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Voices Unbanned: A Q&A on Books & Bias

Photo of a woman wearing a striped shirt and pearl necklace next to photo of woman working with young child in library

Left: Emily Auerswald ’93 Right: Samantha Tulungen ’10

  • Alumni
Voices Unbanned: A Q&A on Books & Bias
Ellen Ryan

Book Ban Efforts Spread Across the U.S.2022 New York Times headline

According to the American Library Association (ALA), reported challenges of books increased by 38 percent from 2021 to 2022. Libraries have seen a shift from parents challenging single titles to political advocacy groups challenging multiple books at once. The ALA reports that nearly 51 percent of the demands to censor books targeted schools and school libraries alone, focusing not only on books, but also on programs, displays, and other materials in these K-12 educational institutions.

Emily Auerswald ’93 serves as the Upper School Librarian at Greenwich Country Day School in Greenwich, CT. She earned her master’s in 2001. In addition to working at Greenwich, Auerswald has experience at Indian Creek School and Gilman School, among others. She notes that she especially likes reading mysteries.

Samantha Tulungen ’10 serves as a Youth Services Librarian at the Community Libraries of Providence, RI. There, she was named staff person of the year for 2021 as acting lead/supervisor of her location during the Covid-19 reopening. Tulungen earned her master’s in library science in 2018.

These two Tabor graduates, from both public and private library settings, share their experiences with libraries, book banning, and challenges from their respective communities and beyond.

How did you get your start in the field of library sciences? What made you want to be a librarian?
I kind of fell into the field; I had always enjoyed reading and books in general, so getting a job in the library while in college just made sense. I worked in the same office for years and that gave me solid insight into the field.
Tulungen: I worked at the circulation desk in my college library as part of my work-study and as a camp counselor in the summers. After graduating from the College of Wooster, I ended up back on Tabor’s campus as a nanny for the Millette family! The Millette girls, Andie and Reagan, and I spent endless hours at the Marion Public Library, and my time with them inspired me to consider how I might combine working with children and my past library work experience into a career.

How did Tabor play a role in preparing you for this role?
I was a Library Proctor while at Tabor!
Tulungen: Before I was a student at Tabor, I grew up on the campus since my parents were on the faculty forever—thirty plus years, I think. From birth, Tabor taught me what it meant to be a part of a community—how to live with others, how to share space with people who I might have different views and experience from. As a public librarian, I have again found a community to call my own. There are very few free community-centered spaces left in America. If you haven’t been to a library in a while and are missing that community feeling you had from being part of something larger than yourself, I encourage you to pop into your local library! I know you’d be a welcome addition.

What are your personal motivations for working in this field?
An avid reader myself, I have always hoped to inspire a love of reading in others—whether one agrees with the subject matter or not. Additionally, I just plain enjoy learning new “stuff.” By working with students and faculty in a variety of subjects, I have the opportunity to not only help them sort through the information available but learn something myself as well!

My path [to this career] has been fairly straightforward. After working in an academic college library for a couple of years, I realized that I would rather have a broader role, which would be possible at a smaller institution. I have always loved working with kids, and immediately thought of looking to independent schools, which I was familiar with from my own schooling. I made a couple of job moves that allowed me to head a school library in fairly short order, and that is the basic position that I have stayed in since.
Tulungen: Working as a public youth services librarian, I see firsthand the way that books impact their readers. I’ve had a kid proudly hand me What’s the T by Juno Dawson, and tell me “Ms. Sammi, I have a new name!” with a bigger smile than I have ever seen on their face. Or a group of young Black girls squealing with delight over Matthew Cherry’s Hair Love, exclaiming, “Our hair looks like this and it’s BEAUTIFUL,” comparing their beads and braids to the pages. And a mother and son reading Where’s Halmoni? by Julie Kim and being inspired to practice Hangul, the Korean alphabet, to send notes to grandma. Every day, at libraries across the United States, there are moments like this. Freedom to read keeps our world just, it keeps us kind, empathetic and learning. How could you not want to be involved?

Book bans and similar challenges in America are rising sharply. What’s the talk among librarians?
Auerswald: It’s very scary. I’m in a consortium of independent school librarians that’s set to meet in Florida next spring. Many are not comfortable attending there. I know people and their families who have been threatened because of their stand on books.
Tulungen: We talk about freedom to read being analogous to freedom of speech and how neither should be limited. The American Library Association has a map showing attempts to restrict library books in the United States. Just about every state is going through it.

Have you experienced a challenge to books or other material in your own library?
Tulungen: Nothing organized. Sometimes we get calls saying, “You shouldn’t have this title on your bookshelves.” The response is, “Have you read it? Do you intend to bring it home? If not, don’t bring it home.”
Auerswald: In our library’s plan, which includes a challenge policy, that’s our first question, too. That and showing people how and why we select materials—it’s a thorough process—avoids a lot of problems. The school is very supportive of having something for everyone to read.

What themes do people want to keep away from teens and why?
Tulungen: Books with LGBTQ characters and themes, including picture books. Are gay penguins [in And Tango Makes Three by Peter Parnell and Justin Richardson] really dangerous for children? Many young-adult focused books, particularly graphic novels. Gender Queer[:A Memoir by Maia Kobabe] was targeted heavily because of the visuals in it, even though it lives in the adult section.
Auerswald: That and Black history, I’d say. This year Scholastic set aside a group of books on “sensitive topics” that educators would have to opt in to get. Librarians went bananas, and Scholastic backtracked. Kids of all colors, all sexual orientations, all backgrounds, should be able to see themselves in literature. It’s also beneficial for kids to see characters who look like the people around them. Studies show that people who read fiction develop higher levels of empathy.

What about materials touching on mental health or dysfunctional families?
Auerswald: These often tie in with other topics along the lines we’ve been talking about.
Tulungen: For example, queer authors of memoirs often get into these struggles growing up; we’ve seen that with Fun Home and its sequel by Alison Bechdel, though those graphic novels live in the adult section because their [themes] are pretty intense.

What are the greater dangers here—to education, multiculturalism, even democracy?
All of us need to be informed, to understand other points of view, and to get back to civil discourse. I worry about newspapers; generally, online, we are fed curated information, an echo chamber, rather than stumbling across stories we may not agree with but are worthwhile and useful.
Tulungen: So much of what I love about working in a public library is that the books on our shelves reflect the wider community. If you’re not willing to see that diversity in a picture book or on a cover, then how can you see it in your neighbor?

How do librarians, school leaders, historians, and First Amendment experts suggest making literature more accessible?
At Scholastic book fairs, make sure all their titles are there, and let your kids buy whatever speaks to them. If there’s a Little Free Library in your neighborhood, put diverse stories in it. Where Tabor Academy is located, you can support Tri-Town Against Racism, which is pushing for diverse books.
Auerswald: Talking about this among friends and family can be effective. For so long we’ve been fortunate to be able to say, you have the freedom to read anything you want. Now we have to step back and think, you know, we can’t take that for granted.