Interview with Sonnet Ireland, Former Louisiana Library Association (LLA) President and Current Director for the Washington Parish Library

Within the last couple years, a pervasive new threat to libraries has been infiltrating communities across America. Coordinated book challenge movements have been putting pressure on librarians and politicians to change the way school and public library materials are selected. While these groups often say that they support removing or restricting certain books because they may be harmful to children, many of the titles that have been challenged are about LGBTQ people or people of color. In Louisiana, the Attorney General, Jeff Landry, recently announced efforts to create a bill in collaboration with two Louisiana state legislators that may change the way librarians must select materials. Several libraries across the state have also faced local organized efforts to change library policies. Many of those same libraries have had community members rise up to support the library.

For this post, we sat down with former Louisiana Library Association (LLA) President and current Director for the Washington Parish Library, Sonnet Ireland, to discuss this trend. Ireland has been outspoken about book challenges and the chilling effect they may have on the freedom to read in the state of Louisiana. In this interview, Ireland offers words of advice for new librarians and ideas on how librarians and library leaders can respond to efforts to challenge materials

Book challenges have been happening across the country. Here in Louisiana, we are seeing a few different groups working in their communities and even across the state to challenge books and even change the law to fit their goals. Can you tell us about your experiences with book challenges in your library or community?

I haven’t had to deal with any book challenges at my library where I work, but in St. Tammany Parish, where I live, there have been a lot of challenges and efforts to defund the library under the guise of protecting children. I’m very lucky that I can be vocal about what’s going on because I’m no longer working for that system. I can respond to the challenges in a way that someone working for the library can’t because I’m answering back as a resident of the parish. As a library professional, I can share my expertise on how the library works and how books are selected.

It’s hard, but it’s really better if the library staff step back and let the community respond. Even when I respond as a resident people can say “oh, she’s one of those librarians.” It’s better if the response comes from regular people in the community. If I were still working for the St. Tammany Parish Library, I wouldn’t be able to answer back without worrying about threats to my safety or saying something that would get the library into more trouble. I feel bad for staff who want to respond but can’t. I also wrote letters to every political leader in every town—city council members, parish council members, state representatives, senators, and the governor.

As a former LLA president, have you heard from other libraries in Louisiana that are experiencing book challenges?

I’ve heard from the Lafayette Public Library when it was going on there. Because I’m a former LLA president, I periodically get contacted about it through social media. When I was LLA president, I would get tagged on Twitter when a book challenge was happening. Even as president, I didn’t have a lot of power. There was one instance in Livingston Parish when they had a board member trying to get money taken from the library’s savings. This was back in either 2020 or 2021. I was able to call and let him know that the money for technology. The Internet of 2002 is different from the Internet of 2022. The library needed that money for future technology upgrades. Also, the library isn’t just about books. People come to the library for help with FEMA forms, SNAP, and other things. Then book challenges started happening in Livingston from a group that was based in Lafayette. I do what I can. As past president, I can call and talk to people. I can explain to people how the library works based on what I know. I do it unofficially and not as part of LLA so I can’t get them in trouble.

What effect do you think the current wave of book challenges will have on librarianship as a profession? Do you see this as a momentary challenge or do you think there will be future repercussions?

I think it will be like a pendulum and things will die down again. We saw a lot of this in the 80s with the satanic scare. Hopefully, things will swing back to something reasonable. The groups trying to challenge books at the St. Tammany Parish Library are getting push back so they’re beginning to lose energy. Some were hot and heavy in the beginning because of misinformation about what the library was doing but have now lost interest because they’ve learned more about how the library operates.  

If someone said something like kids can walk out of the library with a penthouse magazine, you’d say “no, that’s not how the library works.” You’d tell them that libraries don’t collect that kind of material, how they have professional librarians that select materials, and that many of the items in the collection are suggested by the community. You’d tell them that for the items that are controversial, they are in the adult section and that a child would need a parent’s permission to check them out. You could also tell them that kids are not going to flip through 300 pages of text for a picture when they have a phone and the Internet.

The pushback has to come from the community not ALA. There’s only so much you can do as a librarian because they can say you’re one of them. You need ordinary people saying this isn’t right, this isn’t fair, this isn’t happening. Rapides Parish had a similar stunt a couple months back, and the LGBTQ community came out to protest. A new board member tried to change the collection policy and a newspaper found out. They are now looking to get rid of the board member and remove the police juror who appointed him.

This can be a very challenging time for new librarians or for those interested in librarianship as a career but are concerned about what’s happening in libraries right now. What advice would you give to someone looking to enter the profession at this time?

You have to be passionate about it. It’s a very exciting time to be a librarian. It’s a very worrisome time to be a librarian. We’re so important. I see this as something similar to what happened to journalists back in 2015/2016. To me, this is our time. It’s important to have librarians right now because who’s going to stand up against this? Who has the expertise? Who’s going to help people identify credible sources to counter the misinformation that’s being spread about libraries? We have to identify the misinformation and stand up for people’s right to read. These things come and go. If you want to be a librarian, you have to believe in the profession and be passionate. Otherwise, you’ll burn out quickly. You may still burn out even if you’re passionate.

You also need to keep calm and be neutral about it. I pride myself that patrons can’t figure out my politics most of the time. You should try not to let people get to you or divulge your personal feelings. Having that boundary keeps you safe. I’ve gotten bumper stickers for candidates for elections before but never used them because I didn’t want someone coming up to my car at night. You can stand up for what you believe while maintaining your safety.

On a similar note, do you have any advice for a new library leader? Someone who is managing their first branch, school library, department, or even library system? How can library leaders make an impact? What would you like to see more library leaders do?

The biggest impact a leader can have is to protect staff as much as possible. Staff may ask why is admin doing this or making that decision. You can talk to your staff about it. As a leader, there are so many laws we must adhere to. Like, a patron may legally have the right to record in a library. You can talk to your staff and say “it’s going to upset you and you’ll want to call the police, but don’t do it.” You can let staff take their nametags off if they’re uncomfortable or go into a staff only area. If a patron complains about someone recording then you can do more like telling that person they can’t record patrons and children. You can’t stop it, but you can keep your staff safe.

It’s easy to think this isn’t going to happen, but then you see it nearby and think “oh, I should have a plan.” Make sure your policies and procedures are up to date. Like, if I have to form a challenge committee, I can’t hide who is on the committee, but if I have the final word then I can turn the attention to me. Do your best to protect your staff.

Sonnet, our time is at an end. Is there anything else you would like to say on this topic that we haven’t covered so far? Any last words of wisdom?

I’m currently working on a presentation or paper on advocacy for libraries for stuff like this. I’m going to use Dungeons and Dragons to talk about how you can help and what you can do. Everyone thinks you have to stand up and give a name and talk, but there are things you can do based on your strengths. I’m great at talking off the cuff. Someone else might write things. You could also work to highlight the negative side of things. For example, you could try to challenge books or complain about books they wouldn’t want removed like children’s Bible stories. You could flood their Facebook accounts with comments or try spoofing by setting up two or three Facebook accounts so it’s harder to pull up their page.

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