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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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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

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

Expanding the Definition of ‘Justice’ in the PATRIOT Act Debates

In community organizing, intellectual freedom, library profession, media justice, public policy, racial justice, Uncategorized on September 23, 2009 at 10:41 am

Today, the Senate Judiciary Committee is holding hearings on the reauthorization of the USA PATRIOT Act. In the coming months the national debate about the PATRIOT Act will heat up once again. Three controversial sections of the Act are scheduled to sunset December 31, 2009. These are Sections 215 and 206 along with the “lone wolf” provision of the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act (Sec. 6001). The reauthorization process also presents new opportunities to address FBI rampant use of National Security Letters.*

Rep. Lamar Smith (TX) has already proposed legislation (HR 1467, Safe and Secure America Act) to extend certain sections, as they are currently written, with no reauthorization period for 10 years. Just last Thursday, Sens. Russ Feingold (WI) and Richard Durbin (IL) announced the Judicious Use of Surveillance Tools In Counterterrorism Efforts (JUSTICE) Act proposing new reforms to both the PATRIOT Act and the FISA Amendments Act. Yet, still, the Obama Administration supports reauthorizing the Act without any added safeguards.

In 2009, the whole of the progressive community must take coordinated action to reverse the PATRIOT Act and reinvigorate public conversation. The debate is currently framed by those who favor extending these controversial sections versus those who seek greater judicial and congressional oversight and more narrowly tailored spying. Given this context, progressive activists and librarians may decide to support civil liberties advocates, such as the ACLU and the American Library Association, in achieving the safeguards proposed by the JUSTICE Act. But, we must do so mindfully while considering the limits of those reforms.

Much of the current debate relies on constitutional arguments about the First and Fourth Amendments. This makes sense in the courts where the judiciary is only obligated to consider interpretations of the Bill of Rights. But this is not the standard on which we should base our mobilizing. More is at stake than free speech and privacy. As librarian Emily Drabinski wrote during the last reauthorization period:

“There are … fundamental limits to a strategy of resistance that is essentially reactive and narrow in focus. While librarians respond quickly and effectively to challenges posed by the Patriot Act, we have little in the way of sustained resistance to systemic forces that undermine information equity and access in less visible but more fundamental ways” (2006).

This means, fundamentally, we must address the fact that the PATRIOT Act was born in the context of neoliberalism. Its foundation was laid long before September 11, 2001. So, as we consider a shared platform for public education, grassroots actions and Washington lobbying efforts, activists and progressive librarians should frame our concerns and solutions within the frameworks of human rights and global justice. This requires some deeper vision and deeper collaboration than we have attempted.

To start, a global justice vision of intellectual freedom has at its heart a practice of active solidarity with the communities (both domestic and international) most impacted by the War on Terror, including immigrants to the U.S. regardless of their citizenship status. Our demands must include an end to racial profiling and directly challenge attacks on dissent and political speech — such attacks were recently embodied by “homegrown terrorism” legislation (H.R.1955, S.1959, 110th), which passed the House by a vote of 404–6. The bill never became law, but we can expect to see similar legislation again.

A global justice vision of intellectual freedom draws connections between privacy erosion, the growing prison system, preemptive wars and the repression of global social movements. It has at its core a commitment to the abolition of torture, indefinite detainment, secret wiretaps and other forms of government surveillance. It means overturning the PATRIOT Act, not simply reforming it. We must not lend truth to the idea that safety and human rights are at odds.

Further, the library profession, in particular, needs to achieve broader coalition than we have in the past. Section 215 (dubbed “the library provision”) is a threat to more than just library patron privacy. While the library community mobilized quickly to challenge Section 215 and succeeded in winning important changes during the last reauthorization, the revisions do not go far enough. Warrants issued under Section 215 remain a danger to community organizing groups, charities, service providers, international aid organizations and, especially, groups working with communities of color and immigrants. Section 215’s expiration provides a critical opportunity for libraries to work in coalition with other impacted groups.

What do I propose? By joining with public interest, human rights, media reform, racial justice and grassroots global justice groups, the library community might help bring these policies into greater focus. At least one example in the right direction includes the joint proposals made by contributors to the document Liberty and Security: Recommendations for the Next Administration and Congress. Their collaborative effort to address broad information policy issues is an example to follow. I hope to post more community-based examples to this blog as the reauthorization debate gains momentum.

The 111th Congress will make a number of important decisions over the new few months. The level of heat in those debates should be determined by the strength and coordination of our local-to-national organizing. With December 31 just around the corner, it’s time to light the match.

*NOTE: According to DOJ’s Office of the Inspector General, the FBI issued 192,499 National Security Letter requests between 2003-2006 alone. All but 3 of these NSL recipients are unknown because PATRIOT Act § 505 stipulates nondisclosure, or a gag order. We do know that San Francisco’s Internet Archive (IA) received one of these NSLs. The FBI ordered IA to turn over transactional records including the name, address, email headers, length of service, and activity logs for specific users. IA fought the request and gag in court. Details came to light in mid-2008. We should not miss the opportunity to build on the momentum of well-publicized NSL abuse.

Recommended Reading and References

Drabinski, E. (2006, Winter). Librarians and the Patriot Act. Radical Teacher. Retrieved from, http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m0JVP/is_77/ai_n27098778/

Gorham-Oscilowski, U., & Jaeger, P. T. (2008). National Security Letters, the USA PATRIOT Act, and the Constitution: The tensions between national security and civil rights. Government Information Quarterly, 25(4), 625-644.

Mart, S. N. (2008, March 12). The chains of the Constitution and legal process in the library: A post-Patriot Reauthorization Act assessment. [Unpublished working paper]. Retrieved November 25, 2008, from Social Science Research Network at http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1105448. UPDATED VERSION AVAILABLE: 33 OKLA. CITY U. L. REV. 435 (2008).

Office of the Inspector General. (2007a, March). A Review of the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Use of National Security Letters. [NSL Audit Report]. United States Department of Justice. Retrieved November 28, 2008, from http://www.usdoj.gov/oig/special/s0703b/final.pdf.

Office of the Inspector General. (2007b, March). A Review of the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Use of Section 215 Orders for Business Records. [Section 215 Audit Report]. United States Department of Justice. Retrieved November 28, 2008, from http://www.usdoj.gov/oig/special/s0703a/final.pdf

April 14: Library Workers Day!

In library profession, unions on April 9, 2009 at 8:36 am

AFSCME supports 20,000 library workers nationwide

AFSCME supports 20,000 library workers nationwide

Tuesday April 14th, 2009 is National Library Workers Day! In honor of library employees and their unions, AFSCME hung this lovely banner outside their DC office. It reads “Library Workers Make America Happen.” Library workers with our patrons and communities, indeed, make things happen…

Love your libraries.
Love your librarians.
Love your community.
Love your unions.

See more info and news from AFSCME Library Workers here.

Who Is Eric Holder?

In activism, elections, governance, information policy, library profession, social movements on December 7, 2008 at 6:35 pm

Eric Holder’s confirmation process for Attorney General should be rigorous. It’s on us to make it so. And by us I mean individual librarians, our associations, policy advocates, and U.S.-based social movements.

This week I spoke with Library Law‘s Mary Minow about the need for renewed advocacy around the USA PATRIOT Act (Section 215 governing FISA Warrants and Section 206 related to Roving Wiretaps both sunset in December 2009, while attempts are also being made to set a sunset on current NSL rules under Section 505). Mary contends, and I agree, “Our best use of focused efforts should be asking senators at Eric Holder’s confirmation hearings to ask the right questions about the expiration.”

I would add: these questions should not focus on patching over the act through more weak revisions. As John Nichols wrote in The Nation, we need “a very serious, very aggressive confirmation process that should not simply presume that Holder will ‘get it’ when questions about the Constitution arise.”

Before we get there, we should all know a bit more about Holder. He is, after all, one of the legal architects for the reauthorized PATRIOT Act (passed in 2006), and he’s had some pretty conflicting things to say surrounding human rights (re: Guantanamo detainees he said in 2002, “…they are not, in fact, people entitled to the protection of the Geneva Convention.” But last June, he called Guantanamo an “international embarrassment”). That’s some progress.

The standard we hold Holder to should be one of international concern, of human rights and global justice — not mere constitutionality.

So here are some places to start getting to know Holder:

See also Democracy Now:

Call for Submissions: Gender & Sexuality in Librarianship

In critical pedagogy, gender, LGBTQ issues, libraries, library profession on December 6, 2008 at 11:42 am

Library Juice Press seeks book proposals and manuscripts for a new series, Gender and Sexuality in Librarianship, edited by Emily Drabinski. This series will publish works from both practical and theoretical perspectives that critically engage issues in the LIS field related to gender and sexual difference. Potential subjects include:

  • Queer and feminist approaches to traditional library topics including classification, pedagogy, collection development
  • Works that address gender and sexuality issues in conjunction with other articulations of difference including race, class, nationality, etc.
  • Practical approaches to developing community-based GLBTQ collections
  • Materials addressing library needs of specific populations, e.g., GLBTQ youth, elders, etc.
  • Workplace issues, e.g., ‘coming out’ at work
  • Historical perspectives on GLBTQ and women’s issues in the library
  • Works that bring library issues into conversation with contemporary theoretical debates in feminist, queer, and gender studies

Please submit queries, proposals, and manuscripts to Emily Drabinski, emily.drabinski@gmail.com.

Reposted from Library Juice, published November 26, 2008.