – this year in 53 cases that we know about. Two of those bans were on my book.

Finally, how does it feel to beat out Twilight on this list?

This might disappoint some people, but Twilight and my book actually had the same number of challenges. So, the love-drunk vampires and outspoken queers are tied. Take that, Mr. Falwell.

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Worker Safety and Worker Solidarity

In activism, class, labor, libraries, unions, youth on March 23, 2011 at 5:44 pm

Friday being the 100th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire that killed 146 workers — mostly women, mostly immigrants — I am thinking about worker’s rights and worker’s power. It’s been hard not to think about this since Wisconsin public workers from all corners joined together in a noble fight against legislative bullying (and lying). Like all workers, library workers owe much to the U.S. labor movement, as well as those movements of excluded workers currently struggling for rights and recognition.

Teens make up one important class of those workers. In my day-to-day work I interact with dozens, sometimes hundreds, of young people. The more active among them — youth advisors and volunteers — are deeply concerned about reductions in library funding and the ways libraries can be undervalued by legislators, voters and school boards. Their concern extends to the library workers whom they have known since they were children attending storytimes, getting lost with a book in oversized beanbag chairs, and shaping their identities as great debaters, writers and community organizers — today’s library advocates and tomorrow’s library leaders.

We don’t talk much about labor history or working conditions. But we should. Some teens I work with are frustrated they can’t start earning needed income before age 16. This is a labor issue. It begs a history lesson. Some drop out of school to save up needed money to get their own place by the time foster care ends. Most will need to pay their own way through college. We talk about their options. We troubleshoot. No state i.d., constantly changing home addresses. But we should also talk about their rights, their responsibilities, and the responsibilities of their government and their employers. Some are locked out of work before they even get a chance to join the rank and file. Daily survival limits the time we have for deeper discussion.

My union, SEIU, made this great homage I plan to share with my young workers.Infographic about worker's protections

How unions succeeded in making your workplace safer.

Today I am thinking about worker protections, about my own workplaces, and how I can share this with young workers. Today I am grateful for the incredible history of the U.S. labor movement. I am hopeful that it can do better. I am committed to working on behalf of those workers still not fully represented or protected by U.S. labor. Those excluded workers are organized and they deserve our full support, as they always have.

Until all of us are included, none of us should settle.

Thanks to Union Librarian and Blatant Berry for laying paths forward in the library field. Thanks to Young Workers United for trailblazing for youth workers rights!

The Censor’s New Clothes, CLA Presentation

In censorship, education, intellectual freedom, LGBTQ issues, public libraries, school libraries, youth on December 4, 2010 at 1:09 pm

As promised, here are the slides from my brief presentation on the Revolutionary Voices book challenge in New Jersey. (Delivered at the California Library Association conference, Sacramento, CA, Nov 14, 2010).

Library law expert Mary Minow and school librarian Jill Sonnenberg joined me for a great overview on the ideological forces driving intellectual freedom challenges in libraries (from LGBTQ-themed books to Vamos a Cuba to Internet filtering). Mary clarified the meaning of Island Trees v. Pico and legal differences between public–school material challenges.

Jill talked about the ways filters are changing and limiting student’s ways of learning, particularly when it comes to active learning methods using content creation, critical inquiry and collaboration. She shared,

While most of us out there in the trenches will fight to keep important books on our shelves…[w]e are not fighting for students’ rights to create and collaborate…We stop at no when our districts or tech directors or network administrators summarily or arbitrarily ban blogs and wikis and social networking and media sharing and yes, even digital storytelling.” — Joyce Valenza (10/5/08, “2.0 is an Intellectual Freedom Issue”)

Jill left us with an excellent list of practical background reading, especially Doug Johnson.

Censored Book Contributors

A Message to LGBTQ Youth

I talked about the recent challenge against Revolutionary Voices in the context of a religious and political campaign against Obama appointee Kevin Jennings, while focusing on some of the learning and positive outcomes the challenge created. Most notably: both sides harnessed their ability to get the word out online and, therefore, opened doors for a (somewhat) transparent public debate. We need more of this.

I recently heard second-hand that another NJ library is reconsidering The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. The school apparently discussed making the decision quietly behind closed doors. Not every challenge results in a book removal, but transparency about challenges provides a crucial pulse-check and an invaluable learning opportunity for anyone engaging in the debate — especially local students.

On a related note: NJ school librarian Dee Venuto provides excellent documentation on the Revolutionary Voices challenge on Prezi.

CLA 2010 Conference: Day 1 Highlights

In libraries, library associations, library profession on November 13, 2010 at 6:00 am

I’m tweeting from the California Library Association’s annual conference, “Navigating the New.” Follow along @bannedlibrarian

Nick Merrill Speaks Out Against NSLs

In law, libraries, privacy on August 14, 2010 at 12:02 pm

Readers, so sorry posts on bannedlibrarian have slowed down. A new job and book writing have kept me a little too busy, but I plan to get back to blogging soon.

In the meantime, I wanted to share this news story:

“Gagged for 6 Years, Nick Merrill Speaks Out on Landmark Court Struggle Against FBI’s National Security Letters” (Democracy Now, August 11, 2010)

The program also features George Christian, executive director of Library Connection, a consortium of libraries in Connecticut that sued the government after receiving their own National Security Letter in 2005.

From Glenn Beck to Your Backyard: Targeting Gay Books

In censorship, gender, intellectual freedom, LGBTQ issues, school libraries, youth on April 11, 2010 at 4:32 pm

Tomorrow, April 12th, a special review committee** in Mount Holly, NJ, will determine the fate of three books challenged for gay-themed content. One of them is my queer youth anthology, Revolutionary Voices. (The other two are: The Full Spectrum and Love & Sex). A local group has called the books pornography and wants them removed from Rancocas Valley Regional High School.

While the legal standard on pornography will not help their cause, school book challenges like these have been successful. It is my sincere hope these books won’t be removed — both on merit and legal precedent. Island Trees v. Pico held:

“Local school boards may not remove books from school libraries simply because they dislike the ideas contained in those books and seek by their removal to ‘prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion.'”

Unfortunately, political and religious objections to LGBTQ-themed material are old news. But, what’s newsworthy here is who’s behind this challenge. As American Libraries reported, they are connected to Glenn Beck’s 912 Project.

Beck is known for his alarmist and inaccurate commentary. He admits that he doesn’t check his facts. With millions of viewers, however, he’s not to be underestimated.

Last Fall, Beck began attacking Kevin Jennings, former director of the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (GLSEN).* Picking up the torch, local chapters of Beck’s 912 Project are now requesting the removal of books that appear GLSEN’s book list. Mine included.

This particular chapter is in Burlington County, NJ. According to its MeetUp page, the chapter boasts 350 members (called “freedom’s foot soldiers”). If you have any doubt that their motives are political or religious, you might look at 912’s Principles. Number 2 is: “I believe in God and He is the Center of my Life.” A perfectly noble belief, but not a good reason to withhold well-reviewed books from the entire student population.

Luckily, community members and library media specialists at Rancocas Valley High have been proactive in defending students’ freedom to read. They are also warning other libraries to be on the lookout for challenges backed by other 912 chapters. Last week I wrote a letter to the Board offering “my full support to the media center staff who judiciously select materials based on local policy and reliable reviews.”

I wrote in my letter, as well, about the young people for whom these books have made a difference. In the decade since Revolutionary Voices was first published I have received hundreds of comments from readers. In almost every case, they convey how the book inspired them or taught them something new.

One letter came from Lewis W. in Ann Arbor, MI, who was 15 when he found the book in his teen center library. He wrote,

“My friends and I passed around a single copy of this book for weeks… I was fascinated and relieved that there were other people out there who shared elements of my identity. At the same time, it was really important for me as a pretty sheltered young person to see that I was by no means identical to other LGBTQ youth, that there was a wide diversity of voices within the community. This was an illuminating and strengthening part of the book for me.”

While book challenges can become a battle of the most vocal, I hope the Board takes perspectives like Lewis’ into account. Queer students may not feel safe speaking up when LGBTQ books are challenged. But, they certainly deserve a chance to discover the “diversity of voices” that make balanced library collections so crucial for the health of our communities and democracy.

**This is corrected information. I previously wrote that the local Board of Education was meeting Monday. The Board will not meet until late April. This special committee is tasked with making a recommendation to the Board.

* Side note: There’s been criticism of the content of specific GLSEN safe sex workshops that I will not get into here. If you want to look it up, search for “fistgate,” or better yet “kevin jennings and revolutionary voices.” You can see where Beck got his information from.

Key Takeaways for Libraries from FCC National Broadband Plan

In broadband, community partnerships, information policy, library funding, open access, telecommunications reform on March 18, 2010 at 7:56 am

As I’ve mentioned in earlier posts (here and here), the FCC’s National Broadband Plan came out this week. The 360-page document is a worthwhile read. Below are some key takeaways related to libraries and our constituents.

The FCC writes, “If this plan succeeds, every American community will have affordable access to far better broadband performance than they enjoy today. To do so, the plan makes recommendations about reforming the E-rate and the Rural Health Care support programs. Second, non-profit and public institutions should be able to find efficient alternatives for greater connectivity through aggregated efforts. … Schools, libraries and health care facilities must all have the connectivity they need to achieve their purposes” (See Chapter 2, Goal 4).

Of particular note is the reminder that, “Over half (51%) of African Americans and 43% of Hispanics who use the Internet do so at a public library.”[1] The three primary issues inhibiting equitable Internet access are affordability, digital literacy and relevance. All three of these issues impact library services. And as more and more basic social services move online, libraries must continue to address the literacy gaps and whittle away at the perception (by 19% of people surveyed) that the Internet’s merely a “waste of time.”

To this end, the plan calls for capacity-building among community partners stating, “…public computing centers provide more than just free access to the Internet. They provide supportive environments for reluctant and new users to begin to explore the Internet, become comfortable using it and develop the skills needed to find, utilize and create content.[2] Patrons of these centers overwhelmingly express the value of the personnel who staff them and can offer one-on-one help, training or guidance”[3] New LSTA grants and training programs for library personnel are key components of the plan.

The plan also calls for the creation of a “Digital Literacy Corps” to support programs that close the digital knowledge divide. Chicago Public Library’s CyberNavigators program is one successful example. Libraries across the country should harness this opportunity to shape new local programs and promote existing models. The plan asks Congress to increase funding for IMLS, which, if accomplished, will open incredible avenues for community partnerships, literacy programs and equipment upgrades.

Other highlights include recommendations to ensure greater affordability and speed, increase competition and consumer protections, restructure the E-Rate program, expand rural broadband access, and improve public safety and communications access for people with disabilities. The FCC found that, “An important and cross-cutting issue is accessibility for people with disabilities. Some 39% of all non-adopters have a disability, much higher than the 24% of overall survey respondents who have a disability.”[4] Major barriers include the lack of accessible websites, software, equipment and the connection speed needed to use crucial adaptive tools like VoIP. As any librarian will tell you, many people with disabilities only have access to basic adaptive equipment at their libraries. The plan concludes, “The federal government must promote innovative and affordable solutions to ensure that people with disabilities have equal access to communications services and that they do not bear disproportionate costs to obtain that access.”

The Broadband Plan was shaped by input from all corners of the U.S.; yet, it was a broad grassroots effort that assured rural and Indigenous communities, people of color, low-income residents and small businesses were heard. These groups collected stories from digital “haves and have-nots,” met with FCC Commissioners, hosted teach-ins, and garnered media attention to educate the public.

There are a number of outstanding issues and next steps to ensure this plan is implemented. Libraries should not miss the opportunity to partner with these community-based groups and localize our policy advocacy work. Our local communities will be better served for it. One step in this direction: yesterday the California Library Association’s (CLA) Intellectual Freedom Committee signed the grassroots Digital Inclusion Pledge. Representing 3,000 members in California, CLA joined dozens of other state and local groups. I encourage other local libraries and associations to do so as well.
NOTES:

[1] See National Broadband Plan, Chapter 9: FN 77, Jon P. Gant et al., National Minority Broadband Adoption: Comparative Trends in Adoption, Acceptance and Use, Jt. Ctr. for Pol. & Econ. Stud. 3 (2010) (Gant et al., National Minority Broadband Adoption).

[2] See National Broadband Plan, Chapter 9: FN 89, American Library Association Comments in re NBP PN #16, filed Dec. 2, 2009, at 3.

[3] See National Broadband Plan, Chapter 9: FN 90, Dharma Dailey et al., Broadband Adoption at 27–28.

[4] See National Broadband Plan, Chapter 9: FN 10, Horrigan, Broadband Adoption and Use in America at 24, 7.

Top Legal Issues for Libraries: Two Webinars

In censorship, law, library profession, privacy, public libraries, school libraries on March 15, 2010 at 8:59 am

Recently, I’ve attended two helpful webinars on hot legal topics in libraries. Thursday’s session by LibraryLaw’s Mary Minow focused on:

  • The hurried extension of the USA PATRIOT Act;
  • Recent court decisions about public meeting space in libraries (no, you cannot bar religious groups), and
  • Legal precedent set by book challenges including a Florida ruling that sidestepped Island Trees v. Pico and established a slippery slope around books containing representational “inaccuracies.” The Supreme Court let the 11th Circuit’s 6-3 decision stand when it declined to hear the case last November. (The book removed was Vamos a Cuba).

Watch the recorded webinar.

The other useful session, held in February, covered “Library Laws for the Mobile Web Environment.”

National Day of Action for Affordable, Open Internet: What Librarians Can Do

In activism, broadband, community partnerships, information access, library profession, media justice, net neutrality, open access on February 14, 2010 at 6:12 am

On Monday February 15, a national coalition of grassroots groups will lead a National Day of Action calling on legislators to defend an affordable and open Internet.

As a community committed to information access and equity, librarians have an important role to play on these issues. While our professional associations advocate for open Internet access on Capitol Hill, there is a great deal individual librarians can do in our own communities.

Tomorrow, members of the Media Action Grassroots Network (MAG-Net) will conduct delegation visits with congressional reps across the country, host community forums and hold local press conferences to highlight the need for universal broadband and Net Neutrality.

Here are a few things librarians can do to support the National Day of Action on Monday:

  • Get your library or organization to join the hundreds of groups who have signed the “Digital Inclusion Pledge” calling on the FCC and Congress to define broadband as a universal service, and create rules that protect an open and non-discriminatory Internet. Available in English and Spanish.
  • On Monday, February 15th, call your Congressperson. Let them know that “you support MAG-Net’s call for an affordable and open Internet.” You can do this as an individual, or speak on behalf of your library. Though major media corporations have promised not to block content, their questionable practices have already come under scrutiny by federal regulators and advocates. Comcast has arbitrarily blocked file-sharing traffic across its network and penalized users with slower speeds. Similarly, Verizon blocked a text-messaging campaign over its network. We can’t simply trust that these ISPs will do the right thing – we need rules to protect our communities, and our Internet. Read more background here.
  • Attend one of the community events near you in Philadelphia, San Antonio, Minneapolis, Albuquerque, and Whitesburg, KY, where organizers are hosting a “Digital Quilting Bee!” Download PDF with details.
  • If you’re not in or near a city where an action is taking place, participate virtually. Join the conversation on Twitter (@mediaaction, @mediajustice) or on MAG-Net’s Facebook group page.

Right now, we have an opportunity to build coalitions with hundreds of community-based groups working to advance public information access. Like librarians, these grassroots groups are knowledgeable about the information barriers faced by their local communities and savvy advocates when it comes to information policy making. We are natural allies if we break through the silos librarians often fall into within our institutions.

Want to know more about open Internet, Net Neutrality and the need for universal broadband?

Why small businesses need open Internet

Why musicians need open Internet

Why open Internet is a civil rights issue

Week to Watch USA PATRIOT Act

In intellectual freedom, libraries, library associations, privacy on January 25, 2010 at 3:22 pm

There’s going to be a lot of movement around the PATRIOT Act in the next week or two. Maybe not the movement we’d like.

Here’s one update from the American Library Association’s recent Midwinter Meeting: “Bad News from Washington on Patriot Act.

The Bill of Rights Defense Committee is also planning a Lobby Day in Washington for February 3rd. See, Lobby Day to Stop the PATRIOT Act.

If you can’t make it to D.C., you can also sign BORDC’s letter opposing the PATRIOT Act reauthorization, or call your senators and reps using the ALA’s Legislative Action Center.