Emily St. James: Guest Essay Lamenting Censorship in Our Public Libraries!

A stack of brightly colored books labeled “Queer” is surrounded by flames.

Henri Campeã

Dear Commons Community,

The novelist, Emily St. James, had a guest essay yesterday in The New York Times, lamenting what has happened to our public libraries especially those that have become political battlegrounds where books are targeted for censorship.   She recalls her youth and the importance of her small town library that for her growing up was a haven to learn about the world and its people regardless of their differences. Here is an excerpt.

“As far as my childhood self was concerned, the Carnegie Library in my tiny South Dakota hometown was the best place on earth. Once every week, I climbed its stairs and entered a space that smelled of mildew and oak.

Two large rooms stretched off to either side of the librarian’s desk, each subdivided into smaller spaces by old, wooden shelves. A small table bore videotapes and books from the state library in Pierre, titles that our perpetually underfunded library could not afford to add to its collection but wanted to make available anyway.

I grew up in a very white, very rural world, and the library let me know other lives were possible. There, I encountered books by authors like Ralph Ellison and Maya Angelou, which spoke of a world I had yet to encounter. Just reading the back cover of something like Oscar Hijuelos’s “The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love” served as a reminder that there were other ways to live than my own.

I was also a queer girl who lacked the language to explain the feelings I had deep inside of me. Yet at the library, I encountered some of the first people who seemed at all like me, people written about as political activists in magazines like Time and Newsweek, as supporting characters in the occasional sci-fi novel the friendly librarian pressed on me, as curiosities in certain books containing anecdotes about, say, Christine Jorgensen, a World War II veteran and trans woman whose transition in the early 1950s caused a media sensation.

Maybe you had a similar space in your own youth, one that still looms large in the memory. Increasingly, however, libraries, mostly in exurban and rural communities like the one where I grew up, are encountering some of the harshest resistance they’ve ever faced, usually centered on books about queer identities or America’s long history of racism. Books targeted for censorship in America’s libraries in 2022 were up nearly 40 percent over 2021, with 41 percent of challenged books involving L.G.B.T.Q. identities, according to the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom.”

For me growing up in the South Bronx, the Melrose Library was where I would go as a youngster.  I can still remember one of the first books I borrowed, a biography of Sun Yat-sen.  Why I chose this book I cannot remember but it introduced me to China and its remarkable history. As an undergraduate I took a number of courses on China and Asia and would always recall this book.


Comments are closed.