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The fine print of Illinois' ban on book bans


Gov. JB Pritzker signed a measure that will withhold state funds from libraries that ban books. The move sparked a lot of questions.

Illinois this week became the first state in the country to make it more difficult for public and school libraries to ban books.

Gov. JB Pritzker on Monday signed a bill that makes libraries ineligible for certain state grant funding if they don’t adopt the American Library Association’s Bill of Rights, or similar language, that says books shall not be removed from circulation because of personal, political or religious reasons.

Proponents of book bans say they’re trying to protect children from ideas they don’t consider age appropriate or find otherwise objectionable, with some conservatives saying funding shortages could cause libraries to close unless they stock pornography targeting children.

But supporters of the law, like Secretary of State Alexi Giannoulias, say book bans “[defy] what education is all about: teaching our children to think for themselves.”

Here are some answers to common questions surrounding the new law, which takes effect Jan. 1, 2024.

Does the new law defund libraries unless they stock pornography?

Much of the pornography controversy comes from a national backlash against Gender Queer, a memoir from Maia Kobabe about growing up gender fluid and the associated struggles. The book has been banned in more than 100 school districts across more than 30 states. Gender Queer includes depictions of sexting, masturbation and drawings of sexual encounters, all of which book ban proponents deem pornography. Supporters of Gender Queer contend access to the book, and others featuring similar topics, in middle or high school can help students with gender identity struggles.

The new law does not mention pornography, and instead directs libraries to follow the American Library Association’s Library Bill of Rights, which also does not define pornography.

How do libraries currently decide what to stock?

Libraries are constantly assessing what to add and remove from their collections based on the individual policies they craft. The library’s board of trustees reviews the policy every one to three years in most cases. Library staff decide what to add based on reviews from journals, other librarians and sometimes local patrons who make requests, among other considerations.

Going forward, what will the process be to remove and ban materials?

“When a book is placed in a library, it doesn’t stay there forever,” said Cynthia Robinson, executive director of the Illinois Library Association. “There’s a process called ‘weeding.’ ”Librarians are “weeding” collections when they assess, for example, whether a title has been checked out in the last five years or whether the information contained within is still accurate. That process will continue, and it’s conceivable that works some find offensive could be weeded out this way. The difference under the new law is libraries cannot remove items because of political or religious disagreements if they want to maintain access to state grant funding.

What funding would libraries lose if they run afoul of the law?

The Illinois Secretary of State’s Office oversees a number of grant programs. Spokesperson Henry Haupt said libraries that disobey the law will be ineligible for most grants, except the ones that provide radio information services for blind and physically handicapped patrons and adult literacy grants. Federal money and local tax revenue libraries receive are unaffected.

What libraries are impacted?

Public libraries and school libraries that receive Secretary of State grant funding are covered under this law.

Have there been many attempts to ban books in Illinois?

There were 67 attempts to ban books in Illinois in 2022, according to the American Library Association. Nationwide there were more than 2,500 attempts.

Why is Illinois doing this now?

The American Library Association says 2,571 unique titles were challenged in 2022 — the most it’s ever recorded. That increased from just 223 titles in 2020 which, despite the pandemic, was a fairly average year based on data going back to 2000.

The ALA blames the increase on a “growing, well-organized, conservative political movement, the goals of which include removing books about race, history, gender identity, sexuality, and reproductive health from America’s public and school libraries that do not meet their approval.”

Illinois’ ban on book bans is the latest in a long line of progressive stances the state has taken in recent years as it continues to strengthen its reputation as a Democratic Midwestern stronghold. The state has also bolstered abortion protections, passed a law eliminating cash bail, another banning assault weapons and expanded a program providing health care for undocumented immigrants to those 42 and older.

Alex Degman is an Illinois statehouse reporter for WBEZ. Email him: adegman@wbez.org

Alex Degman is a Statehouse reporter with WBEZ.