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Opinion | Book bans are hurting Michigan and must be stopped

In rural, suburban and urban communities across Michigan – Mt. Clemens, Dearborn, Hillsdale, Iron Mountain, Canton, Hudsonville, Davidson, Lowell, Petoskey, Rochester, Greenville, Royal Oak, Hancock, and Jamestown, among others – there has been an unprecedented uptick at schools and public libraries to ban books, eliminate programs, or remove displays that bring focus to race, gender and/or LGBTQIA+ topics and authors.

three headshots
Scott Duimstra is president-elect of the Michigan Library Association; Dillon Geshel is chair of the Intellectual Freedom Task Force of the Michigan Library Association; Deborah Mikula is executive director of the Michigan Library Association (Courtesy photos)

But a majority of people do not support censoring materials or banning books.

A recent national public opinion poll conducted by the nonpartisan research firm Embold Research on behalf of EveryLibrary shows that 75 percent of American voters — Republicans, Democrats and Independents — oppose book banning. Just 8 percent of voters believe “there are many books that are inappropriate and should be banned.”

Libraries fill a central role in upholding and supporting the rights of citizens to read, seek information and speak freely. These rights are guaranteed by the First Amendment and libraries take this role and responsibility very seriously.

Librarians are highly educated public servants who work to support access, literacy and democracy. These qualified and certified librarians are trained to develop, curate and weed collections that meet the broad and varied interests and needs of their community. This is a core tenant of librarianship: to provide for the interests of all and to do so without bias. Libraries uphold the Constitutional promise of access to information for everyone — all ages, all abilities, all races, all nationalities, all religions, the rich, the poor, the traditional and nontraditional families, those who identify as LGBTQ, and those that don’t.

Yet, librarians in Michigan have been threatened with violence and intimidated in their communities. Some cities, like Hillsdale, have lost librarians over harassment because of extremist rhetoric about library collections. The suggestion that a librarian be fired or held personally accountable when someone is offended by the contents of a book, program or display is not only harmful to the librarian but potentially destabilizes the institution and negatively impacts the whole community like in Mt. Clemens. Likewise, the threat of defunding a library that will not censor materials, like in Jamestown, wholly ignores how much a library contributes to a thriving, dynamic and diverse community.

Would your community be better without your library? Because this is what is at stake.

Libraries are centers for learning and self-discovery, providing free and open access to information to all residents. Libraries provide not only books, ebooks and audiobooks, but also afterschool programs for children and teens, book clubs, internet access, computer lessons, personalized assistance for job seekers and English language learners, meeting rooms and study spaces.

Libraries offer so much to everyone who walks through their doors, with no cost at the point of service, contributing to the health and vitality of communities throughout Michigan. Defunding the library, driving away its staff and decimating its collection is short-sighted and punishes, irreparably, the entire community who count on the free access to programs and services a library provides.

And, while every individual has the right and responsibility to make decisions about what materials are suitable for themselves, no one and no group has the right to make rules restricting what other people read  — this vital American freedom must be protected.

When we support representation on the shelves of the library, we aren’t undermining anyone, but supporting all. Banning books denies readers access to stories in which they can see themselves and silences the voices of marginalized populations.

We hope we can count on all Michiganders to stand strong in defending these valuable and irreplaceable institutions by upholding First Amendment rights, enshrined in the Constitution. We must guarantee access to all expressions of knowledge and intellectual activity including those that some individuals in our society may consider to be unconventional, unpopular, or unacceptable.

This can only happen if we protect the rights of every individual to freely exercise their right to read.

In the lead-up to the November election, we expect to continue to see misinformation about libraries and library collections on social media and in political advertising. What can you do to help? Report and call out misinformation and propaganda about library collections when you see it. Use your voice to clarify the issues and support intellectual freedom and the right to read at school and library board meetings or through letters to the editor in your local newspapers. Know who you are voting for by researching the views and values of candidates for your school and library boards. And most importantly, in the fight against censorship, VOTE. Voting offers the ability for people to leverage their voices to elect leaders that have their community’s best interest at heart. 

We can’t let narrow views damage our treasured Michigan libraries. Efforts to both censor materials and undermine public faith in libraries and library professionals not only present a dangerous threat to library funding, but candidates using extremist rhetoric about library services and collections also pose a real threat to the freedom to read when elected to our school and library boards.

Bridge welcomes guest columns from a diverse range of people on issues relating to Michigan and its future. The views and assertions of these writers do not necessarily reflect those of Bridge or The Center for Michigan. Bridge does not endorse any individual guest commentary submission. If you are interested in submitting a guest commentary, please contact Ron French. Click here for details and submission guidelines.

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