There’s been an uptick in book challenges. How are N.H. librarians preparing?
After more than a decade as a school librarian, Jessica Gilcreast faced a new challenge last year: someone wanted to remove a book from her district’s library. It was tough to figure out how to respond on her own.
“I didn't have a procedure,” said Gilcreast, who works at Bedford High School.
When she reached out to the New Hampshire School Library Media Association for help, she learned that no one was serving as its Intellectual Freedom chair — which would normally be the main contact monitoring issues related to book challenges. She also learned that other school librarians across New Hampshire were going through the same thing.
“I wasn't the only one going through a challenge in the state,” Gilcreast said. “This was popping up all over the place.”
Gilcreast stepped up to fill NHSLMA's Intellectual Freedom role, and she’s now trying to use what she learned through her own book challenge to help other librarians feel more prepared if someone from their community challenges a book in their library.
Organized efforts to ban books in school or public libraries are not new, but they are happening more often all across the country. The last year has seen a dramatic uptick in parents, activists and school board officials challenging books in schools, according to the American Library Association.
Many of the books being targeted are written by authors of color and authors belonging to the LGBTQ+ community. Gilcreast said it’s her job as a librarian to offer books with a variety of perspectives. She also said it's important to protect students' access to different kinds of books because it’s a way to safely learn the experiences of others.
“That's how we build empathy,” she said. “That's how we see how another person lives.”
NHPR’s Morning Edition host Rick Ganley spoke with Gilcreast for NHPR’s series, In Our Backyard, which is exploring the state of local democracy in New Hampshire. Click here to find more about this project and how you can get involved.
Rick Ganley: First, Jessica, can you give us some more context on this movement of book challenges and school libraries? Are these coming from parents primarily with a child at the school or someone else in the community?
Jessica Gilcreast: They are coming from all over the place. They are not necessarily parents that have children in the particular school where the book is being challenged. They are typically a community member but don't necessarily have a child in that particular school. But there are lists of books out there that are being challenged across the country that can be easily accessible online, and a lot of those particular books are being questioned in schools across the state.
Rick Ganley: I know many of the books being targeted are written by authors of color and authors belonging to the LGBTQ+ community. I know the books often include characters who are, you know, navigating or coming to terms with how they identify themselves in the world. What kind of impact have you seen these books have on your students?
Jessica Gilcreast: I think that it's my job as a librarian to offer books that are also windows into other people's lives. That's how we build empathy. That's how we see how another person lives. That's how we gain experience, safely, is through literature. And maybe it's more than a window. Maybe they can relate to it and then befriend a person that they see in a different type of literature. It's my role to offer, and to promote and respect equity and inclusiveness for everyone.
Rick Ganley: Now you're serving as the intellectual freedom chair for the New Hampshire School Library Media Association. What made you want to get involved in that kind of work?
Jessica Gilcreast: When I faced my first book challenge, I didn't have a procedure. I didn't have a protocol if I faced a book challenge. Now my district has a reconsideration procedure, so there is a district level procedure. But as far as me defending a student's First Amendment rights and their freedom to read, I didn't necessarily have a checklist. And when I went to the state association, the Intellectual Freedom Chair seat was open and I wasn't the only one going through a challenge in the state. This was popping up all over the place. So I reached out to the president of the association and I said, we need someone right now, and I'm willing to do that if that's helpful to the association. So it sort of fell into my lap by default in that way, but it really helped me organize and get my head straight when I was going through my own book challenge. Because I documented everything that I was doing and I put it in a checklist, and then I was able to share all of that information with other librarians in the state that were going through the exact same thing.
Rick Ganley: These are concrete steps that you recommend to other librarians that are dealing with the challenge?
Jessica Gilcreast: So some of it are preventative measures. Like, you have not faced a book challenge yet, but you should be doing these things to prepare yourself just in case you ever are faced with a book challenge, like collecting data, being transparent, knowing what minors' First Amendment rights are, familiarizing yourself with the New Hampshire privacy law for minors. So there's lots of things that we should be doing in preparation if a book challenge ever happens. But then if you're faced with one, who is the contact at the ACLU? Who is the contact at the Office of Intellectual Freedom?
Rick Ganley: I'm wondering about the broader themes here too, what the role of school libraries is in a functioning democracy, and what does free access to books mean?
Jessica Gilcreast: Because we are a nonpublic forum protected by the First Amendment, if a removal happens to prevent access to ideas, or viewpoints or opinions that don't necessarily align with a parent, or a teacher or another student even, it doesn't mean that they can remove access to everyone in the building. And that is truly the crux of how we are protected by the First Amendment and within that nonpublic forum portion of the First Amendment.