Protect access to books and ideas at libraries facing threats of violence

It’s a dangerous moment for a society when the very places that should be sources of ideas and community are held hostage by nameless individuals.

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The main branch of the Oak Park Public Library.

The main branch of the Oak Park Public Library.

Robert K. Elder/Sun-Times Media

In the turbulent Vietnam War era, some college campus buildings were temporarily closed because anonymous callers said they had planted bombs, though often it turned out they hadn’t. College educations suffered.

Now public libraries around the Chicago area and the nation — already beset by demands to remove books from their collections — are shutting their doors to give police time to search for bombs that anonymous messages say were planted. Although the closures haven’t lasted long, it’s a dangerous moment for a society when the very buildings that should be places of ideas and community are held hostage by a nameless individual or individuals who want to undermine the ideals for which libraries stand.

Libraries are venues in which to discover new ideas, going beyond what is taught in schools and acting as the people’s universities for those seeking a lifelong education. The traditional image of a library as a building in which silence should reign belies its true role as an access point for free speech and fresh concepts that can be both eye-opening and controversial.

Editorial

Editorial

Earlier this month, the Oak Park Public Library faced a warning its three buildings would be blown up. Similar threats targeted libraries in Morton Grove and Gurnee, and also Wilmette and Park Ridge, which both received more than one. The Vernon Area Public Library in Lincolnshire received a bomb threat on Tuesday. Libraries in Glenview and Glencoe closed temporarily for safety reasons, even though they did not receive direct threats. In each case, the buildings were reopened after police searches.

Elsewhere, a Yolo County library building in Davis, California, was evacuated briefly on Monday after a bomb threat. In all, that library received three bomb threats. The Iowa City Public Library was evacuated Tuesday afternoon after receiving a bomb threat. Tulsa, Oklahoma, elementary schools were targeted with bomb threats four times over the past week in an apparent dispute over book bans, one of numerous bomb threats in the Tulsa area.

Ironically, the late author Ray Bradbury — who wrote, “Without libraries what have we? We have no past and no future” — was born in Waukegan, less than five miles from the Warren-Newport Public Library, which also was the target of a recent bomb threat, sent via email.

After investigating, police said the suburban threats were “not credible.” But that misses the point. The intended damage was done.

To deter such threats in the future, investigations must continue until the person or persons who made the threats are tracked down and called to account, just as a Maryland man was arrested in March for allegedly spray painting “Groomer” on two libraries.

Threats of violence put library board members and staff in a difficult position. In the Vietnam War era, most threats to blow up campus buildings were “not credible.” But in 1970, a building was blown up at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, killing a postdoctoral researcher. Library buildings are vulnerable, built to be open and welcoming without such onerous security measures as checking backpacks and putting metal detectors at entrances.

Librarians have had a rough go of it in this century. The 2001 Patriot Act threatened librarians with sanctions if they disclosed federal agents had accessed the library records of patrons.

Now, some groups want to ban books, and in some states, laws are being passed that threaten libraries and librarians who don’t comply. Both the Illinois Library Association and the American Library Association say efforts to ban certain library books are at an all-time high.

Some politicians and people on social media have called librarians pedophiles. Some librarians have quit or have been fired for refusing to remove books.

Suzy Wulf, assistant director at the Prospect Heights Public Library, told us many librarians are stunned by the new antagonism because for so long libraries have been trusted and revered institutions.

“Libraries have always provided information on both sides,” Wulf said. “We have to have all of the information out there.”

Opinion Newsletter

At a moment like this, people who value libraries must vocally support them and push back against those who would hobble communities’ centers of intellectual exploration. Ed Yohnka of the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois suggests attending library board meetings to show support. As the Illinois Library Association said in a statement, “Libraries are rightfully considered the cornerstones of democracy and freedom of speech.”

Americans are fortunate to have libraries dedicated to the free flow of ideas and information. But they live in a time when they need to stand tall to protect those resources.

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