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Jenifer’s Journal: Speaking volumes

I think it was the yellow crime tape that did it, crisscrossed over the light blue construction paper that masked the classroom’s bookshelves. 

That particular classroom was not in Germany in 1939. No, it’s in Florida in 2023. As of last year, Florida was second only to Texas in the number of books banned in its schools (566), but the infection seems to be spreading.

From cursory research, it seems that even 11 counties in western New York State have been developing lists of challenged books. Scary.

I decided to seek answers from our local expert on books, Terry Lucas, director of the Shelter Island Public Library. Terry not only has a Masters in Library Science, she’s an attorney and former small business owner (a book store, of course) who, along with a colleague, has developed a program on the history of censorship.  We sat down the other day, and I asked for her take on this disturbing national trend.

Shelter Island Public Library Director Terry Lucas. (Reporter File )

“I think it’s because some people are scared, they’re scared of change, scared that the world is changing — that it’s different from the one they grew up in. They think [banning books] is one way to control it. And yet it’s so odd. Most kids already have tiny little computers in their hands. They can find out about whatever they want, so what’s being accomplished?

“This community seems to value the library and the parents’ right to make those decisions about what their children read. However, they’re not trying to impose those decisions on other people. They trust this library and, I think, this school, to provide the education, the materials and the programs that benefit the community.

“We want to have something for every child who walks in here. If a child walks in with questions or is worried about something, if we can provide them materials, if they can see themselves in a book, that can take away a lot of stress and worry and feeling isolated. If we can give that to a child, if we can say, for instance, O.K., so you have two dads — well, we have a book here about having two dads. You see you’re reflected in here, you count. You are a person in this world and you have a space in it.”

I asked her about the nationwide efforts to censor parts of our history.

“This is the history [of our country] — we’re not always pretty in that history, but if you learn about it, really know the facts about it, then as they say, hopefully you won’t have to repeat it,” Terry said. There’s nothing wrong with having made mistakes, acknowledging that, and moving forward from it. It’s not a matter of trying to make children feel guilty. Knowledge is always power. If you can learn something new even though it makes you feel slightly uncomfortable, you’ve still learned something, and you can take that new knowledge and use it in the best way you can.

“I read somewhere that in Florida, children are no longer able to bring books to school. When did books become the enemy? There’s so much joy in the written word, it’s such an amazing way to explore someone else’s life, to learn about other cultures, to develop empathy for people who have gone through difficulties. Hopefully, every parent can find something within their comfort zone so that their children can benefit from those kinds of crucial lessons,

“I can’t imagine a world where a child can’t bring a book to school, a world where teachers have to remove books from their classroom libraries, a world where our Sara [Library Youth Services Director] has to have a group of non-librarians look at books she’s ordered to make sure they’re acceptable.”

I said to Terry that it’s an interesting time to be a librarian.

“I’m interested, alright, but I’m also infuriated because, you know, librarians are like nurses, like teachers. We want the best for everyone, especially the children. We want to provide services, materials and information in order to help people. Period. It hasn’t happened here, but there are librarians having nervous breakdowns — people are calling them “groomers,” “pornographers,” — terrible names.

“Hopefully, enough people will open their eyes now and stand up. I think that’s happening more and more. We’ve heard a lot of bad stories, but now I’m hearing about parents who are coming back on the other side saying, ‘No, this is not what we want. We don’t want you to make decisions for us or for our children.’ I think these times are going to make people think about what their values really are. Is this an important enough issue to fight for? I feel very patriotic about our First Amendment rights. I’m not a huge fighter, but I will fight for this.”