NJ school librarian who opposed attempts to remove LGBTQ+ books receives national award

North Hunterdon-Voorhees Regional High School Librarian Martha Hickson received the American Library Association’s Lemony Snicket Prize for Noble Librarians Faced with Adversity in June for her efforts to challenge efforts to ban books housed in the district’s collection.

Hickson opposed efforts in 2021 to ban five LGBTQ+ books from the district’s library bookshelves, becoming the target of personal attacks which led her to taking an extended sick leave. She has since returned to her job and says she continues to speak out at district Board of Education meetings about censorship and the importance of having inclusive and diverse reading materials for students.

The board, in late January, voted seven to two against a resolution to remove “This Book is Gay” from library shelves. The committee also passed resolutions to keep four LGBTQ+ books on the shelves.

“As long as the book bullies are going to be there, somebody from the other side of the situation needs to be there as well,” Hickson told NJ Advance Media. “I have to give these people credit where credit is due, they are stubborn and persistent. So, they keep showing up and I keep showing up.”

Hickson said she was contacted this spring about 16 additional books the district has on its shelves. “I fully expect to see one or maybe all 16 of those books show up again as fodder for challenges in the fall,” she said.

With several of those who were involved in trying to have the books removed from the shelves now running for the board of education, Hickson said people need to be involved in board elections.

“If you look at board races across the state of New Jersey, you will see the same thing in every community, people who are involved in trying to remove books,” Hickson said. “People who have an anti-public education platform are trying to take over boards of education. The upcoming November election is extremely serious.”

Hickson said she sees the award as a way to draw more attention to the issue of censorship, and, in particular, the attacks school librarians have been facing. She is thankful to have received the award, adding “that thankfulness was mixed with happiness that the issue that I and so many other librarians had been struggling with for the last eight months or so was getting elevated recognition within the American Library Association.

“I was also very humbled. It’s sort of an ‘I’m not worthy’ experience because I knew how many other librarians, hundreds across the country, had been dealing with the same thing, the experience of censorship, the personal attacks, and those are continuing to this day, and broadening.”

Hickson attended the American Library Association’s annual conference in Washington, DC, receiving the prize from Patricia Wong, the association’s president.

“I really felt that when I was standing on that stage, I was accepting that prize for every librarian to stand up to censorship, especially in today’s climate,” Hickson said. “The personal attacks that have been lodged against librarians are extremely dangerous, not only to our personal health and safety, but also to the readers of the books who are being attacked.”

New Jersey Association of School Librarians Legislative Consultant Mary Moyer Stubbs told NJ Advance Media the association has seen a rise in challenges to books, as well as in self-censorship, across the Garden State in recent years.

Stubbs said books on LGBTQ+ persons and material that is assumed to be related to Critical Race Theory or the Black Lives Matter movement has been primarily targeted.

“Most of the books that are being attacked are those that are of special interest to the LGBTQIA community and to the Black, Indigenous, and people of color community,” Hickson said. “And when those books are attacked, those marginalized communities are attacked even further.”

Hickson said she is thankful to the library community at large, students, community members and her family, who have supported her last year and this year.

She continues to counsel other librarians in New Jersey and across the nation who are having the same experiences. The first piece of advice she gives librarians who are facing personal attacks is, “to recognize that this is part of a coordinated, nationwide campaign.

“And although you are being mentioned by name, see if you can find a way to not take it personally. Because it’s not about you as a person. It’s about your job function and anybody sitting in your role would be the one they’d be attacking by name.”

Hickson said she tells librarians facing these personal attack to reach out to their regional library community and others around them for support, and to encourage their students to speak up.

“I think if you look at censorship over the broad scope of history, it comes in waves, it’s cyclical,” Hickson said. “We are in a really bad cycle right now, but I’m hoping it will end someday. The best thing you can do is use it as a learning experience.”

Hickson has been working with others who oppose book banning, and has been speaking at universities and colleges across New Jersey. In April, Hickson gave a presentation to the North Hunterdon-Voorhees board about how to recognize misinformation by using the “SIFT” strategy: stop, identify the source, find better coverage, and trace claims back to the original.

“What I wanted to underscore to the board in that moment and to anybody who happens to be listening to my remarks, is that what they have been hearing month after month from the book bullies is misinformation,” Hickson said. “It’s important to know how to recognize it, fight it, refute it and act on it.”

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Vashti Harris can be reached at vharris@njadvancemedia.com.

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