I recently returned from the Illinois Library Association’s (ILA) Annual Conference. The conference was held in the Chicago area and was ILA’s first in person conference since 2019. Over the course of three days, I had the pleasure of networking with colleagues from around the state and learning more about the library profession.
I’ve always found conferences like this to be a great way to zoom out, take a breath, and recharge. I’m sure this holds true in other professions as well. Every now and then you just need a break from the normal day-to-day; a chance to get off the treadmill and remember why we started running in the first place.
This year, not only have I come back reengaged and recharged, but I’ve also come back re-inspired thanks to some amazing young people.
Every year ILA recognizes the tremendous work libraries and librarians are doing around the state at an awards dinner during the conference. The awards include things like Librarian of the Year, Trustee of the Year, and the Youth Services Achievement Award.
Another award is the Intellectual Freedom Award. This award is typically given to an individual librarian or library for their work in fighting censorship and supporting the right of every individual to seek and receive information from all points of view without restriction (the O’Fallon Public Library was honored with this award in 2018).
This year, however, the award did not go to a professional in the field, but to a group of high school students from Downers Grove. According to the press release, two parents of students at Downers Grove High School tried to ban Gender Queer by Maia Kobabe from the library due to its LGBTQ+ themes. In response, a group of five student leaders organized an effort to keep the book in the collection.
These students attended school board meetings to speak out against censorship and support intellectual freedom. They also advocated for intellectual freedom by publishing articles about the book challenge in the school newspaper. Facing an organized and well-funded effort to censor books, these five high school students courageously supported their LGBTQ+ classmates, rallied community support, and refused to allow hatred and bigotry to dominate the conversation (one of the students who bravely spoke to the school board, was verbally ridiculed by members of the Proud Boys, a national white supremacist group).
Ultimately, the School Board voted 7-0 to retain the book.
Two of the student leaders, as well as their parents, were on hand at the ceremony to receive the award (the other student leaders have since moved on to college). The standing ovation these students received as they took the stage was, in a word, moving. Another word? Inspiring. One more? Encouraging.
Teens (regardless of the generation) often get a bad rap. Knowing, however, that there are young people out there willing to stand up for what is right, despite personal threats and ridicule, should make us all happy. They give us an example to aspire to.
If you would like to learn more about intellectual freedom, the American Library Association has a great resource page. You can find it at ala.org/advocacy/intfreedom.
This article originally appeared in the O’Fallon Weekly.
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