On the Frontlines

Season 7, Episode 6

Library workers often risk their livelihoods when they speak out against censorship, spurring community members to pick up the fight for intellectual freedom. We tell the story of how one Louisiana parish came together to defend their library amidst book challenges, tip lines, and even sign burning.

Our call to action for this episode:

  • Find the people in your community who care about public libraries and get together with them.

More resources:


Episode Transcript

Maia Kobabe I found so many stories that still I still think about and I think really shaped who I am as a person. This was like my food. It was like my food and drink, the library and the books from the library.  

Adwoa Adusei This is Maia Kobabe, writer and illustrator, talking about the joy of discovering queer books in the public library when e was growing up.  

Maia Kobabe And I’m really fortunate that I grew up in the Bay Area where there were a lot of queer books in the teen section, and the librarians were really thinking about that as one of the type types of identities they wanted to represent. 

Virginia Marshall Maia is author of the graphic memoir Gender Queer, the most frequently banned and challenged book last year. Gender Queer is Maia’s personal story of discovering gender identity and sexuality. We aired our full interview with Maia on a bonus episode last week. In the interview, Maia brought up how much libraries have had to deal with in recent years. 

Maia Kobabe I have now had the opportunity to go to the American Library Association Conference, and it felt like every single librarian who came up to me had a personal story. And it was either of the book being challenged in their district and the challenge being overturned. And they had this sort of story of victory. Or of the the challenge standing and the book having to be removed. I am very aware that librarians, even more than authors, are on the frontlines of these challenges. 

[Theme music]

Virginia Marshall We started this series with a story about an English teacher in Oklahoma who felt she had to leave her job because of new laws imposed by the state that hampered her ability to teach. Educators across the country have their hands tied. On the one hand, they want to help their students accept themselves and others through reading and learning accurate history. On the other hand, state laws and pressure from conservative activists make it impossible for them to do that. But we haven’t talked as much about the librarians at public libraries who are encountering similar challenges. 

Adwoa Adusei And the pressure is growing at public libraries. The American Library Association reported that 49 percent of book challenges happened in public libraries in the first half of 2023. That’s compared to 16 percent during the same period in 2022.

Virginia Marshall So today on the podcast: we’ll tell the story about how one New York City librarian got pulled into a very local—and very heated—fight over books at a public library more than a thousand miles away … in St. Tammany Parish, Louisiana. I’m Virginia Marshall. 

Adwoa Adusei And I’m Adwoa Adusei. You’re listening to Borrowed and Banned: a podcast series about America’s ideological war with its bookshelves. 

[Theme music out] 

Adwoa Adusei We’re going to start this story with Mel Manuel. About two years ago, Mel moved back home, to St. Tammany Parish.  

Mel Manuel We're about an hour north of New Orleans. It's a super conservative community. The conservatives outnumber progressives about two to one. And this is my home. This is where I'm from.  

Adwoa Adusei At the time, Mel was teaching in public schools. And they found that setting down roots and creating community as an adult wasn’t easy.

Mel Manuel It was just really hard to meet people, especially queer people or progressive people like myself, because I was working from home. 

Adwoa Adusei So, they decided to create their own community. With their friend Jeremy Thompson, Mel founded Queer North Shore. The group started out as mainly a social organization, a way for queer people, queer allies and progressives—to find each other. 

Mel Manuel I wasn't even sure if anyone would join. And when we had like 100 members, I was like—Oh my gosh, there's 100 queer people here? And now it’s 1500. 

Adwoa Adusei Queer North Shore organized a float in the Mardi Gras parade. They had picnics and get-togethers. Then, the summer of 2022 rolled around.  

Virginia Marshall Remember, the summer of 2022 was when a lot of the book censorship ferver started to grow across the country. And, Mel’s community in St. Tammany Parish was not immune.  

Mel Manuel I heard, I think through Facebook or something that there were people upset about Pride displays in our in our local libraries. And so at the next library board, [[people showed up and]] I showed up in support of the Pride displays.  

Virginia Marshall And it wasn’t just Mel. Many members of Queer North Shore showed up at that library board meeting in June. 

Mel Manuel The entire room was packed with people, which is not—at the time was not a normal thing for a library board meeting. It was probably 50 people in the room and there was just one person who spoke out against the Pride displays and everyone else was there to support, which was kind of amazing. It was the first time that I'd seen, in our parish ... I had no idea that we had so many people who supported the queer community. 

Virginia Marshall Despite the overwhelming show of support, the movement against queer books—and against the library itself—only grew. In the months that followed that first library board meeting, the book challenges started coming in … relentlessly. 

Mel Manuel There was four or five children's books challenged at the next library board meeting. Like, Julián is a Mermaid was one of them. And they were all gender-non-conforming, and most of them were people of color. Like the characters were people of color as well. It just kind of blew my mind because, you know, being Trans myself, I can understand and I know that people get upset and it's kind of a tricky subject to navigate. But these particular books were just, like, the entire story was about loving families who accept their kids the way they are. That was the message of all of those stories. 

Adwoa Adusei The relentless book challenges weren’t the only thing that library supporters had to worry about. At a local Republican party meeting that fall, the pushback against libraries reached a new level. 

Mel Manuel It was a public meeting. And there was a presentation by one of the main people in the censorship movement. And it was kind of like why we should ban all these books. And Emily's face was all over that presentation. I didn't know who Emily was at the time, but also our library director didn't know Emily Drabinski at that time. 

Emily Drabinski This giant PowerPoint full of photos of me, as an "ALA Lesbian" and Socialist Marxist and whatever, you know, blown up on the PowerPoint slide.

Virginia Marshall This, of course, is Emily Drabinski, the librarian who lives over a thousand miles away from St. Tammany Parish, in New York City.  Emily Drabinski is the president of the American Library Association, or the ALA. But at the time, she was just the President-elect.

Emily Drabinski I don't care that my face is on PowerPoint slides because I don't live in St. Tammany Parish. But what they're also doing is not just my face, it's the face of the local librarians in town on these PowerPoint slides. Accusations that the library director is in cahoots with me and, you know, just absolutely absurd fantasies about the librarians down there. You know, people ... it’s not a huge place. People know each other. They're community members together. And to have one part of the community turn so violently against another is devastating.

Virginia Marshall The ALA is the oldest and largest library association in the world. It has 65,000 members across the country, and represents all kinds of libraries: public libraries, academic libraries, school libraries and more. Its mission is to promote and protect libraries and the work that they do: which is to provide information to everyone, everywhere. So when Emily’s picture ended up on a powerpoint slide in St. Tammany … it sent a message. 

Adwoa Adusei At this moment in time, Emily Drabinski—and the American Library Association—represents exactly the kind of progressive movement that the far-right fears. 

Virginia Marshall Emily campaigned on a platform of organized labor, largely in response to the trying working conditions for librarians during the pandemic.

Emily Drabinski You can see what library workers faced across the country, being sort of pressed into service without sufficient safety mechanisms to provide services to the public. And just, library workers seemed to really be struggling. And I know something about struggle in libraries. I've been involved in a couple of union fights and really believe that organizing collectively as library workers is the best way to, you know, have health and safety conditions that are livable. And so I was like, let me run for ALA President. I'll tell a sort of pro-organized labor story. I did not think I would win. But I think the fact that I won demonstrates the sort of ... the interest in in collective organizing as a strategy for political change. 

Adwoa Adusei Many people see Emily’s progressivism—her idea of organized labor and workers' rights—as a step in the right direction for libraries. But there's also been significant backlash against her, and against the entire American Library Association. Since that meeting in the Fall of 2022, three state library associations have formally withdrawn from the American Library Association: Montana, Missouri, and Texas. And, lawmakers in at least nine other states have called for their state libraries to do the same. 

Virginia Marshall Many cite the ALA’s defense of "disputed books”—ones that contain LGBTQ+ and racial themes—and also Emily’s presidency as reasons to withdraw. They claim that the ALA has a political agenda. We should say that the American Library Association has a history of standing up against censorship. In 1939, the ALA adopted an official Library Bill of Rights: guidelines for its members about what libraries stand for. The Bill of Rights has been updated over the years, and it includes things like a commitment to challenging censorship, to maintaining collections that represent all points of view, and making sure that all people, regardless of their origin, age, background or views, have open and private access to libraries and the information they provide. This is why this backlash against librarians and the ALA is so worrying. Those are the values that libraries withdrawing from the ALA and threatening the credibility and livelihoods of library workers are objecting to.


Adwoa Adusei We should get back to St. Tammany Parish, and the local Republican party meeting where the St. Tammany Parish Library Director was accused of being a “foot soldier” of Emily Drabinki. Because something else happened at that meeting that signaled this growing distrust of libraries and library workers in certain parts of the country. Jeff Landry—who was Louisiana Attorney General at the time, and has since been elected Louisiana’s next Governor—announced a state-wide tip line. 

Mel Manuel A tip line where you can, I guess, rat on librarians or public school teachers that you think are sexualizing your children. 

Adwoa Adusei This is Mel Manuel again. 

Mel Manuel Teachers and librarians have traditionally been two really loved professions, kind of nationwide. So it was a really interesting choice of profession to target. I mean, interesting and also kind of horrifying. 

Jeff Landry This is about giving parents and officials the tools they requested to protect Louisiana’s children from sexually explicit material that is inappropriate for their age.

Adwoa Adusei That’s Jeff Landry, speaking at a press conference about the tip line a few months later.

Virginia Marshall Just imagine, you’re just trying to do your job, right? Get books in the hands of kids who want to read them; help people access the internet; provide valuable resources for free, for everyone. And now there’s a very real threat that members of your community are watching your every move. And they can—and will—report you. That’s bound to make librarians and public educators terrified. 

Mel Manuel A lot of our librarians in St. Tammany Parish have been really quiet publicly. I do know some of them, and I'm friends with some of them, and we speak privately. But they largely have been kind of scared to speak out. 

Adwoa Adusei What happens when librarians and teachers are afraid of losing their livelihoods if they speak out—is that the responsibility to act and to push back lands with members of the community. And in St. Tammany Parish, community members stepped up. In a big way. 

Virginia Marshall Shortly after the Pride displays were challenged back in of June 2022, Mel Manuel and about a dozen community leaders in St. Tammany Parish founded another organization strictly for the purpose of supporting libraries: it’s called St. Tammany Library Alliance. And they—along with other library supporters across the state—were ready and organized when the tip line was announced. 

Mel Manuel People just flooded that tip line with ridiculous things, like there was multiple scripts of the entire "Bee Movie." And then a lot of people would like reported Jeff Landry, or I reported one of the people in the pro-censorship movement locally. So I think in the end there was less than, if I remember right, it was like less than a dozen people who made what they considered a legitimate claim. And there were thousands of people who were just spamming it. 

Virginia Marshall Even though statewide, the tip line was a failure, it did stoke the small but loud group of right-wing activists.  

Adwoa Adusei Over the next few months, a handful of people in St. Tammany Parish continued to challenge books. A lot of them. 

Newscaster 1 In Louisiana, the fight over banning books in public libraries is escalating. And in some cases, targeting librarians. 

Newscaster 2 Public comment is heating up on the North Shore over library books some say are harmful to children. 

Mel Manuel There was like over 200 books challenged in St. Tammany. At one point, we had the most challenges in the entire nation. And the entire board has to read every book that's challenged. So, the process of going through it is really, really slow. 

Virginia Marshall As soon as a book is challenged, the library has to remove access to it. They put it behind the circulation desk and patrons can only read it if they ask for it. So, while the board reviews the book—which can take up to four months—the book is essentially banned.

Adwoa Adusei Kelly LaRocca, director of St. Tammany Parish Library, told a reporter at the Times-Picayune that each book challenge costs the library about $400. They have to buy more copies of the book for staff to read, and pay library workers for the time it takes to read and review them.

Virginia Marshall Given the sheer number of book challenges at the library, the Times-Picayune estimated costs to the library at nearly $69,000. That’s a lot for a local public library, and not out of pace with what other library systems across the country are estimating these book challenges cost. And the cost of these challenges is even more startling when you consider that it’s the voices of a small minority that are calling for these books to be removed. A Washington Post investigation earlier this year found that two thirds of over 1,000 book challenges were submitted by just 11 people. That’s a similar story to what's happening in St. Tammany Parish. 

Mel Manuel Almost all of those challenges were a single person. I think more than 80 percent of those books were hers. She doesn't read all of the books. She just copies and pastes excerpts and she doesn't show up to the library board meetings. It's very easy to request that a book be removed from the shelves. So you could do dozens of them in a very short amount of time.

Virginia Marshall A few months into all of this book banning madness, residents of St. Tammany Parish woke up to horrifying news. Overnight, a pro-library billboard made by a local Trans teen was torched. The sign had been posted on their property, and it read “Ban Hate, Not Books.” 

Newscaster 3 A sign protesting the banning of library books in St. Tammany Parish was set on fire early this morning.

Parent We thought burning crossings, burning books and burning signs was a thing of the past in Louisiana. And unfortunately, this morning, we learned that’s not the case. 

Mel Manuel That was really shocking It just feels like not the kind of thing that you would see in 2023. And it feels like putting us all back in the closet. And, I'm not willing to go there. 

Adwoa Adusei After the sign was torched, St. Tammany Library Alliance came together once again. And it wasn’t just people in the parish. Supporters across the state and the country donated money for a new sign. The group raised over $7,000. 

Virginia Marshall It was around this time that Mel decided to take their activism to the next level. They decided to run for Congress. 

Mel Manuel I'm using the candidacy as a platform in and of itself, because we don't have any queer legislators. We don't really have a voice in Louisiana. Our kind of motto for St. Tammany Library Alliance is that libraries are for everyone. And that's also my motto for my campaign: Louisiana for Everyone. And I do think that's really important. Our library should reflect all the members of our community, and some of those members are people of color, and some of those people are gay or maybe they're Trans. And it's kind of like, seeing a book about yourself is a way of saying that you're accepted in this community.  

Virginia Marshall What’s happening in St. Tammany Parish is a perfect example of what’s possible when a community comes together to defend its public institutions. Community members are empowered to make change. Librarians know they’re not alone. And sometimes, someone even runs for public office. 

Adwoa Adusei Back when St. Tammany Library Alliance was forming, they got help from a national group called EveryLibrary. That’s actually where the name Alliance comes from. 

John Chrastka I picked the word "alliance" because I'm of a certain age. And, you know, Star Wars was my formative years in my summer of '77. I wanted it to be possible for people across the country it to identify each other, because we're in this "alliance" kind of mode. 

Virginia Marshall This is John Chrastka. He’s the executive director of the EveryLibrary Institute, a national organization dedicated to building voter support for libraries. He was cheering on St. Tammany Library Alliance every step of the way … and providing tools for community members to organize themselves. 

John Chratska What we try and do at EveryLibrary is some just basics of community-based organizing. When there's a community that's facing a problem, whether it's a public library or a school library, we try and find two or three or four humans in the community who care. 

Virginia Marshall And, there are a lot of people who care.

Adwoa Adusei It turns out, most people don’t want to ban books. Seven in 10 people oppose book bans, according to an American Library Association poll. And CBS found that 8 in 10 people don’t believe books should be banned in schools for discussing race, the history of slavery, or for having political ideas they don’t agree with.

Virginia Marshall So, how does that sizable majority of people who don’t want to ban books get mobilized? Well, they have to know censorship is happening in the first place. Sometimes, members of a community don't even know that their local libraries, and the books on those, shelves are under attack.  

Kelly Jensen What I found is that when there's a story, be it something that hasn't yet been reported or something that has been reported, but maybe hasn't gotten a whole lot of attention, that sharing it really does get people to act. 

Virginia Marshall This is Kelly Jensen, a reporter for Book Riot. She’s been on the book banning beat for the past few years. 

Kelly Jensen In Colorado, Douglas County, they were dealing with and still are dealing with a very right-wing group who has been attacking the library for months about a number of LGBTQ-related issues. And there have been several people who have been working really hard to push back against these. And so, they've continued to keep in touch with me and let me know, like, the status of things, what's going on. And by continuing to help push it, they're seeing more and more people understand that the rhetoric coming from this group is not the truth. That it is a big, you know, misinformation campaign. And they're getting more and more support at these board meetings and thus are better able to get across the truth of what's happening.

Adwoa Adusei If you’ve been listening to this series for a while, you’ll know that there is this idea out there that parents feel they have to protect their children from harmful information and untrustworthy teachers and librarians. It’s an emotional argument for sure … but is it true? 

Virginia Marshall Kelly and John wanted to find out. They put together a survey for parents of kids 18 and under about how they perceive the public library. Out of the more than 800 parents polled, 92 percent believe that their child is safe at the public library. And three-quarters agree that book bans infringe on their rights to make decisions for their own kids. We’ll put a link to the survey on our web page so you can see their findings for yourself.

Adwoa Adusei So, the challenge is getting the real facts and the power to do something about it to the people who care the most. It’s about people on the ground creating community and supporting each other.

Virginia Marshall And, the library alliances are working. Members of the St. Tammany Library Alliance showed up—and continue to show up—at every library board meeting, as more books are challenged. Here’s Emily Drabinski again.

Emily Drabinski We've started to see the St. Tammany Library board agree to return some books to the shelves. So they're having an impact. Not only on the books on the shelves, but also the understanding that people in a community can come together, can organize together on behalf of the library and bring people from all different walks of life, from homeschool families to queers to the town doctor. That everybody who cares about literacy in the community or access to information—everybody—when they come together, they're able to sort of move the needle and change the story and change the narrative and change what materially happens on the ground. 


Adwoa Adusei Those St. Tammany Library board meetings have settled into what one reporter for the Louisiana Illuminator described as “chaotic regularity.” At one meeting this past summer, a library supporter distributed bingo cards with common occurrences during meetings. There were squares for someone calling a children’s book “pornography,” another for hecklers, and another for a police removing an attendee.  

Virginia Marshall So now, in addition to the new book challenges and book reviews that happen at library board meetings, library supporters occasionally call out “BINGO” when their boards are full. It’s a much-needed moment of humor in what is a pretty tense environment.    

Emily Drabinski We always have to remember when we're having these conversations that this is a very tiny minority of people. The vast majority of people want a kid to read a book. 

[Theme music]

Adwoa Adusei Our call to action for this episode is to find those other people in your community who just want kids to read books. Get together with them and see how you can support your library.

Virginia Marshall You can check out EveryLibrary Institute at Every Library [dot] org to learn more about how they're helping communities advocate for their libraries and the freedom to read.

Adwoa Adusei Borrowed and Banned is a production of Brooklyn Public Library and receives support from the Metropolitan New York Library Council’s Equity in Action Grant. This episode was written by Virginia Marshall, with help from Ali Post. It was hosted by me and Virginia.

Virginia Marshall We received editorial support from Goat Rodeo. Our Borrowed team includes Ali Post, Fritzi Bodenheimer, Robin Lester Kenton and Damaris Olivo. Ashley Gill and Jennifer Proffit run our social media. Lauren Rochford helps with the emails. John Snowden designed our logo. The Books Unbanned team at BPL includes Summer Boismier, Jackson Gomes, Nick Higgins, Leigh Hurwitz, Karen Keys, and Amy Mikel. 

Borrowed and Banned is a production of Brooklyn Public Library and receives support from the Metropolitan New York Library Council’s Equity in Action Grant and Goat Rodeo.