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Is Ohio banning books? Librarians weigh in

Book shelves at library
Amy Johansson
Ideastream Public Media
Although book challenges have been on the rise in Ohio, they're still behind other states. And according to the Ohio Library Council, no books have been outright "banned."

Bibliophiles seem to alternately bask in and bristle at the term “banned books.” On the one hand, it bestows a mysterious cache on a work. Yet, how many books are actually banned and pulled off the shelves of public libraries in Ohio?

In 2022, there were 34 attempts to challenge 79 different titles, according to the American Library Association. In the first eight months of 2023, there were 22 attempts for 105 different titles. Nationwide, there was an increase in the number of attempts from 2021-23, but not to the number of titles. But the books themselves are staying put.

How do books initially get on the shelves?

A librarian, or team of staff members, looks at pre-publication reviews as well as the authors releasing books and then orders a copy - sometimes months in advance.

How do books get challenged?

The first step towards having an item removed involves a form to request that staff reconsider an item’s place in the collection.

However, Wendy Bartlett, collection development and acquisitions manager at the Cuyahoga County Public Library, said the form is often unnecessary. Sometimes people just need to be heard.

“When a customer comes in… I would stress that they really do have good in-depth conversations with our staff in their branches,” she said. “They very much feel like the Chagrin Falls library is their library and the Brecksville library is their library. They know those folks. Our staff really stresses the diversity. We have 600,000 customers and then some, so it's a very diverse group of folks that we are purchasing materials for. Very often, that conversation with a staff member or a branch manager… that's where it ends.”

Bartlett and representatives from the Akron-Summit County Public Library, Ashland Public Library and the Ohio Library Council said they do not know of any books actually being banned over the past two years in Ohio.

What’s being challenged?

In most Great Lakes states as well as nationally, the most challenged book of 2022 was “Gender Queer.” In Ohio, it was “It’s Perfectly Normal: Changing Bodies, Growing Up, Sex, and Sexual Health,” published in 1994. Bartlett said patrons also often challenge children’s books.

“It’s often grandpa and grandma bringing little ones to story time and seeing books that are much more diverse on diverse topics than they were, maybe, when they brought those children's parents to story time,” she said. “The publishing industry has changed a lot. The culture has changed a lot.”

In 2022, ALA numbers show that 30% of challenges came from parents. Only 17% of challenges came from political or religious groups.

Why are books being challenged?

Several librarians in Northeast Ohio attributed the post-COVID rise in challenges to people being more engaged online, hearing about certain titles and wanting to be heard. Bartlett called it “part and parcel of the culture wars.”

“I think groups are trying to find any way they can in the culture to be represented and to feel like their point of view is out there and it's fair,” she said. “Which is ironic because that's what libraries are here for.”

What happens after a challenge?

In some cases, even when a library keeps the book on the shelves it might still “disappear” according to Michelle Francis, executive director of the Ohio Library Council.

“We’ve had some people who will hide books in the library,” Francis said. “One of our library directors, when she first started, one of the books that she had to reorder the most was the Bible, because people just stole it from the library.”

Francis said the Quran is another book which frequently goes missing. In some instances, librarians do the relocating, perhaps moving from the children’s section to juvenile.

Yet, that didn’t happen at the Ashland Public Library. In 2023, the board of trustees heard from numerous community members who were concerned about three sexual education books for young people. Board President Sandra Tunnell said they stood their ground in the face of some “shocking” meetings.

“We were called pornographers. We were called pedophiles,” she said. “We've said since the beginning: If you don't like the book, you don't have to check it out.”

There have also been shows of support for the materials.

“I had so many women of a certain age come up to me and say that they wish there had been books like that when they were younger,” she said. “Nobody talked to them about sex ed. Nobody talked to them about what was going on in their bodies. Puberty is a scary, horrible time if you don't know what's going on.”

Are events being challenged?

ALA numbers from 2022 show that 10% of challenges were for events, exhibits, displays or programs in meeting rooms. Hickson-Stephenson of the Akron-Summit system said when that happens, it can often be due to a miscommunication about the nature of the event.

“Not every event held in a library meeting room is a library-sponsored event,” she said. “We make our meeting rooms available to community groups and organizations. We do state in our meeting room policy that, if you're using the meeting room for your own purposes, please do not make it appear or sound as if it's a library sponsored event.”

Kabir Bhatia is a senior reporter for Ideastream Public Media's arts & culture team.