By Megan J. Uzzell, Strategic Initiatives and External Affairs Director at Democracy Forward.

The library was my refuge growing up. When I was little, it was a place to escape the baking heat of Kansas City summers and side step the relentless cold of winter – and check out a book or twelve while I was at it. By the time I was in high school, the library provided an emotional relief. I went when I needed a welcoming ear, a librarian who could empower me to research passions I held or questions I had. My childhood taught me that libraries offer so much more than books – they promote learning, community, and acceptance.

In spite of these core democratic values – or perhaps because of them – school libraries and public libraries are under attack. According to PEN America, between 2021 and 2023 extremists brought nearly 6,000 book bans in school libraries alone. And if you think this trend is isolated to specific regions or communities, think again: these bans spanned 41 states and 247 unique school districts. While the bans are widespread, extremists’ targets are narrow. The primary books being targeted feature diverse characters – including LGBTQ+ characters and characters of color. 

This phenomenon is only getting worse. That’s why, this National Library Week, it’s worth taking a second to understand how book bans are pervading our communities and classrooms. Because we can’t fight back if we don’t know what we’re up against.

Here’s what you need to know. First, the people pushing book bans do not represent the majority of Americans. According to Every Library, 92 percent of parents, grandparents, and guardians trust librarians to curate appropriate books and materials. Instead, it’s usually one or two people who hold extreme views and have ties with national far-right groups trying to impose their beliefs on the children and school districts of everyone else. Just take a look at what happened in Beaufort, South Carolina in 2022 (and is following suit across the country). A few residents who were members of Moms for Liberty – an SPLC-classified hate group – challenged 97 books in the school district’s library. Even though the constituents who wanted the books to stay outnumbered those supporting the bans 10 to one, the school district still pulled the books.

From Beaufort to Bozeman, Alabama to Arkansas, a small number of far-right sympathizers are limiting the books our kids can read and narrowing the possibilities they can imagine. But through my work at Democracy Forward, a legal organization that is challenging attacks on libraries across the country, I’ve learned that there are real ways the other 92 percent of us can fight back for our libraries and communities. 

You can file records requests to find out who’s behind book bans in your town. Democracy Forward filed one such request in York, Pennsylvania and discovered that the person who tried to get three books banned for the entire school district – not just her own children – was also running for school board. You can also monitor legislation in your area attacking libraries, like the bill in Georgia that just failed or the legislation recently introduced in Alabama. Keeping track of these attacks allows you to use your lines of communication with your local representatives to voice push back, if needed. And of course, if you need to stay on top of the legislative action in your town, your library likely has a subscription to your local newspaper! You can also join the email lists of organizations monitoring this work, like Democracy Forward and Every Library.

If a law or ban restricting access to books or criminalizing does go into effect, you can also consider being a plaintiff in a lawsuit challenging the action. I’ve had the honor of working alongside some incredible plaintiffs in my time at Democracy Forward, like Adam Webb. Adam is an Arkansas librarian who fought back against a law extremist state legislators passed threatening librarians and booksellers with criminalization if they provided “harmful” materials to minors. Thanks to Adam and our other plaintiffs, we’ve been able to dramatically curtail the harms of these kinds of laws. 

But you don’t have to go to court to support the freedom to read. You can read and encourage others to read banned books or show up at your local school board meeting. After all, it’s not just our children being harmed – it’s also the more than 2,500 creators whose works have been censored.

I’m honored to defend their work, protect libraries and librarians, and preserve our collective right to read every day. As a kid, the library represented a sacred space, a place that wasn’t school or home that could expand my understanding of what the world could be. In its own way, the library was a world unto itself, with endless portals to other worlds I didn’t even know existed. Books enabled me to get a glimpse of life outside Kansas City, travel back in time to ancient Egypt, and walk in the shoes of people much different than me. Now, many years later, I get to watch my children delight in the same enchanting magic of the library. My fifth grader’s world geography teacher has a classroom library featuring international authors and themes, like “Refugee” by Alan Gratz and “Born a Crime” by Trevor Noah. Every time we discuss one of these books, I see my child’s world grow a little bit bigger.

Libraries are a powerful thing. If they weren’t, far-right extremists wouldn’t be trying to undermine them. So this National Library Week, add some new reads to your TBR (to be read) pile. Get up to speed on the attacks on libraries in your community so you’re ready to fight back and protect access to a bigger, more inclusive, more equitable world.