Pagan librarians respond to challenged book list

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TWH – “Librarians want information available to all segments of the population,” says Norma, a librarian and Witch living in Oklahoma. “During this current pandemic, we are fortunate that many libraries are uploading and making available more electronic material for patron access.” As more and more Americans turn to their public libraries for assistance during the COVID-19 crisis, librarians like Norma are providing many new services to their communities. But while its services change with the needs of the public, the library remains a place where new ideas are discovered and contested – including Witchcraft, Paganism, and LGBTQ issues, which have all seen an increase in challenges to books on their topics.

Yesterday marked the end of National Library Week in the United States. This year’s theme, as presented by the American Library Association, was “Find the Library at Your Place,” a reflection on how the COVID-19 pandemic has changed how patrons interacts with the physical structures and the institution of libraries. Libraries have been providing extensive services beyond e-books, movies, and music, including virtual storytelling, video games, webinars, and more.

UU Pagan Library [courtesy]

The ALA released its annual report, “The State of American Libraries,” as part of National Library Week, which highlighted the growing digital expansion of library services. Steve Zalusky, the editor of the report, notes that while the coronavirus has changed many of the services libraries provide, “What hasn’t changed is our belief that service and stewardship to our communities are core to the library profession. We continue to see this every day even as library buildings close to the public but often sustain or grow their virtual services and resources freely available to all.”

The report highlighted the diversity of services offered by library systems across the United States, including health literacy and awareness information. The report noted that about 23% of public libraries host fitness or yoga classes, and that libraries and librarians also serve the community by helping its patrons access information and resources that range from securing health insurance information, mental health and medical services, trauma-informed care, homelessness, and information about the pandemic.

Libraries across the USA also offer non-traditional collections. The Redwood City Public Library in California has installed two beehives on their downtown rooftop. The patrons of the Beaverton City Library in Oregon “check out kitchenware, outdoor equipment, and games.” All this excludes the use of academic libraries which collectively reported more than one billion visits to their collections.

The report also notes, however, concerns that affect members of the Pagan, Heathen, and polytheist communities, especially those who also identify as LGBTQ.

The report lists the top 10 most challenged books in America. The term “challenge” refers to an “attempt to remove or restrict materials or services based on its content.” It is different than a “ban,” which is the “removal of materials or cancellation of services based on content.” Both amount to censorship. The total amount of challenges and bans in 2019 increased by 14%.

The reasons for the challenges are summed up in a word cloud that shows the frequency of topics through the size of their font and proximity to the center:

[American Library Association]

Crystaline, a librarian and Witch in South Florida, works at keeping books available to everyone and ensuring that all members of the community she serves have access to materials they need. “Being a practicing Traditional Wiccan, I also try to suggest books for purchase that I know will benefit those seeking all Pagan paths,” she says. (Crystaline requested to use her Pagan name for this story.)

Some patrons, especially parents, worry about materials available at libraries. The range of issues challenged includes political and social content; some topics have even been targeted by state legislatures, making it possible to sue or criminally prosecute a librarian or educator for offering such material to minors.

One example of a challenger is a pastor in Upshur, West Virginia, who, the ALA report notes, challenged the children’s picture book Prince & Knight, claiming that the fractured fairy tale “is a deliberate attempt to indoctrinate young children, especially boys, into the LGBTQA lifestyle.”

“Many of these challenges are pursued by well-organized pressure groups intent on banning books and resources they deem pornographic or unsuitable for minors,” the report said. “Among the works identified as unsuitable by these groups are Haruki Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore, Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner, and Cristina García’s Dreaming in Cuban.”

Those books, however, did not end up on this year’s list of most challenged books, which mainly featured LGBTQ content, especially books that affirmed the transgender experience. There were also books with themes of feminism and Witchcraft on the list.

Alex Gino’s George topped the list for “for LGBTQIA+ content and a transgender character; because schools and libraries should not ‘put books in a child’s hand that require discussion’; for sexual references; and for conflicting with a religious viewpoint and ‘traditional family structure.'”

George was followed by Beyond Magenta: Transgender Teens Speak Out by Susan Kuklin. It was challenged for “LGBTQIA+ content, for ‘its effect on any young people who would read it,’ and for concerns that it was sexually explicit and biased.”

The full list is available on ALA advocacy site.

The Harry Potter series returned to the list after a 15-year absence. It was “banned and forbidden from discussion for referring to magic and witchcraft, for containing actual curses and spells, and for characters that use ‘nefarious means’ to attain goals.” Meanwhile, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale made the list for “vulgarity and sexual overtones.”

The ALA Office for Intellectual Freedom identified “a rising number of coordinated, organized challenges to books, programs, speakers, and other library resources that address LGBTQIA+ issues and themes.” The office found that the most challenged books explored “issues of concern to those in the gay, lesbian, transgender, and queer communities, most notably books affirming transgender youth, like Alex Gino’s George.”

66% of challenges take place in public libraries serving their communities. Only 2% of challenges occur in academic libraries. 56% of the challenges involved books, 9% were related to artwork, and 8% involved films. A surprising 22% involved programs or meeting rooms.

The challenges come from various constituencies. 13% of challenges come from their boards or administration while 12% came from political groups and religious groups. Teachers and librarians themselves provided 8% of the challenges, while elected officials  contributed 3%. Only 1% of the challenges come from students.

Those data align with Crystaline’s experience. She sees some parents raising concerns over “what they feel their under-18-year-old child should be exposed to.

“In my library system,” she continued, “we offer adult status at the age of 16 years. This means that anyone over that age has all protections of an adult. We do not give out their personal information, allow anyone other than the patron with the correct library card to pick up holds, or provide the patron’s checkout history.” Those records remain private.

Dana Alvara, a Witch and librarian from the Pacific Northwest, says that the numbers, titles, and concerns of challenged books differ by region and municipality, but she finds the nature of challenged books says something about our current national anxieties and conversations. “Certainly, banned books, in general, have something to say about the times we live in and what is going on in the national dialog,” she says. “More authors writing about LGBTQ+ experiences is a hopeful step towards acceptance, and it is something that is topical in our current political environment. Both the volume and the timeliness of these stories make them ripe for challenges.”

Nevertheless, librarians find ways to get accurate information in front of their patrons. “We will create displays, especially during Banned Book week; we will create Libguides (webpages of research material); we will create other paper resources (bookmarks),” says Norma, the librarian and Witch from Oklahoma. “All these are created and maintained so that patrons needing access to specific titles that their systems may have removed, have available options.”

Norma added that she refrains from magickal work in her professional duties, but she said that her spiritual path and tradition inform her work as a librarian and demand she keeps openness to information at the forefront of her work. “By that, I mean that the ‘openness to ideas’ that Witchcraft has cultivated has helped me have openness to library service. I’m not sure that makes sense. But to me, it is hand in hand.”