Meet Some Librarians Fighting BackBreaking News
tags: censorship, libraries, Book Bans
It was Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and the children were off from school in the Ferndale Area District Library in Michigan, zooming around the play area in the Kid’s Corner, where no one needs to be totally hushed, and where the youth desk toward the entrance is decorated with little snowflakes and a die-cut paper squirrel named Cornelius. Someone’s grown-up walked through the stacks (shorter ones than in the main room), balancing an armful of children’s books while the kids with her did their own browsing. One stood at the online public access catalog, a screen and keyboard, with a step stool and a little privacy screen on the sides. His dark winter hat was pulled nearly all the way down over his eyes. After searching for a time, he walked over to the desk and up to Damon, a youth librarian, their hair pulled back in a ponytail, with a white knit cardigan thrown over their t-shirt and a lanyard dotted with pins, including a rainbow one. The kid asked Damon for some help.
“The reason I wanted to be a children’s librarian, specifically, is because it’s one of the few places where a child is treated as their own entity,” said Ferndale youth librarian Mary Grahame Hunter, who had invited me to visit that day. We were sitting in the middle of all this, the zooming and browsing and asking. “It’s a place designed for children’s needs first,” she emphasized. Her long brown hair hung in a braid down her left shoulder, and her eyes were framed in blue-gray glasses. Mister Rogers smiled from the enamel pin on her lanyard, above the phrase YOU ARE SPECIAL. Hunter looked, as she generally does, incredibly much like how a kid might imagine a librarian; she wore her clear pride in her work lightly.
Hunter is proud, too, to be working at a library not far from where she grew up in a neighborhood on Detroit’s far east side. Heading to the library that morning, we drove north from downtown, past a Yemeni café; past Wayne State University and museums; through Highland Park, home to the first Ford plant with an assembly line; then, not much past 8 Mile Road, into downtown Ferndale, where the police station shares a parking lot with the library. A handful of apartments in a big, newish building across the way fly rainbow flags, and there are queer bars a short walk away as well as a big LGBTQ+ community center called Affirmations. Since the 1980s, Ferndale has been a gay neighborhood. Oddly enough, the town is also where the staunchly anti-LGBTQ, far-right Roman Catholic media organ Church Militant is headquartered, which—given that nearby Royal Oak in the 1930s was home to the antisemitic, pro-fascist radio priest Father Coughlin—maybe isn’t that odd at all. Living in Ferndale now, with its desirable leafy streets and sidewalk cafés and bookstores, has become more expensive. Most of the library workers—at least the ones who aren’t in management—can’t afford to live in Ferndale, Hunter told me.
Public libraries are one of the only places left, Hunter reflected as we watched children browse and play, where they aren’t treated “like people with a lesser amount of rights.” When Hunter was hired at the library in the summer of 2021, though, the fundamentals of her profession—creating a space and collections that would support children discovering books on their own terms—were under threat. A relatively rare occurence, to have a book challenged and removed from the library, had reemerged in the immediate post-Trump era. Now, banning books has become a call to arms, a fresh cause for conservatives to rally around, a demand through which the right could question the function and existence of the public library.
Across the state of Michigan alone, there are ample examples of what follows a challenge. Patmos has become a cautionary keyword, denoting the worst of what library workers are up against. A group called Jamestown Conservatives had distributed magenta flyers at last year’s Memorial Day parade, saying that “pornographic” books were being handed out to kids at the Patmos Library in Jamestown Township. “The book Gender Queer was discovered at the library,” the flyer stated, as if it were a secret or a deception. The book, a graphic novel memoir by Maia Kobabe, was only published in 2019 but has quickly become the most-challenged title in the United States. The flyer singled out the library director at Patmos, claiming she “promoted the LGBTQ ideology.” In response, the library board restricted access to Gender Queer, removing it from the shelves and requiring patrons to ask for the title. Still, such appeasement was not enough: After the book wasn’t banned outright, Jamestown voters defunded the library in 2022.
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