Mass. librarians under attack amid record number of national complaints and challenges

“It's this national agenda that is now coming into Massachusetts and has been for the past year and a half or so."

Person reading "Gender Queer" behind a stack of books that have been the subject of complaints
These are some of the books that have been the subject of complaints from parents. Rick Bowmer/AP

Jocelyn Tavares, the director of Dighton Public Library, says “it’s been stressful” to be a librarian as of late. Her library recently came under attack for its recommended reading choices, which she says have bled into local politics. 

What started as a conversation in December about a book’s suitability for a young audience spiraled into a drawn-out feud over whether to use the town’s Community Preservation Act funds to restore the historic Smith Memorial Hall for library use. Meetings are upcoming for people to weigh in on the building’s future, but some funding has already been granted and construction is well underway.


Still, Tavares said she feels like the frustrations from some members of the community about book offerings are now “latched” to this issue of finding a suitable library space.

“You never want to harm your coworkers or your community,” she said, adding that, “that’s not why we get into being a librarian.”

She got into library work because she “thought it was the best way to help people,” Tavares said. In her role, she helps people find the information they seek, gives direction, assists with technology, and provides a social hub to others. 

A national problem

But the job has become more difficult – for librarians everywhere. The number of book challenges – or attempts to remove or restrict library materials – for libraries in Massachusetts quadrupled between 2021 and 2022, according to data from the American Libraries Association. This comes from self-reported data at school and public libraries.

In 2021, there were 10 challenges reported to ALA by member libraries in Massachusetts, and in 2022, there were 45 challenges on more than 30 books in the commonwealth, according to the ALA. The books that were challenged largely dealt with LGBT issues and BIPOC or other minority groups. 

The ALA added that most libraries do not report, so there were likely even more challenges last year.


Celeste Bruno, a spokesperson for the Massachusetts Library Association, said the local increase in challenges reflect attitudes nationwide. Across the country there were 1,858 unique challenges to books in 2021, and 2,571 in 2022, according to the ALA

Some of the most challenged books nationwide last year were “Gender Queer: A Memoir,” “All Boys Aren’t Blue: A Memoir-Manifesto,” and “The Bluest Eye,” the ALA says. All of these books were also challenged in Massachusetts.

Unlike in previous years, Bruno said she has seen efforts from organized groups, including Massachusetts Informed Parents, to challenge books at libraries. 

In a May Newsletter, the group urged parents to find out if “Let’s Talk About It: The Teen’s Guide to Sex, Relationships, and Being a Human” was in their child’s school library, and if so to make noise about it. They also provide a “Parental Advisory Book List.”

“Many MA school districts are adding books containing pornographic descriptions of sex acts, violence, drugs, drinking, transgenderism, and more to school library collections,” the group claims on its website.

“It’s this national agenda that is now coming into Massachusetts, and has been for the past year and a half or so,” Bruno said.

‘Where does the end come?’

A woman enters the Dighton Public Library in December, 2014. – Debee Tlumacki/The Boston Globe

At this point, Tavares said she can’t help but feel like everyone is just “waiting for their turn to be challenged.”


“We know that there are people in our communities that need the material that others don’t find suitable, and, I mean, once we draw that line of what’s suitable for one person … where does the end come?” she said.

Tavares said her library’s complaints never turned into formal challenges and were not included in the 45 reported by the ALA. However, even informal complaints require serious attention.

Clayton Cheever, director of Morril Memorial Library in Norwood, said librarians are well trained to both select books for library circulation, and handle complaints or challenges.

“We have to make sure that we’re being very deliberate in following our practices and finding materials that are authoritative,” he said, adding that libraries should avoid “practicing some kind of self-censorship because we’re afraid of what somebody’s going to think.”

Massachusetts libraries are required by state law to have collection policy guidelines, according to the Massachusetts Libraries Board of Library Commissioners.  

Parental rights

Bruno said many of the challenges and complaints libraries are facing — as with Dighton — revolve around parental rights.

“There’s a concern that the ‘wrong books’ are going to end up in the hands of children,” she said, adding that librarians are trained for their roles and go through a careful selection process when introducing new literature to their libraries. 

Cheever said it’s important to remember that librarians make themselves “experts” in the materials they offer, and they provide content they think is appropriate for consumption.


Jennifer Varney, president of the Massachusetts School Library Association, said the issue of parental control of reading materials is playing out at school libraries in particular. She said “things really kind of blew up” last year.

Given the subjective nature of many of the complaints, Varney said books may be reclassified for an older age group, but are rarely taken out of circulation.

“It’s not that we don’t want to respect parents’ wishes for their own children,” she said. “It’s just that we don’t think parents should be making those decisions for other people’s children.”

She said there are avenues parents can take — including restricting their students from viewing certain or all library materials — before issuing a challenge that will affect the entire library. Parents can also request to see the materials their child is getting from the library.

“We’re not hiding things from parents. We just want to make sure all of our students are seen in our collections,” she said, adding that the goal is not to remove materials from the collection that were specifically chosen and that may represent a student’s identity. “These are not off-the-cuff purchases.”

Under attack

Merril Memorial Library in Norwood in December 2016. – George Rizer/The Boston Globe

Despite this, Varney said some librarians — in schools or otherwise — have been attacked “viciously.” She said aggressive behavior toward librarians could result in a “silencing effect,” where a librarian might stop themselves from ordering a book out of fear of backlash.


Schools, she added, have less security than public libraries because they have different oversight. At a school, depending on how it operates, an administrator might be able to control the books in circulation. She said each school functions differently.

The books being challenged and the conversations happening, though, are similar throughout the libraries. Cheever, also a member of the a member of the State Library Association’s Intellectual Freedom and Social Responsibility Committee, said rather than doing away with books that incorporate marginalized communities, including LGBT individuals, libraries need to be doing more to include these groups. 

“We’re always working and helping people respond to those challenges,” he said. “But also, how do we make sure that we are not in any way doing something that takes away agency or that disempowers members of the communities?”

In addition to books, programs are also being brought into question. At Norwood, Cheever said there have been public protests about LGBT programming. He cited a 2021 drag queen story hour for kids, to which some community members voiced opposition.

‘Outpouring of support’

A number of community members counterprotested, Cheever said, resulting in an annual pride picnic. 

“We have seen such a great outpouring of support,” he said.

Tavares said in Dighton she’s seeing similar behavior, with some people becoming more active in their support of the library.

After all that’s happened, she said her skin is thicker. The events have also caused Tavares to make people more aware of library workers and what they do. 


For National Library Week, which was April 23 through April 29 this year, Tavares said Dighton library put in extra effort to inform the community about all that they do. They made social media posts for each day.

Bruno said the local community can make “such a huge difference.” 

“It’s important for people to know what’s happening and it’s happening in their community, and that libraries need their support,” she said.

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