Why We’ll Always Need Libraries (and Librarians)

In this second installment of our two-part series celebrating Banned Books Week, I sat down with Peter Coyl, a District Manager for the Dallas Public Library.

Peter Coyl applied for his first library card when his parents realized they could neither afford nor store all the books he wanted to read. The library was a magical place for Peter, where everything he needed was right there at his fingertips, and he loved the library so much that he hasn’t left since.

Peter has worked in libraries since the tender age of 15, shelving children’s picture books at first, then working as a circulation clerk, a bookmobile driver, and a school librarian in Taiwan. For the last four years Peter has served at the Dallas Public Library, the first library in the country to introduce an online computer catalog, all the way back in the 1980s.

Peter Coyl is a district manager for the Dallas Public Library system. (Stella M. Chavez, KERA News)

The Dallas Public Library is a huge and sophisticated institution, but Peter and his colleagues still have to make choices as to which books will make it onto the shelves. For the most part those decisions are based on popularity, patron requests, book reviews in trade publications, and quality. (Though Peter is quick to point out that if they aren’t purchasing items they sometimes disagree with, “then we aren’t doing our jobs.”) Additionally, the DPL is a member of the Online Computer Library Center, a global network of partnered libraries, so if a patron is looking for a book the DPL doesn’t stock, they’ll be able to fly it in from somewhere in the world.

If the DPL shelves a book a patron finds objectionable, the challenge process is at least as exacting as it is for school libraries. Most objections are made in person to desk staff, but should a patron wish to pursue it further, a form can be filled out. A staff committee then convenes to read the book and to review trade publications, book reviews and other research, at which point a recommendation is made to the Associate Director, who makes the final decision. During his four years at the DPL, only a handful of challenges have gone the distance, and none of them have been successful.

While book challenges remain a serious matter, Peter and his colleagues are at least equally concerned about other issues affecting the library: the privacy of their patrons in the wake of 9/11, the changing nature of censorship, and the evolution of the library itself as it strives to stay ahead of new technologies.

In the aftermath of 9/11, America’s librarians—not generally known as a vocal or combative bunch—went toe-to-toe with the federal government over their patrons’ right to privacy. Libraries throughout the country, including Peter’s, removed sign-in sheets for Internet access and required patrons to opt in if they wanted the library to keep track of their reading histories. In Connecticut, FBI agents demanded patron records from a handful of librarians, and then slapped them with an Orwellian gag order preventing them from even acknowledging the demand. Ultimately the gag order was lifted and the federal government dropped its case, but the attacks on individual privacy, much less the debate, are far from over.

The "Connecticut Four", from left to right: Janet Nocek, Peter Chase, George Christian, and Barbara Bailey (Robert Deutsch/USA Today)
The “Connecticut Four”, from left to right: Janet Nocek, Peter Chase, George Christian, and Barbara Bailey (Robert Deutsch/USA Today)

The nature of censorship is changing as well. Thanks to the Internet, preventing people from having access to books becomes less practical with each passing day, but attempts to silence speakers are more numerous than ever. Untenured professors in fear for their jobs are redesigning their syllabi to remove anything that might potentially offend. In Connecticut, students are trying to shut down their own newspaper over a single objectionable op-ed. And the habit of succumbing to protests over invited speakers has led the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) to refer to the end of the academic year as “disinvitation season.”

Peter finds this last trend particularly onerous. He cites the case of Bill Konigsburg, an award-winning author who was invited to speak at a Houston high school about the Trevor Project, an organization that provides crisis intervention and suicide prevention for LGBT youth. Once the principal learned Konigsburg was gay, the talk was rescheduled for after school hours, all the other schools in the area had declined his visit, and he was asked not to focus on the fact that he was gay. As his mission was to prevent suicides among LGBT youth, Konigsburg naturally ignored the request.


All that said, the future of information, and therefore of the library, remains bright. Peter notes that librarians have always prepared for innovations in information technology, and embraced them. (Though he does admit they did skip the laser disc fad.)

No longer is the library a hushed and unsmiling place of sacred scholarship, but rather a place where children can be read to by their favorite authors, where half of Americans go for their internet access, a place where a community can come together and learn, and share what it has learned. “No matter how much information is out there,” Peter concludes, “people will still need libraries, and librarians.”

Librarians (and Captain Underpants) to the Rescue!

To celebrate Banned Books Week, this year I sat down with three librarians to peek behind the curtain and examine the ways by which library books are chosen and challenged; I also wanted to get the inside scoop on what the future of the library looks like. This first installment of the two-part series features two local school librarians in Houston. Much like the superheroes they are, the two preferred to keep their true identities concealed, so I will be referring to them as “Barbara Gordon” and “Judy Dark,” which happen to be the librarian alter-egos of the superheroes “Oracle” and “Luna Moth” (our apologies to D.C. Comics and Michael Chabon). Our next installment will feature my conversation with Peter Coyl, District Manager of the Dallas Public Library.

Librarians save lives: by handing the right book, at the right time, to a kid in need.

—Judy Blume

I’ve never known a bad librarian. I’ve certainly known a stern librarian or two, but never one who was incompetent or indifferent, never one who failed to appreciate the seriousness of their responsibilities or embrace the joys of learning and sharing knowledge.

However, until I sat down with Judy Dark and Barbara Gordon, two school librarians from Houston, Texas, I’d never met librarians so positively gleeful about their roles and responsibilities. Throughout the course of our conversation, it became clear that, perhaps unlike any other profession, the choice to become a librarian was more a calling than a job, and that perhaps the only thing librarians love as much as doing their jobs is talking about them.

Libraries are finite in size, and one of the librarian’s most daunting tasks is to decide which of the tens of millions of potential books to put on their limited amount of shelf space. Dark and Gordon explain that books are generally selected according to three criteria: 1) If the book is age-appropriate; 2) If the book has been well reviewed; and 3) if the book will inspire children to read.

Of course, “age appropriateness” means different things to different people, and while Dark and Gordon take into account the maturity of the themes and the complexity of the language, they tend to give their kids the benefit of the doubt when it comes to what they can handle. Librarians are also thorough in their consideration of evaluations for each book; it’s a much less grievous sin to stock a controversial book than it is a bad one.


However, a book’s ability to inspire is perhaps its most precious—as well as its most contentious—characteristic. At its core, the role of a school librarian is to inculcate a love of learning, and they are willing to fulfill that role by (nearly) any means necessary. To give an example, parents might not think too highly, say, of Captain Underpants and the Perilous Plot of Professor Poopypants, but according to Gordon, “the kids go absolutely crazy over it.” And when there’s a little distance between what inspires children and what their parents might not approve of, librarians like Dark and Gordon have to be prepared to defend the books they’ve selected.

The banning of books is both a morally and politically charged business, and there’s little librarians take more seriously. The process for a school book challenge is thorough, meticulous, diligent, and demanding. If a parent chooses to challenge a book, they must first fill out a challenge form and submit it to a committee consisting of librarians and other school staff. Each committee member reads the book, reviews of the book, insider publications, and other research, after which the committee reconvenes for an interview with the parent, where objections are raised and addressed. Should the parent wish to continue with their challenge, the final determination is made by either a district librarian, a principal, or a superintendent, depending on the school or school district.

For the most part, parents who request challenge forms rarely submit them. For those who do, most are either swayed by the committee or request that their own child—and not other people’s children—be restricted from checking out the book. Some parents refuse to read the book they’ve challenged, and as a result their objections are naturally ill-informed, poorly researched, and unlikely to sway any of the decision-makers in the challenge process.

Dark beams with pride when she says, “Nope, I’ve never lost a challenge.”

Gordon was quick to point out that book bans usually backfire. “The book you remove from the library,” says Gordon, “is the one all the kids want to read.” And it’s true; even in the grown-up world, book bans can do wonders for sales and circulation.


As a matter of fact, the proliferation of new technologies has rendered book challenges rarer than ever. Today kids are downloading reading material directly to their tablets, and the original objective of book bans—to keep the public from having access to a book—is a practical impossibility in the 21st century.

The librarian’s traditional responsibility as a guardian of learning is thus in constant flux. I asked Dark and Gordon if they were concerned about the future of their profession and the institution where they practice it. Both replied, emphatically, “No.” Libraries are stimulating spaces where kids can brainstorm, collaborate, and create. Dark and Gordon are no longer curators of knowledge, they said, but rather guides. They teach children how to sift through and make sense of the almost infinite knowledge available to them, how to seek out and verify sources. As the author Neil Gaiman once noted, “Google can give you 100,000 answers, but a librarian can give you the right one.”

Banning Books in Texas

Some residents in Granbury, Texas, are lobbying to remove Princess Boy and This Day in June from the Hood County Library because they “indoctrinate children to the LGBT lifestyle” and “promote perversion.” Hood County Library Director Courtney Kincaid decided to keep the books on the shelves, but next week the commissioners’ court will meet to discuss whether or not to reverse her decision.

Book banning is one of the worst crimes one can commit against the human intellect, and undermines the free exchange of ideas that is one of the pillars of our democracy. We’ll be keeping a close eye on the commissioners’ court’s deliberations, but in the meantime, we thought we’d take a quick look at other books that have been either banned or challenged in Texas.

Farenheit 451
Ray Bradbury

Farenheit451TNWhile banning a book about book burning tests the limits of irony, in 2006 Ray Bradbury’s dystopian novel was challenged in Texas and banned elsewhere throughout the country. In Conroe, the book was challenged due to its use of profanity, with one parent saying, “it shouldn’t be in there because it’s offending people…If they can’t find a book that uses clean words, they shouldn’t have a book at all.” The possibility that banning the book might be more offensive than the language it contained does not appear to have been a consideration.

The Working Poor: Invisible in America
David Shipler

The Working PoorTNTerrified of the risk of teaching high school children about the lives of Americans living in poverty, this non-fiction work by a Pulitzer Prize winner was challenged due to an anecdote of one woman’s experience with sexual abuse as a child and abortion during high school. The Working Poor was one of several books suspended last September in Highland Park High School during National Banned Books Week.

Esperanza Rising
Pam Muñoz Ryan

Esperanza RisingTNThe award-winning novel set in post-Revolutionary Mexico and Great Depression Era Southern California about 12-year old Esperanza Ortega has recently been challenged in Texas and North Carolina. One parent felt the novel “promoted illegal immigration” and was not age appropriate, while other parents were upset that the book addressed issues like racism, immigration, and “ethnic class struggles,” as though this were not, you know, what literature is for.

And Tango Makes Three
Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell

And Tango Make ThreeTNTwo very real male chinstrap penguins named Roy and Silo raised a chick named Tango together, and the authors turned it into this charming children’s story. And Tango Makes Three topped the lists of banned books in the United States and in Texas over the last few years. Reasons cited were that this book has anti-family values and “promotes the homosexual agenda.”

Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?
Bill Martin Jr.

Brown BearTNIn what is perhaps the most bizarre entry on this list, in 2010 the State Board of Education removed Bill Martin Jr.’s Brown Bear picture book series from the third grade curriculum, because someone else named Bill Martin happened to write a book entitled Ethical Marxism: The Categorical Imperative of Liberation. This in spite of the fact that Bill Martin Jr. died four years before Bill Martin’s book was even published.

Santa Claus Around the World
Lisl WeilSanta ClausTN

This non-fiction children’s picture book teaches children how Christmas is celebrated in other parts of the world. But because it included Krampus, a horned and beastly figure from a centuries-old German Christmas tradition, some parents tried to put it on the chopping block.

The Adventures of Captain Underpants
Dav Pilkey

Captain UnderpantsTNWhile most grade school boys embrace gross and irreverent stuff, this 11-part series was the most challenged of all books in 2012, for its offensive language, unsuitability for its age group, and violence. The series includes references to undergarments, toilets, bodily excrement, and mischievous rebellion against authority, and naturally it is beloved by its target audience of elementary school-aged boys.

Leprechauns Don’t Play Basketball
Marcia Thornton JonesLeprechaunsTN

Like the Harry Potter series, the references to magic and wizardry in Leprechauns Don’t Play Basketball resulted in the book being challenged in Nederland ISD.

Katy Perry
Sarah TieckKaty PerryTN

The biography of pop star Katy Perry was challenged for being offensive to religious sensitivities in Eagle Mountain Saginaw ISD during the 2011-2012 school year. Over what we will assume were the vigorous objections of the student body, the book was ultimately retained.

Join the ACLU of Texas “Banned Books Club”

By Dotty Griffith
ACLU of Texas Public Education Director

This week is marks the 30th anniversary of Banned Books Week, an annual event that celebrates the freedom to read and calls attention to the wealth of creative expression that is stifled when books can be barred from library shelves. The ACLU has always believed that our country functions best when citizens exercise their right to freely explore the world around them, and, we’ll be blogging about banned books and censorship all week. Join the conversation using #IReadBannedBooks.

If there’s one thing harder to put down than a good book, it’s a good book that’s been banned by those who would tell others what they should and shouldn’t read. To celebrate Banned Books Week, the ACLU of Texas publishes a report every year about the books banned, restricted and challenged in Texas schools. We gather this information through open records requests to Texas’ more than 1,100 independent school districts.

Fortunately, there is good news this year! The 16th edition of Free People Read Freely reveals that teachers, librarians and administrators are working with parents to cut down on the numbers of books that are banned. More schools than ever refer challenges to academic committees instead of to an administrator taking unilateral action or to the politically sensitive school board. Some schools actually require parents to read the books that they wish to challenge. (Often that is enough to convince parents that the books have merit!)

Often hot button social issues –  such as LGBT rights, and pop culture topics tinged with romance, like vampires – ignite would-be censors. But classics, like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, inevitably still draw complaints. Of course, we respect the right of parents to determine whether a book is suitable for their children and applaud cooperative efforts by teachers, librarians and parents to find alternate titles in those circumstances. We firmly believe, however, that one parent’s beliefs should not dictate what others may read.

This year we inaugurated the ACLU of Texas Banned Books Club on our Facebook page during the 30th annual Banned Books Week. We are reading and posting about our favorite banned books and encouraging comment on our page – check out our page to join the conversation. And be sure to check out the banned book quote of the day on the ACLU Nationwide Facebook page, as well.

Welcome to Banned Books Week, Sept. 25 – Oct. 2

By Jose Medina
ACLU of Texas Media Coordinator

Banned Books Week starts today. And as the ACLU of Texas does each year, it has released “Free People Read Freely,” a report on challenged, restricted and banned books in Texas public schools.

Why we do this
Books are a tangible representation of our freedom of expression. Banning books is often an expression of fear – fear of differences, fear of new ideas and thoughts, fear of the unknown. No matter how well-intended, banning books – especially by those who won’t even read the ‘offensive’ material to see if the educational value meets or exceeds the weight of the objections against them – is censorship and infringes on the rights of a free society. Parents should exercise their rights to decide what is appropriate reading material for their own children; but they overreach when they seek to decide for other parents what is good for all children.

This year we’re happy to report only 20 books were banned in Texas schools. But that’s still 20 cases in which censorship was successful.

Some examples of documented bans in this year’s report include “The Gossip Girl” series, Judy Blume’s “Forever…” and Lauren Myracle’s “ttfn.” See the full list in our report.

In observance of Banned Books Week, we’re asking you to pick up a book and read. Don’t have time? Fine, then give the gift of a book. There are also plenty of Banned Books Week events all over the country, including those listed below and sponsored by the ACLU of Texas. For more Banned Books Week events all over the country, visit the American Library Association Banned Books Week Web site.

Now get readin’.

ACLU of Texas Banned Books Week Events

Corpus Christi
What: Readings of banned books
Where: Half Priced Books, 5425 South Padre Island Drive
When: Saturday, Sept. 25, 4:30 p.m.

Celebrity readers will include Reverend Phil Douglas of the Unitarian Universalist Church and Leanne Libby, columnist for the Caller-Times.

What: Houston Chapter Banned Books Event
Where: Central Library, 500 McKinney, www.houstonlibrary.org
When: Saturday, Oct. 2, 11 a.m. – 4:45 p.m.

11 a.m. – 12 p.m.
Banned Books Discussion: J.D. Salinger’s “Catcher in the Rye”

12 p.m. – 3 p.m.
2nd Annual Banned Books Readout
Celebrate your freedom to read with local educators, poets, authors, avid readers and more join members of the Houston Chapter of the ACLU of Texas and staff of the Houston Public Library to read passages from your favorite banned books.

3:15 p.m. – 4:45 p.m.
Banned Books Movie: James and the Giant Peach
A special presentation of the film based on Ronald Dahl’s classic book. Directed by Tim Burton. Rated PG.

San Antonio
What: Readings and discussions
Where: Central Library Gallery, 600 Soledad St. (Downtown)
When: Thursday, Sept. 30, 7 p.m.

Dotty Griffith, Director of Public Education for the ACLU of Texas will discuss 2010 Banned Books Report and the continuing impact of “To Kill a Mockingbird” 50 years later.

Event is free and open to the public.