Note: Library Director Holly Albanese and a “mystery guest” will lead a conversation on George Orwell’s 1984 in the first annual Banned Books Discussion at 1 p.m. Saturday (Sept. 24) at the Flagler County Public Library, 2500 Palm Coast Pkwy NW, Palm Coast.
At the Flagler County Public Library, books banned or restricted elsewhere, including in Flagler schools, have a home. They’re prized, celebrated, circulated and talked about.
The library, under the directorship of Holly Albanese and Youth Services Librarian Gemma Rose, has been not just an oasis for readers interested in any of the more than 1,600 book titles banned in other libraries and school districts over the past year. It’s become a quiet hub of bold counter-banning that would make Winston Smith (the hero of Orwell’s 1984) very proud.
As Flagler County was making national news last year after a school board member filed a criminal complaint against the school superintendent, demanding that books she deemed “pornographic” be pulled from shelves and banned, Rose was thinking up ways and means to counteract “what feels like a lot of repression, not a lot of open discussion within our school system.”
She stood with students protesting the book bans last November at the Government Services Building, before a school board meeting, distributing pins and reminding them: “Your library is there for you.” She witnessed the vile obscenities students were subjected to as they stood they ground. “They spoke so eloquently and so passionately about the books that were being challenged at the time, I loved being there,” Rose recalled. But she wanted to do something more direct that just provide a safe space. (See: “Potential Book Ban in Schools Galvanizes 2 Sides in Day of Highs and Lows as Sheriff Recoils at Criminal Complaint”.)
The 14-year veteran librarian thought of launching a book club for high school students who want to read banned or challenged books. She presented the idea to Albanese, who unhesitatingly green-lighted it. “Show me a library that doesn’t offend anyone and you’re going to have empty shelves,” Albanese tells her staff.
The monthly Freedom Readers club was born, holding its first session this week after reading the first of late John Lewis’s graphic novel trilogy March. “It was a huge success,” Rose said. “We just had such a good outpour of public support,” and a very diverse corps of participants, each of whom got copy of the book–bought for them by an anonymous donor who is supportive of the program. “We have an amazing book club with people who want to participate, who want to challenge ideas.”
Participants have to be at least high school students, ages 15 to 18, and they have to have a permission slip from home allowing them to take part. Parents can also participate in the discussion group. (No such permission slip is required for merely borrowing books from the library, as long as the borrower has a library card. Unlike the school district, the library does not give parents the option of forbidding their children from borrowing certain titles. The option they have is to withhold their child’s library card.)
The librarians braced for a backlash. There was none. There was just one uncomfortably “intimidating” phone call Rose said she fielded from someone with a blocked number. The person wanted to know who Rose was, why she was coordinating the Freedom Readers. But te person “couldn’t really find a flaw in what we are doing, because we are protected under the American Library association Bill of Rights to provide information,” Rose said. “One person isn’t going to ruin it for the rest.”
Rose has been the subject of intimidation, has witnessed aggression against free speech, as she did at the GSB last fall, and witnessed violence against her own colleague when she had just started work at the City Island library in Daytona Beach a year ago. A 55-year-old man who had already been convicted of aggravated assault a decade earlier attacked a 63-year-old librarian with scissors after greeting her. She was a few days from retirement. She survived, but lost vision in one eye. Libraries, in sum, have been contending with their own front-lines in an era of social and cultural disruptions.
Albanese–the recipient this month of a “Member of the Year” award from a 24-county library cooperative in Florida–is keeping an eye out for the interpretation of Gov. Ron DeSantis’s “Stop Woke Act,” which muzzles race-based conversations in business and educational settings. Four lawsuits have so far been filed challenging the act. A federal district court ruled it unconstitutional in parts, but has not issued a stay, pending appeals. “It’s going to be hard to have that discussion if we could be in potential violation of a law, so we’re really not sure where we stand on that,” Albanese said. “I’ll have to have a discussion with the county attorney. But in the meantime we’re moving forward with the program.” (County Attorney Al Hadeed, a bibliophile, has on occasions appeared at the library as part of its lecture series.)
Freedom Readers is just one of the emerging ways the library is responding to an unprecedented surge in book bans. Banned Book Week began on Sept. 18. Every year the library has marked the occasion with a display illustrating the ironies and absurdities of book-banning. This year it is showing a free movie every week to mark the occasion all month: “Black Hawk Down” (2001), “The Great Gatsby” (the 2013 version), “The Color Purple” (1985), “1984” (1984).
And on Saturday, Albanese and an allegedly “mystery guest,” as she’s dubbed him in social media posts, will be hosting the first annual Banned Book Week discussion, open to all ages. The book: 1984. (Hint: the guest was a local newspaper editor until more proletarian demands snapped him up recently)
The last school year was the bleakest on record for book bans and book challenges across the country, including in Flagler County, which was one of 138 school districts in 32 states that banned at least one book, according to PEN America’s Index of School Book Bans issued this week. From July 2021 to June 2022, there were “2,532 instances of individual books being banned, affecting 1,648 unique book titles.” Of those, 41 percent of the titles explicitly address LGBTQ+ themes or have protagonists or prominent secondary characters who are LGBTQ+ and 40 percent contain protagonists or prominent secondary characters of color.
In Flagler, Jill Woolbright, the school board member who was defeated in last August’s primary after she spoke of being engaged in “satanic warfare” against her colleagues and district staff, wanted four books banned from school library shelves: The Hate You Give, All Boys Aren’t Blue, Speak, and Stamped: Racism, Antiracism and You. She succeeded with one of them: All Boys Aren’t Blue remains off library shelves, though it is available at the public library.
Speak, the Laurie Halse Anderson novel about a high school freshman who stops speaking after she is raped at a party, was also the subject of a potential ban in Indian River schools in Florida, and was banned at districts in Oklahoma and Mississippi. It is the Freedom Readers’ club’s next title.
“As a library professional you dream of having these amazing programs but you always worry about the backlash from the public,” Rose said. “In this case it was a major success.”
To participate in the Freedom Readers club, call 386-446-6763 ext. 3714.