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Developing Digital Detectives: Rethinking Banned Books Week


Developing Digital Detectives

In the introduction to Kristin Pekoll's Beyond Banned Books: Defending Intellectual Freedom throughout Your Library, Martin Garnar writes, "When we talk about censorship with people who don't work in libraries, it's pretty clear that Banned Books Week has turned into one of our profession's most successful marketing campaigns" (2019). If awareness is the measure we're using to judge success, then I have to agree. What's more, I would argue that Garnar's assertion applies equally, if not more so, to library folx, too. After all, each September, library workers, en masse, break out their "I Read Banned Books" t-shirts and yellow caution tape to create displays featuring challenged books. And, while I understand and respect the goal of drawing attention to growing attempts to restrict reader access to certain books and resources, especially those that mirror the lived experiences of historically marginalized people, let's look at Banned Books Week through another lens.

In 1953, the ALA asserted the rights of readers in the face of McCarthy-era censorship. In 2021, ALA reaffirmed that position, decrying an uptick in "campaigns demanding the censorship of books and resources that mirror the lives of those who are gay, queer, or transgender, or that tell the stories of persons who are Black, Indigenous or persons of color. Falsely claiming that these works are subversive, immoral, or worse, these [pro-censorship] groups induce elected and non-elected officials to abandon constitutional principles, ignore the rule of law, and disregard individual rights to promote government censorship of library collections" (2021).

The timing was not coincidental. In 2021, ALA's Office of Intellectual Freedom (OIF) documented 729 challenges to books/resources at public schools and libraries, the highest number ever recorded (Yorio 2022). Few examples of this type of organized censorship are more well-known than the list of 850 books identified by Texas state representative, Matt Kraus, which have since been removed from many districts across the Lonestar state - some without district materials challenge policies being applied (Chappel 2021). However, similar campaigns have also taken place in other states across the country, with librarians being targeted as "pornographers" and "groomers" for doing what they have always done: creating inclusive collections in which all readers can feel represented (Czopek 2022). In this context, (and especially if we remember that the vast majority of book challenges go unreported), the success of Banned Books Week seems less certain. If the true measure of success is how this work affects our communities' views of intellectual freedom and their support of libraries, then it's clear that all that yellow caution tape has been for naught.

With that in mind, I think it's time to transform our "most popular marketing campaign" into one that focuses less on books and more on the mis-, dis-, and mal- information that fuel today's growing censorship efforts. Here are some tips to help you get started on this teachable moment:

1. Teach kids to recognize how emotional triggers in information are used to spread harmful content.

One of the reasons efforts to remove books from library shelves have been so successful has to do with the way these campaigns are tied to emotions. There's a reason terms like "pornography" and "grooming" are being used in campaigns to limit/eliminate book access: these words trigger strong, largely negative emotions. And, emotions are an incredibly powerful driver of behavior. When we connect with information that triggers an extreme emotion like fear, anger, or outrage, our immediate urge is to react in a way that helps us express that emotion. This often includes passing on the information (and our feelings about it) to others who then do the same. Too often, this happens without fact-checking.

Once emotion is in the driver's seat, all our knowledge about how to evaluate content flies out the window. This is why harmful content spreads faster and further online than content that doesn't carry the same emotional weight (Meyer 2018). Creators and spreaders of disinformation count on this reaction.

Banned Books Week offers us an opportunity to help kids see this phenomenon in action. The extreme and inflammatory language used in much of the messaging around censorship efforts provides us an opportunity to help kids uncover the connection between emotional triggers and disinformation. From there, we can further help them develop strategies for pressing pause (instead of like, share, comment, or follow) when they find themselves triggered by potentially harmful content online.

2. Teach kids how to debate controversial/complex topics in ways that are healthy and productive.

The Internet is replete with videos from charged school board meetings featuring angry adults shouting at each other about what is best for children. While I don't recommend showing these to students, I do think they are a glaring example of how debating emotionally charged topics is hard. Such conversations can quickly devolve into shouting matches if we are not intentional about the language we use.

When we arm kids with specific language to help them navigate tricky conversations, we are also giving them tools to recognize when content online is rooted in personal attacks rather than in objective facts about an issue, policy, or event. In our 2018 book Fact vs Fiction: Teaching Critical Thinking Skills in the Age of Fake News, Darren Hudgins and I shared a tool for helping learning develop the necessary language to challenge an idea without diminishing a person. Here is an updated version of our thinking from that time.

Replace This Language…


"You are wrong."

"I've seen some evidence that contradicts what you're saying. Let me share that with you…."

"I don't believe you."

"Can you show me the information that helped you form this opinion? I'd like to learn more."

"All people who believe that are ____"

"We may not agree on this issue, but that doesn't mean we can't still be friends."

"If you believe _____, then you are not a real/good _____."

"I respect your right to disagree with me."

"Everything from that source is propaganda."

"Every source makes mistakes sometimes, but I've found disinformation from that source before. That's why fact checking is important."

"That's 'fake news.'"

"That raises some red flags for me. Let me tell you what makes me suspicious."

3. Teach kids the difference between mis-, dis-, and mal- information AND how each has been used to fuel efforts to reduce or eliminate access to books and resources.

Although terms like mis-, dis-, and mal- information are often used interchangeably online, they are different. And, more importantly, their differences lie in the motivations of those who share/spread each. Banned Books Week provides us with a unique opportunity to discuss those differences in a context that affects our readers. Let me show you what I mean.

Disinformation is when a person intentionally creates false content to cause harm and influence others. Here's an example: In order to gain political points, a politician tweets a statement accusing school librarians of stocking pornography for the purpose of grooming children. The politician knows this is not true but cares more about their own objectives than about the harm their statement will cause. That's disinformation.

Mal-information is when a person takes something that is true but alters or changes its context to cause harm and influence others. For example: a person grabs a photo of a high school library's pride display and uses it to create a meme that reads "New 4th Grade Required Reading List!" In this example the book display is real (and awesome!) but has been taken out of context to convey the false message that elementary school children are being forced to read books written for young adults. The person who created it knows it is false and intentionally manipulated true information to cause harm. That's mal-information.

Which leads us to misinformation. Misinformation is when someone unintentionally spreads false information. Here's an example: your neighbor who cares very deeply about children sees the tweet from the politician in the example above and is alarmed. Shortly after, the example meme above appears in their timeline. With only good intentions, your neighbor then shared both, believing them to be real. Their posts will cause harm, because they amplify dis- and mal- information, but because that harm is unintentional, it's misinformation.

All three types of harmful content are poisonous and dangerous. And all three are fueling the current rise in book challenges. Banned Books Week is the perfect time to use this vocabulary as a way to help learners understand the motivations of those who deign to deceive.

Book challenges are not new. Parental concern about the materials their children access is both normal and an important part of building a healthy learning environment. However, nothing about recent efforts to remove large quantities of books (largely featuring the stories and experiences of historically marginalized people) from library collections is normal or healthy. Fueled by the country's increasingly polarized political environment and amplified by social media, where mis-, dis-, and mal- information run rampant, these campaigns require more to combat them than a few book displays and banners . Banned Books Week still matters, but only if we change the goal of our most popular marketing campaigns from one of educating our communities about book censorship to one of empowering them to do something about it.

Works Cited

"ALA Statement on Book Censorship." ALA, November 21, 2021.

Chappell, Bill. "A Texas Lawmaker Is Targeting 850 Books that He Says Could Make Students Feel Uneasy. NPR (October 28, 2021).

Czopek, Madison. "Why It's Not 'Grooming': What Research Says about Gender and Sexuality in Schools." Politifact (May 11, 2022).

Meyer, Robinson. "The Grim Conclusions of the Largest-Ever Study of Fake News." Atlantic (March 8, 2018).

Pekoll, Kristin. Beyond Banned Books: Defending Intellectual Freedom throughout Your Library. American Library Association, 2019.

Yorio, Kara. "OIF Director: Top 10 Most Challenged List Shows Effort to Remove Marginalized Voices from Library Shelves." School Library Journal (April 4, 2022).

About the Author

Jennifer LaGarde is a lifelong teacher and learner with over 20 years in public education. Her educational passions include leveraging technology to help students develop authentic reading lives, meeting the unique needs of students living in poverty and helping learners (of all ages) discern fact from fiction in the information they consume. Jennifer is the coauthor of the books Fact VS Fiction: Teaching Critical Thinking In the Age of Fake News (ISTE, 2018) and Developing Digital Detectives (ISTE, 2021) with Darren Hudgins. A huge fan of YA Literature, Jennifer currently lives, works, reads and drinks lots of coffee in Olympia, Washington. Follow her adventures at or on Twitter @jenniferlagarde.

MLA Citation

LaGarde, Jennifer. "Developing Digital Detectives: Rethinking Banned Books Week." School Library Connection, July 2022,

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Entry ID: 2284998