It’s rare for someone to try to get a book banished from Long Beach libraries, but it does happen, and local education experts are warning the practice could be an emerging front in the highly politicized culture wars over race and gender in the U.S.
In other parts of the country, libraries and public schools have already become a battleground, with rightwing activists and conservative communities ratcheting up pressure against books they deem offensive.
Last year, there were 729 challenges filed nationwide against library, school and university materials and services, according to the American Library Association. These challenges affected nearly 1,600 books, according to the ALA. Most of the books targeted by the challenges were written by or about Black or LGBTQIA+ persons, according to the ALA.
“What’s happening in out parts of the country is overreach of ‘You have to think what I think,’ and that flies in the face of what public libraries are about,” Long Beach library services director Cathy De Leon said. “At the library, you’ll find books you love and books you’ll find offensive. We do our best to try to balance the collection as much as possible, and our community is by and large appreciative.”
But not everyone has agreed with their judgment.
Between 2008 and 2021, just three challenges have been filed with the Long Beach library system trying to get books banned from their shelves, but the objections seem to be in line with the broader national movement:
- In 2008, the Long Beach Public Library received a challenge on the teen novel “Fallen Angels” by Walter Dean Myers. Originally published in 1988, the book tells the story of Perry, a young man from Harlem who volunteers to fight in the Vietnam War in the late 1960s, and the violence and racism he encounters. The book won both the 1988 Coretta Scott King Award as well as consistent placement on the American Library Association’s top 100 list of the most frequently challenged books.
- In 2013, a person challenged Kate Bornstein’s memoir “A Queer and Pleasant Danger.” Bornstein’s writings “reflect her outspoken activism and unflinching examination of what it is like to be a transgender in our society,” according to the public library’s response to the challenge, so it’s not too surprising to see the book generated at least some controversy.
- And in 2016, a person challenged the humor book “The De-Textbook: The Stuff You Didn’t Know About the Stuff You Thought You Knew,” published by the staff at the humor website Cracked.com. The person who challenged the book was concerned about the influence the book might have on “youngsters, especially young adults,” according to the response letter sent by the public library. The library noted that though the book does contain strong language and potentially offensive subject matter, it’s located in the adult section, “which is not readily accessible to adolescents who are casually browsing for reading materials.”
None of the challenged books were removed from library shelves, and all three are still available for check-out today.
But library officials contacted by the Post expressed surprise that there had been any challenges at all made against Long Beach libraries in recent years. (The Long Beach Unified School District, by contrast, said they had none over the past 15 years.)
“Most book-banning attempts have been in conservative Republican states,” said Cal State Long Beach President Jane Conoley, who has spoken out against what she termed “attempted book banning” at public libraries.
“I wish all parents would be inclusive and equity-minded, but people are people,” she said.
A broader trend
Book challenges, as well as general pressure on librarians from both public officials and activists, are an ongoing issue in some areas of the nation.
- In early August, following a long campaign by conservative Christian activists who were trying to get LGBTQ books off library shelves, voters in tiny Jamestown Township in Michigan refused to reauthorize a property tax that funded the local library, which will likely force it to close.
- In Oklahoma, city officials told librarians they were forbidden from giving patrons information about abortion or even using the word, according to Vice.
- In the small town of Vinton, Iowa, so much anti-gay harassment has been directed against the public library that most of the staffers have resigned, forcing it close temporarily, according to NBC News.
In July, Gov. Gavin Newsom told the National Forum on Education Policy in Washington, D.C. that education “is under assault in ways I’ve never seen in my lifetime,” according to The Hill. “Banning books, suppressing speech, the othering of our students, teachers, parents? It’s alarming.”
Locally, Cal State Long Beach President Conoley echoed some of those concerns when she spoke in May at the 60th annual meeting of the Long Beach Friends of the Library—a nonprofit organization that advocates for the library.
She talked about how books being targeted by right-wing groups in Texas, Georgia and Florida dealt with race and/or sexuality, and how the removal of such books risked further alienating LGBTQ and non-White children, who may already struggle to see themselves reflected in popular culture, according to a copy of her remarks she provided after the meeting.
“I’m scared by the rise in authoritarianism across the globe, domestic terrorism, the cracks that seem to be appearing in the metaphorical wall that is supposed to separate church and state and about how quickly disagreements turn into actual or threats of violence,” she said.
As a diverse community, Long Beach has been somewhat sheltered from those trends, but Conoley said, even in progressive California, politics can always shift away from celebrating inclusion.
“The danger I see now is pressure, sometimes said overtly, that what’s normative is White Christian and you don’t question it,” Conoley said.
What happens when someone challenges a book?
In Long Beach, the procedure for addressing book challenges has been in place for many years, according to library services director De Leon.
When a complaint comes in, it’s routed to a collection development librarian who specializes in that particular book’s subject matter or age group, she said. The librarian would then review why the book was acquired in the first place, and write a response.
Typically, when librarians are looking for new books, they refer to library trade journals, as well as Kirkus Reviews and Publishers Weekly, which are a “seal of approval,” De Leon said.
“We also look at the community, at what people tend to ask for when they come to the library,” she said.
The librarian in charge of responding to a challenge has to take it seriously—regardless of the complaint’s tone—and also explain why the library believes the book is important for Long Beach.
“We would handle it with care and consideration,” De Leon said.
Once completed, the library services director would approve and sign the response, according to library officials.
“We want to defend people’s rights to read what they want,” De Leon said. “That’s what it comes down to.”
Long Beach’s history with banned books
Though book challenges are rare these days, the nonprofit organization Long Beach Friends of the Library was formed in response to a series of book challenges that lasted years and threatened the independence of Long Beach’s public library, according to Barbara Sosa, the organization’s president.
It began in late 1962 when 38-year-old Lakewood Village resident Dorothy Hanna sent a letter to the city demanding that Nikos Kazantzakis’s novel “The Last Temptation of Christ,” which had been on the shelves of the city library for two years, be withdrawn because it was “blasphemous,” according to stories published at the time in the Long Beach Independent and Press-Telegram.
Local clergy, who had been leading similar challenges throughout Southern California, also objected to the book in Long Beach, calling it “pornographic” and “sacrilege,” according to news accounts of the time.
City Council members were outraged.
“I know I’m on dangerous grounds, but I see no useful purpose in circulating a book like this,” Councilmember Emmet Sullivan said, according to the Long Beach Independent. “Maybe a few nuts would like to read it.”
In her defense, City Librarian Blanche Collins—who had been the city’s chief librarian for just two years at this point—told the Council that “Censorship of books, urged or practiced by volunteer arbiters of morals or political opinions, must be challenged by libraries in maintenance of their responsibilities to provide public information and enlightenment through the printed word,” according to the Independent.
Residents, and even some clergy, were divided over the issue, according to contemporary news accounts. The waiting list to check out the book also swelled, according to Collins.
But when the City Council met on Dec. 4, 1962, it voted 7-1 to keep the book on the shelves though it also called for the book to be restricted to library patrons 18 and over, according to the Press-Telegram. The sole objecting vote came from Councilmember Robert F. Crow, who said if such a restriction were actually necessary, Collins would have already imposed it.
Long Beach Friends of the Library formed around this time in hopes of making sure the book-banning effort “doesn’t happen again,” Collins recalled in a 1979 oral history for Cal State Long Beach.
But after their “Last Temptation of Christ” failure, conservative library critics in Long Beach flipped their playbook. A new organization called the Education Society of Long Beach, which included Hanna, according to this 1964 New York Times story, sought to portray Collins and the Long Beach Public Library as the true force of censorship in the city.
Instead of openly trying to ban books, Hanna and the rest of the Education Society said the public library was discriminating against conservative books and needed to “balance” their shelves, according to the New York Times.
In the fall of 1964, the Education Society began calling for more materials at the library that “portray our wonderful American heritage,” according to the Oct. 17, 1964, Long Beach Independent. The group wanted more copies of the anti-communist John Birch Society publication and fewer Pete Seeger folk records, as well as an “Americanism center” in the library, the flier stated, according to the Independent.
But Collins countered by telling the City Council that the library had ordered all the books and publications demanded by the critics, according to the Independent. The problem, Collins said, was that no one was bothering to read them.
Things came to a head during a tense five-hour City Council session on Oct. 20. Police arrested a man who was running down the aisle yelling “fascism!” according to the Long Beach Indepedent’s account of the meeting.
Education Society members derided Collins as an “extreme liberal” and accused the library of only recommending “Communist-authored books” to kids, according to the Independent. Another activist, George King, called for “more censorship” because “they” put “poisonous materials in our water supply and Communist propaganda in our library,” according to the Independent.
Councilmember Crow, a staunch defender of Collins, then challenged King, saying he had recently been arrested for “selling machine guns” and was a member of numerous fringe groups including one allied with neo-Nazis—accusations King admitted were true, according to the Independent.
But members of the recently formed Friends of the Library were also at the meeting, and they defended Collins and the library’s acquisition practices. In the end, the council voted to leave the library alone.
Though conservative critics continued to complain about the library for the next few years, and even got the City Council to revisit the issue in 1967, their power was gone. There were no further major campaigns against the library or its acquisition strategies, and Collins retired at the end of 1968 after working for the library for 43 years.