Oklahoma Joe: books, a natural extension of democracy

Joe Hight

Oklahoma politicians have called the books it contains “pornography.” However, if you look at the Brooklyn Public Library’s “Books Unbanned” webpage, you don’t see anything remotely resembling pornography.

You will see various resources and this statement:

“Brooklyn Public Library adds our voice to those fighting for the rights of teens nationwide to read what they love, to discover themselves, and to form their own opinions. Inspired by the American Library Association’s Declaration of Freedom to Read, BPL’s Books Unbanned initiative is a response to an increasingly coordinated and effective effort to remove books covering a wide range of subjects from the shelves of libraries.

For a library system whose central location is nearly 1,500 miles from the Oklahoma State Capitol, the Brooklyn Public Library has become as well known as our library systems.

All because of Summer Boismier. The Norman high school teacher resigned in August after meeting with district administrators over her covering of a classroom bookshelf in red butcher paper with the words ‘books the state doesn’t want you to read’ and a QR code from the Books Unbanned webpage. According to KFOR, Boismier then received hundreds of vulgar messages and death threats after Education Secretary Ryan Walters’ claim that her teaching certification should be withdrawn.

“We’ve been fielding calls since the story first broke,” Brooklyn Public Library spokesperson Fritzi Bodenheimer told me. Bodenheimer said Boismier traveled to Brooklyn to speak during the recent Banned Books Week. This included being on the “The Battle for the Right to Read What You Want” sign.

The American Library Association (ALA) reported 1,597 disputes or removals of individual books in 2021, Books Unbanned said.

“This represents the highest number of attempted book bans since the ALA began compiling these lists 20 years ago,” the webpage reads. “Most of the targeted books were aimed at a teenage audience and were written by or about black or LGBTQIA+ people.”

These challenges have continued this year, including in Oklahoma. According to a recent Oklahoma Watch article, challenges have arisen not just in Norman, but in Stillwater, Tulsa and other districts. This is despite the ALA’s national survey indicating that most of us (71%) oppose efforts to remove books from libraries. Those opposing bans included 75% Democrats, 70% Republicans, and 58% independents.

“Most voters and parents hold librarians in high regard, trust their local libraries to make good decisions about books to include in their collections, and agree that libraries in their communities do a good job of providing books who represent a variety of viewpoints,” says ALA.

I share this opinion, as stated in a column on January 31.

This is also what Bodenheimer thinks. She said libraries and bookstores should have books about people different from us. She said the Brooklyn Public Library has issued 5,000 digital book cards to 13- to 21-year-olds, including Oklahomans, since April, when Books Unbanned was established. These requests included letters and “heartbreaking messages” from teenagers complaining that their libraries didn’t have books that represented who they are.

“We respect parents’ right to choose the books they want their children to read,” she said. “What we can’t recognize is parents wanting to choose what other people can read.”

The problem today is not with librarians but with politicians who cry ‘pornography’ for political purposes or insist on imposing their standards or the standards of a vocal minority on others. In doing so, they instill fear in the librarians and teachers who have been tasked with teaching our children.

As Bodenheimer says, “We will continue to defend ourselves. It’s not just about books; it is about democracy. Books are a natural extension of our democracy.

Joe Hight is a director and member of the Oklahoma Journalism Hall of Fame, a publisher who spearheaded a Pulitzer Prize-winning project, the Chair in Journalism Ethics at the University of Central Oklahoma, president/owner of Best of Books, author of ‘Unnecessary Sorrow’ and editor/editor of ‘Our Greatest Journalists’.

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