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It's Banned Books Week and Escambia County has a new library

Bellview library
Jennie McKeon
WUWF Public Media
Andria Brown and her 2-year-old daughter Jun'Klah inside the Bellview Library.

Banned Books Week begins Sept. 18, and according to the American Library Association, this year is on track to surpass last year’s record of challenged library materials.

But this week, access to reading materials expanded in Escambia County with the opening of the Bellview Library — the first in the county’s District 1.

The new library branch was about eight years in the making. When the doors opened to the public Friday afternoon, there were dozens of locals waiting at the door. Within minutes, most had stacks of books ready to check out.

The District 1 area has a mixed population of residents of just about every income level. Library Director Todd Humble says the space gives equity of access with about 10,000 books available. Not to mention movies and video games.

“This is not a ‘shush’ library,” he said. “You’re allowed to talk, you’re allowed to eat. We have large TV screens for video games, 3D printers, STEAM activities…we see this place as a second living room.”

It wasn’t necessarily planned that way, but the library opened just in time for Banned Books Week, which is Sept. 18-24.

Humble said all eight public libraries in the county recognize the week.

“If we don’t have a book to offend you, we aren’t doing our job,” said Humble. “Libraries are safe environments to share ideas and learn new things. We will not get rid of a book because someone doesn’t like it. Just pick a different book.”

Books are rarely challenged in the West Florida Public Library System, at least from Humble’s view. He said he’s received about three complaints about books in his seven years with WFPL.

Nationwide, the American Library Association documented 681 attempts to ban or restrict library resources and 1,651 unique titles were targeted between Jan. 1 and Aug. 31. In 2021, the ALA reported 729 attempts to censor library materials and 1,597 targeted books, which was the highest attempt of book bans in more than 20 years. This year is on track to exceed that record.

ALA President Lessa Kananiʻopua Pelayo-Lozada said the censorship attempts are focused on LGBTQ+, Black, and Indigenous communities.

“They’re silencing diverse ideas,” she said. “What those censorships are doing is picking away at the country's freedom of expression and perpetuating the divide between people.”

Pelayo-Lozada says the ALA closely tracks legislation nationwide that targets books and reading materials, which means the organization has been busy. In Florida, laws have been passed that give parents more control over the selection of reading and instructional materials and prohibit classroom discussion of sexual orientation or gender identity in certain grade levels.

At the center of many book challenges are the librarians. Some have even lost their jobs, said Pelayo-Lozada. The ALA even has a separate fund to help those who have experienced job loss.

Jennie McKeon
WUWF Public Media
Kaylen Bradberry inside the Bellview Library

Kaylen Bradberry, a youth services librarian at the Orange Beach Public Library, was at the Bellview Library opening. She said she’s noticed more of a “quiet censorship” where she works.

“Whether it’s the fear of the book becoming an issue, sometimes the books just disappear from the shelves,” she said. “But if it’s gone and it was a popular book, I’m just going to repurchase it. I’m not going to stop making a book available that kids want to read.”

Matching kids to book series and seeing them get hooked is her favorite part of the job. And she said the timing of this library’s opening is perfect.

“We provide access and you decide what books are right for you,” she added. “Opening this week shows that this is a space for everyone this is not a space for censorship this is a space for everyone in Bellview. I think it’s exactly what we need for this area.”

Inside the 12,000-square-foot Bellview Library Friday, it was a celebratory occasion.

Andria Brown has been patiently waiting for the library to open watching the building progress.

“I watched them build this from beginning to the end,” she said.

She felt the loss of a local library every time brought her four kids — ages 2 to 13 — to the Tryon Branch 20 minutes away. She brought her 2-year-old Jun’Klah to the opening. In the children’s section, she read her “Babies, Babies Everywhere.” Brown herself is a fan of romance novels from Black authors such as Sister Souljah.

“This is right up the street from my house so we’ll be here all the time,” she said.

Even in the digital age, libraries have seen the circulation of adult and children’s books increase since the 2000s, according to the Brookings Institution. For Board Member Robin Reshard, libraries are a place to fulfill dreams. She learned to love libraries from an elder cousin who was a janitor at the local library. They were an escape for her.

Jennie McKeon
WUWF Public Media
Robin Reshard and Dr. Laura Bryant

She said the timing of the library’s opening is “serendipitous.”

“It’s really important to recognize people have differences in thoughts and opinions and knowledge and libraries provide a way for all of that knowledge to be housed,” she said.

“I like vegetables and just because I don’t like a particular vegetable doesn’t mean I keep it from somebody else. I want everybody to be able to come to this garden, to this written garden, and explore all of the different vegetables, and if you don’t like a vegetable that someone else likes then just leave that vegetable alone. Let who soever will come and come with respect of what libraries do.”

Jennie joined WUWF in 2018 as digital content producer and reporter.