A Librarian in the Library Is Good: John Oliver, ‘Abbott Elementary’ on an institution worth fighting for | From the Editor

Can exposure in popular media make a difference? Given the sheer reach of these shows, it’s hard to imagine they haven’t raised awareness of libraries and the larger stakes currently at play. 

They seem to be everywhere these days, libraries. Popular broadcast programs have recently turned attention to the institutions, inspired, sadly, by rampant book banning and chronic underfunding.

The absurdity of censorship would seem a comedic softball for the likes of John Oliver. And he ­certainly served some punch lines to that effect in his May 5 show (although who saw the Berenstain Bears ­coming?). But the Last Week Tonight host wasn’t all laughs in his bit on public libraries, the main segment of the broadcast, which also featured campus protests and Gaza.

Citing the numbers, 4,240 books targeted by censors in 2023, according to the American Library ­Association—the highest number of book challenges ever recorded by the organization—Oliver launched an informed, impassioned defense of libraries, notable in its detail.

“Increasingly, the list of books challenged at libraries can be suspiciously similar,” he told viewers. “And that is because challenges are often coming from highly organized groups, often conservative and extremely religious, who are compiling and sharing lists of books to oppose.”

Oliver delved into the shelving issue at some length. “Some books aren’t appropriate for five-year-olds, but might be if you’re 16, because those are two very ­different phases of life that we don’t treat the same way,” he said. “And yet for some, keeping books like Gender Queer out of the kids’ section—where again, it isn’t—still isn’t enough.”

Books with LGBTQIA+ themes and characters are primary targets of those seeking to restrict books in public libraries and schools; that’s nothing new to readers of this publication. But for most viewers, ­Oliver conveyed important information and connected the dots in a succinct, entertaining monologue, with a call, in c­losing, to vigorously defend libraries.


The John Oliver effect

“That was a public service,” said my husband after viewing the episode on the Last Week Tonight ­YouTube channel, which boasts 9.48 million subscribers.

Beyond a sizeable reach, Oliver has a track record of inspiring real-life action, the so-called John Oliver effect. That may have turned the tide on net ­neutrality legislation in 2014, as you might remember, when Oliver covered the topic he termed boring even by C-SPAN standards, inspiring tens of thousands, who crashed the FCC website with comments opposing ­Internet fast lanes for paying content providers.

Meanwhile, in Southwest Philadelphia, Janine (Quinta Brunson) piloted a program, bringing ­Abbott ­Elementary its first librarian. Hilarity ensued in the “Librarian” episode of the hit ABC series, which also underscored the benefits of a school librarian. As Gregory (Tyler James Williams) tells Janine, “­Having a librarian in a library is good.”

The comments are worthwhile, too.

“The way I used to argue with teachers who didn’t sign up to use the library & would just bring their students lmfao this episode is traumatic for me as a former teacher   #AbbottElementary,” posted J_Elle on after the March 15 broadcast.

“Watching the episode of Abbott Elementary when Janine introduces the library pilot program, which would put a librarian in the school…and I guess I didn’t realize school librarians weren’t a constant,” tweeted Rev. Dr. 4WheelWorkout.

Can exposure in popular media actually make a difference? Given the sheer reach of these shows, it’s hard to imagine they haven’t raised awareness of libraries and the larger stakes currently at play. It all feeds public opinion, and that’s a powerful element at the ballot box.


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Kathy Ishizuka

Kathy Ishizuka is editor in chief of School Library Journal.

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