AUSTIN (KXAN) — On Friday, the last day of South by Southwest (SXSW) EDU 2023, a panel of librarians assembled to discuss the rise of book bans across the U.S., labeling the legislation an attack on democracy in America.
The panel included American Library Association executive director Tracie D. Hall, library consultant Carolyn Foote and Las Vegas-Clark County Library District executive director Kelvin Watson. Digital Public Library Of America executive director John Bracken moderated the panel.
“They’re doing amazing work that I want you to hear their real stories kind of the challenges and realities of what libraries, both front of house and more broadly, are dealing with,” said Bracken about the panel. “As we talked beforehand, one of the outcomes we want is not just to share with you a snapshot of what folks are doing on the frontlines to support freedom, to support liberation, to support our democracy, but really also give you output so we can share what we could all do together to be part of the solution.”
Foote, who lives and works in Austin, is part of the “FReadom Fighters” team. The grassroots library supporters focus their work on the Texas legislature.
“The only reason we aren’t like Florida right now is because, last year, our legislature was not meeting,” Foote said. “But as of this moment, right now, there are 32 bills about access to school libraries that have been filed in our legislature. The number of bills that are filed about libraries is about five in an annual session.”
The tone of the session was necessarily dire; the panelists all described libraries and schools as a political battleground and that was not a new part of American life. Hall reminded the audience of civil rights struggles from 70 years ago that involved libraries, from John Lewis not being allowed to use his public library to book bans under Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s House Unamerican Activities Committee.
“I want you to think about the books that are being banned today,” Hall said. “Books written about Black and indigenous people of color, their lives and agency; books written by LGBTQI authors who can imagine a life about freedom and liberation, and not oppression; and books about women, our books, that imagine that women have the audacity to have bodily agency over their own bodies.”
“Those of you would have imagined yourself being on the right side of history 70 years ago, 80 years ago, now is your time,” Hall said. “If we are silent and lose the right to read freely, it will be our own fault.”
Watson, a U.S. Army veteran, described libraries to the audience as “the last bastion of American democracy.”
“That place, that space, where people can come together and disagree,” Watson said. “I don’t want anybody’s freedoms to be trampled upon on either side.”