Since 2020, the American Library Association has reported more than 6,500 books that have been targeted for censorship in the United States. The number of attempts to censor library books reached a new height in 2022, when challenges to banned books nearly doubled from 2021.
With the ALA’s annual Banned Books Week starting Oct. 1, the Mikkelsen Library joined libraries across the country in bringing awareness to the issue.
This October, Augustana’s library created its “Let Freedom Read” book display. The display aims to share information about banned books and encourage students to read titles like “Gender Queer” by Maia Kobabe, which currently tops the chart of the nation’s most banned books.
“It’s really important to make sure those voices are being represented that aren’t normally represented,” Cassandra Dulek, circulation and student coordinator library assistant, said.
The display showcases a variety of banned books interspersed with poster boards of censorship facts.
Slips of paper resembling business cards sit on the library’s front desk and on the downstairs display. Each paper shows one of the ALA’s top 10 most banned books.
A sign tells readers to recommend a banned book by writing the title on the back of one of the cards and placing it in a woven basket.
Senior Hanna Beshai, co-president of the Augustana Literature Club, remembers walking past the display at the start of October and spotting George Orwell’s “1984” amidst a sea of neon colors and numbers.
“I walked by, and I was like, ‘Oh, I need to read that book still,” Beshai said. “I’m glad they put up this display because it makes you realize there are so many [banned books], but they also advertised it in such an interesting way.”
Ginger Konz, information services library assistant, oversees the Mikkelsen Library’s book displays. She said the library typically creates a banned books display each year.
“I hope [students] take away from it that information is valuable and literature is valuable,” Konz said. “This is what people are fighting for or against: this value of literature and the ideas that it can present.”
Konz began working on the display at the start of September and completed it on Sept. 29. She found inspiration for the design in past book displays and a desire to highlight challenged books.
“I made the badges of honor for those top 10 banned books just to prominently showcase which ones were being the most controversial,” Konz said.
Library staff replace display books that are checked out with a print-out cover so students can still see each title.
English professor Emily Roehl uses many of the books from the display in her classes, including “Gender Queer” and “Persepolis” by Marjane Satrapi.
“I think it’s important to teach all kinds of books, including ones that end up on the banned books list,” Roehl said. “It’s important to teach diverse books from lots of perspectives, and so that sort of naturally leads me into banned books territory.”
Currently, the major themes of banned books include race, sexual orientation, social justice and obscene material, Dulek said.
“I don’t know when the last time we’ve had this amount of book bans, but it seems to be when society is in an unhealthy place,” Konz said. “When there’s a lot of fear, when there’s a lot of polarization, there’s a need to censor information.”
Dulek said information regarding banned books is more relevant than it has ever been.
“It’s important this year more than ever because there are people and politicians trying to pass legislation that impact us: the people that are trying to get people the information that they need, the information that they want and the literature that they want to read,” Dulek said. “This felt like it used to be just a cute display and now it’s more like, ‘Oh, this is a real problem.’ It doesn’t really feel like that cutesy display anymore.”
South Dakota is behind other states in quantities of banned books.
According to the ALA, South Dakota has seen only three attempts to restrict access to three unique books between Jan. 1 and Aug. 31, 2023. Currently, this year’s largest offender of the states is Texas, with 30 attempts to restrict access to 1,120 unique books.
Though South Dakota’s number of challenges is low, issues regarding censorship have made their way to the state legislature.
On Jan. 31, 2023, Sen. Jessica Castleberry, R-Rapid City, introduced Senate Bill 193, which would limit the use of harmful instruction materials in schools. The Senate Education committee killed the bill on Feb. 16.
A similar bill was proposed in the House Education committee on Jan. 26, 2023 and was also killed.
“It’s a political battle more than it’s a literary battle,” Roehl said. “In many cases book bans are not about books. They’re about culture wars. They’re about political posturing. They’re about producing a sense of victimization where there really is no victimization going on.”
Roehl said everyone should read banned books to learn about the variety of perspectives in the world.
“I think it’s important for everyone to read banned books, especially when those banned books are from the perspective of marginalized communities — whether that be marginalized due to gender or sexuality or marginalized in terms of race or socioeconomic status or religion,” Roehl said. “All these different sorts of identities tend to be the focus of book bans.”
As an aspiring English teacher, Beshai said she worries over teachers’ abilities to maintain their jobs and teach banned books in the future. However, she hopes to instill in her students a love for all literature, including works which have fallen victim to censorship.
“Storytelling is essential to being human,” Beshai said. “It’s so essential to living life and surviving and resisting, and if we can’t have our students read stories in which people are actively resisting, they can’t learn how to tell stories.”