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.
G A says
I am so glad to read this!! Bravo!!
Don Appignani says
Finally! Flagler County doesn’t look like a bunch of Neanderthals.
It is nice to read something positive about our community.
My wife and I have been touring the NW United States recently and all the popular book stores (Powell’s City of Books in Portland, Books & Bears in Florence, OR and others) were celebrating Banned Books Week and they all heard about what happened in Flagler County.
Power to the Freedom Readers!
Jane E K says
Freedom Readers- yay!!!!
Stop stirring the pot and come talk with the concerned parents instead of calling it a book ban when in fact we are asking for age appropriate books in the school Library. Public library has not been touched by any of the concerned parents.
If you were at the school board meeting why didn’t you point out, that one of the School board member is is also a member of the LGBTQ community, spoke out against these types of books being in Public school libraries, in fact she mentioned she would not like her child to read or be exposed to these books.
You know who us concerned parents are, but not one time did you come and talk to us, instead you label us “Book banners” anti-gay, racist and it goes on.
While your writing your opinion your missing the unity we are expressing and the work we are doing in the community with “all” regardless of where they stand in the political realm. We are here to work on solutions, not causes issues instead help fix them.
Get on board and work on all the families and peoples concerns instead of writing your one sided opinions, we are here and with or without, the help of your reporting we will succeed because are are not going anywhere!!
Nick: The reason people do not want to join in your project is you are censoring for all people, which is not wanted. Joining in does not seem open minded during this particular time of fear and far right expressionism. One of the facts you must face is that kids are maturing faster today than when we were young. It’s a different time, we cannot, and do not want to, go backwards. It’s up to you to decide what your children will read, but it’s not up to you to decide what others should or shouldn’t read. I have a feeling that many of the wonderful books I read as a youth would have been gone had our parents, who were always involved in the PTA, starting questioning children’s librarians. I turned out okay, and much smarter and wiser for the exposure to talented minds. One book you should read is Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury. You might not be there, but you are opening the door.
Apparently, you have little faith in your kids. Our granddaughter, when she was 15, blew me away when I picked out a movie and she told me it was inappropriate for her at her age! I put it back. Kids are not stupid; believe in them to be able to decipher what they are exposed to. That is your job as a parent to ready them for the real world as healthy adults.
Why does everyone keep using the word “banned”? If the books are in public libraries then they aren’t banned. They are just “removed ” from school libraries. Politics at its finest!
Michael Cocchiola says
I read this article with renewed hope, even exhilaration, that some rational thinking has been restored to our community. We have lived under the dark cloud of Moms for Repression (excuse me, Liberty) and extremist Trumpers for so long it feels great to hope their anti-knowledge curse has begun to lift. And the good news… our students are leading the exorcism.
Congratulations and many thanks to Holly Albanese and Gemma Rose for your courage in defending the rights of our students to learn and grow.
Mike be respectful as I am always to you. Instead of miss labeling Moms for Liberty how about sitting down with me and Shanon get to know us. I believe we have more in common then not! Anytime you want to take that leap i am ready!
Michael Cocchiola says
Nick… I am sure that individual members of MFL may be “good people”. But watching their collective activities in this county, this state, and other states I consider MFL an anti-knowledge domestic terrorist group. They agitate and intimidate in order to ban books they don’t approve of, not only in schools but in libraries and book stores as well. They apply their own narrow-minded evangelical beliefs as a litmus test to all books, all parents, and all students. Their goal… ban books for everyone that they personally don’t want to read, or don’t want their children to read. This is what autocratic societies do, not democracies.
In one motion you proved “you can’t teach old dogs new tricks” hopefully one day your look psst labeling an entire group of people terrorist! You use this word too loosely. You think you would learn labeling a entire group “deplorable’s doesn’t work very well. Even though we do have differences in the way we think I still have faith in humanity!
I agree with you Mike.
Kudos to Ms. Albenese and her staff. I am curious as to whether the MFL have actually read these titles and whether they realize they are carrying on the McCarthy era of thought suppression and intimidation?
Stephen Smith says
Kudos to the Flagler Library staff. This is how freedom works for all.
Been There says
Rock on, Holly! Keep up the good fight.
Doesn’t matter if you remove the books from the school library. Calling out those books is just going to incite curious kids to download them. The district does provide tablets, correct?
Sam Hobbs says
I am a regular patron of this library, and they provide excellent service. I am proud that they are choosing to keep books on the shelves.
When I was growing up, both my school teachers (and our local librarians) encouraged my reading. AND never questioned what I wanted to read.
Once a librarian cautioned me that a particular book had long sentences and complicated subject matter and asked if I was certain I wanted to check it out. “Yes,” I replied, and that was the end of the questioning.
SO, BRAVO FOR THE FLAGLER COUNTY PUBLIC LIBRARY!