Superintendent Jill Underly on book challenges in Wisconsin

Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction Superintendent Dr. Jill Underly discusses a growing number of campaigns to ban or limit access to books and other media in school libraries around the state.

By Nathan Denzin | Here & Now

April 10, 2024

FacebookRedditGoogle ClassroomEmail

Dr. Jill Underly:
I know that you read things or I read things in the news, particularly about librarians being harassed or library staff, and public libraries being harassed for displays. Particularly when you think about, like, we have exhibits, you know, for like in June for example, for Gay Pride Month, you know, or even women's history, I mean, or Latino or Caribbean History Month. I mean, we have people who come in and demand certain materials not be available. And that's the thing you read. And you know, libraries are places that are supposed to be safe. They're supposed to be inclusive for everybody. They're supposed to be these places, that they used to call them, like when Carnegie built the libraries, you know, universities for the people, right? It's information, knowledge is accessible for everybody. And that's really the fundamental value we're looking at here is that when people want to take these places and make them unsafe or to prevent people from exploring their interests or being curious about things, that's where, you know, I think it becomes chilling. You know, that's what staff have to deal with and it's really unfortunate. And it's also, when you think about the value of public education and the availability of these materials, kids and adults alike should have access to this information. And of course parents should have say in what their kids are reading. But when we look at the challenges, it's really a subset of people are dictating what it is that you can read and what your kids can read. And that's really what we're looking at.

Nathan Denzin:
We're going to come back to the policy question because that actually leads to one that I had a little further down, but you brought it up now. Do you guys consider book bans or book challenges to be harmful? You were just talking about how they were chilling. Do you consider them to be harmful, and why?

Dr. Jill Underly:
Well, it's a form of censorship, right? It's a form of censorship. And when you look at the bans, I mean, it's really undemocratic, right? When you limit what knowledge people have access to, and if these are spaces that are supposed to be safe and inclusive, when we limit that, you're limiting people's curiosity. You're limiting the ability for people to, and kids in particular, to develop critical thinking skills. And for me, it's like public libraries and school libraries are spaces where everybody is accepted and the information is widely available for everybody. You go into reading rooms and you see newspapers and magazines, and you see lots of people, lots of different people reading this information. It shouldn't matter how much money you have, whether you can afford a subscription or not, or you know, like audio books or reference materials. I mean, those things are expensive. And when we restrict that, we are restricting knowledge and that is a very undemocratic move.

Statement to the Communities We Serve

There is no place for racism in our society. We must work together as a community to ensure we no longer teach, or tolerate it.  Read the full statement.