Banned Books Week 2022: A Time for Education, Advocacy, and Action

This is not the year for reflection, but a call to action. 

In the past, Banned Books Week has seemed like a look back, a celebration of the perseverance of titles some people or groups wanted destroyed. This year, the week from September 18–24 will be different. It's time to confront current acts of censorship and take action.

“We are actually moving away from using the term ‘celebrate’ for Banned Books Week, in large part because of the urgency of what’s happening,” says Betsy Gomez, Banned Books Week coordinator. “It’s more of an activation. It’s more emphasis on helping people understand their rights and how they can fight censorship.”

There was a time, Gomez says, when those who believed in the freedom to read and access to information seemed to be winning the fight against censorship. In those times, Banned Books Week was meant to celebrate the right to read, she says. Librarians filled displays with titles that had faced ­banning in the past, such as Fahrenheit 451 and 1984. Fake flames rose around the books, and students learned about historic times like the 1950s when book burners raged against the freedom to read.

But this is no time to look back.

“This year, celebrate does not seem like the right verb,” says Will Creeley, legal director at the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE), part of the Banned Books Week coalition. “We need something with a lot more urgency and a lot more recognition of the very high stakes. It’s time to do more than think about banned books as something that used to happen. I mean, it’s happening every day.”

Banned Books Week must be about the fight going forward, he says.

“Right now, there’s a real need for folks who believe in the power of libraries, power of the written word, and the necessity and vitality of the First Amendment freedom of expression, to get out of the defensive crouch and to push back to remind folks that banning books is fundamentally at odds with our American conception of tolerant ­pluralism,” says Creeley. “It’s time for the ­majority—which I think has been cowed by the incredible anger and aggression of would-be censors ­nationwide—to stand up and be counted, because this is a dark moment.”

Educating the public will be key. Polls show the majority of Americans oppose banning books, but the general public may be unaware of the severity of the current situation or the imperative to act.

“The week is an opportunity for the greater public to pay attention to the plight of book banning that is currently saddling our teachers and librarians and schools and the way in which it is quickly spreading from one district to another,” says Jonathan Friedman, director of free expression and education programs at PEN America. “The floodgates have been opened to a kind of spirit of censorship, where elected officials in different levels all feel empowered, that they should use their office to remove ideas and information and their access from the public sphere. That is a very troubling development.

“So this is a week for people to mobilize, for people to start keying into local democratic participation, for people to be engaged, and for people to speak out. I hope that with a collective voice, more and more people can come to rally behind the concept of the freedom to read and why it is so vital to large democracy and society.”

“What I'm telling everybody, and when I say everybody, I mean, everybody—the single most important thing for everybody to do this year is to join Unite Against Book Bans,” says Christopher Finan, executive director of the National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC). “The goal of that campaign is two-fold: to demonstrate national support … [and] to begin developing a database of supporters around the country that can then be used to help organize resistance in local communities.”

Finan sees the annual event as a chance to set a foundation of support and activism needed.

“This is a real opportunity, it's really the most concrete thing that we've asked people to do during Banned Books Week,” says Finan. “[In the past], it's been just educational campaign, but this year, we really need people to become activists. The best way they can do that, initially, is by signing on, by connecting with their friends and relatives and asking them to sign on as well. That will hopefully set the table for further activism down the road. We really want to pull people in. The other side is doing a pretty good job of, of mobilizing their supporters. We need to do a good job in mobilizing ours as well.”

Finan knows that librarians and their fellow educators facing daily attacks on books may feel that this requested action is just not enough.

“I certainly understand their frustration,” he says. “They want support now, and we are doing the best that we can with the limited resources that are available to our groups.”

As in years past, Banned Books Week will be filled with events, including discussions with those impacted by censorship attempts. This year’s honorary chair is All Boys Aren’t Blue author George M. Johnson. And for the first time, there is also a youth honorary chair— Cameron Samuels of Katy, TX, a teen who has fought the censorship of LGBTQIA+ materials in their town.

Resources are available on the Banned Books Week website, with links to coalition organizations including FIRE, PEN America, the NCAC, and the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund.

For inspiration, look to the students, Gomez says.

“Students are amazing resources,” she says. “In some of these cases, where we’re seeing censorship, it’s actually been students who’ve been able to get it overturned by engaging in protest.

“I recognize that school librarians and educators are often limited in how they can support such efforts,” says Gomez. “They don’t want to be seen as radicalizing the students. But they can help students ­understand their First Amendment rights under the law. They can help ­students understand when their activities might get them in trouble. And they can generally provide moral support to students.”

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Kara Yorio

Kara Yorio (kyorio@mediasourceinc.com, @karayorio) is news editor at School Library Journal.

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