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Amid Book Bans, This Bay Area Librarian Is Focusing on Book Joy

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A person holds up a tote bag that reads "Raised by libraries" and smiles at the camera.
A photo from Mychal Threets's Instagram account posted for National Library Week on April 23, 2023. (Photo via Instagram)

Many librarians like Mychal Threets have rallied together in support of book freedom, as school districts and state legislatures across the country have attempted to establish book bans of themes related to race and gender.

“Books must be accessible. Books are joy,” said Threets, who works at the Fairfield Civic Center branch in Solano County, in a social media video amplified by Gov. Gavin Newsom’s office recently. “Students deserve to see themselves represented on school bookshelves, on library bookshelves, to see their friends, families and classmates represented.”

https://www.instagram.com/reel/CxtbM38Sure/?utm_source=ig_web_copy_link&igshid=MzRlODBiNWFlZA==

Last week, Newsom signed a bill into law that will block school boards from banning certain textbooks for trying to be inclusive of race and LGBTQ topics. The proposal is meant in part to address situations like one over the summer when the Temecula Valley Unified School District’s school board rejected a social studies curriculum for elementary students that addressed Harvey Milk — who became the first openly gay man elected to public office in California on San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors.

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“This banning binge, this cultural purge that we’re experiencing all throughout America and increasingly here in the state of California where we have school districts large and small, banning books, banning free speech, criminalizing librarians and teachers, and we want to do more than just push back rhetorically,” Newsom said in the bill signing posted on social media.

The politics have been in the spotlight just as libraries around the country mark the annual Banned Books Week campaign, which runs Oct. 1–7 and highlights the historical and current efforts to censor books.

The American Library Association has been tracking attempted book bans for over 20 years, and its Office of Intellectual Freedom recorded nearly 1,270 attempted book bans last year — the highest number since the ALA began compiling this kind of data.

For librarians, like Threets, who are caught in the middle of divisive politics, they see their mission just as vital now. He talked about all this and what libraries have meant to him with KQED’s Brian Watt.

Here’s an excerpt of their interview which has been edited for brevity and clarity.

BRIAN WATT: You have taken your love of books and the library online. You have a huge social media following with over half a million followers combined across Instagram and Tik Tok. What made you want to do this?

MYCHAL THREETS: When I first started posting those videos, I was hoping for a thousand views. I think the first one that went “viral” was about a library kid coming up to me at the children’s desk. They said, “Is it … is it a boy librarian or is it a girl librarian?”

https://www.instagram.com/reel/Cqo3bETAXot/

You could just see, the mom’s eyes widened. I said, “I’m a boy librarian.” And that story just shook up my heart, shook up my soul. I was like, “That was a funny, honest encounter; let me share it with the world. Maybe a thousand people will see it.” It took off. Millions of people saw it. From then on, I started sharing more stories on a weekly basis.

You work at the same library that you grew up going to. What does it mean to see families coming in and asking for the same books that you once asked for as a kid?

I was a very shy kid, stricken by anxiety. I’m not as shy as an adult, but I’m still crippled by anxiety and other mental health things. Books and libraries, ever since I can remember, have been my first friends. They’ve been the way that I’ve made friends [and] connections. I feel like when I get around books, get around libraries, I become a whole different person. They just bring out whatever light is inside of me. Those books and libraries have the power to pull it out.

Like you said, I got my first library card at the Fairfield Civic Center Library when I was 5 years old. That’s where I got my first library job. It’s where I’m now the supervisor. So to be able to see kids come in and ask for books by Louis Sachar and Beverly Cleary, or they want to check out Encyclopedia Brown, it’s like a dream come true. It’s a full circle moment for me.

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Let’s talk about the politics. Politicians in the U.S. arguing for banning books is nothing new. That’s been happening for decades now, but this issue has heated up in the last couple of years. So I’m curious to know what you’ve been making of this from where you stand as a librarian.

From my perspective, as a librarian, what you just asked is just so difficult. So books should not be something that is political. I always go on and on about the joy of books. We should just be talking about putting as many books as possible in the arms, in the backpacks and on the house shelves.

How has this manifested in your library branch? This uptick in the tension in the issue of banning books.

It’s rare for my library system. Solano County is one of the most diverse counties in the United States, but we still have issues there. A couple of years ago, we did a Banned Books Month celebration instead of Ban Books Week, where we were encouraging people to exercise their freedom to read. And that meant that we put the banned books on display in the library front and center. Many of the themes of banned books are people of color, LGBTQIA+ themes, and those are all things that people simply are. And more often than not, we just got words of encouragement. But there were still instances where you could see people shake their head and say under their breath, “Not one of those books I know. I don’t know if the kids should be reading those books.”

So for me, fellow like-minded library workers, we’re all just trying to do what we can to ensure that kids, teens, grownups, everybody continues to have access to all the beautiful books that are being created.

People are people of color, they are LGBTQ+, and there’s nothing wrong with that. And when I hear books being banned, books being challenged, that is what you’re essentially telling kids, telling teens that there’s something wrong with what they’re reading about, especially in an age where in the last three or four years, libraries, schools have seen an uptick of authors of color, illustrators of color.

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