Alumnae/i Feature

Protecting the Freedom to Read: Sadina Shawver ’17MS on Book Sanctuaries, Handling Criticism, and Rising to the Challenge

Three shelves full of books in the Simmons University library
Photo credit: Ashley Purvis

“The [book sanctuary] designation means that we are a location that will protect the right for the freedom to read by not banning or censoring or sequestering books and providing access to anyone,” says Shawver, from her office in the library. She notes that the library administration has been working on the designation since 2022, after the Chicago Public Library announced their own book sanctuary status.

The focus on the designation was inspired by the increase in book challenges in nearby Montgomery County. “We are a stone’s throw from the county line,” says Shawver, noting the media attention given to book bans in the Magnolia Independent School District, in a town in Montgomery County. “Magnolia is such a small town in a relatively small county — with a population of 2.5 thousand people, it’s not even a city. They’re a drop in the bucket, but they’re a very expressive drop, as we’ve seen nationwide. That type of movement can put stress on a county like Harris, which is why the [library] commissioners wanted to [establish us] as a book sanctuary.” In contrast, Harris county boasts a population of 4.5 million, as it includes the city of Houston; further, the population is racially and culturally diverse. “All Harris County branches are now designated book sanctuaries,” says Shawver. “The main library, which is just administrative services now, got the designation but the 26 branches (27 once Baldwin Boetcher reopens in 2024) are under that umbrella and considered sanctuaries, too. Unfortunately, this doesn't extend to our partner systems like Pasadena, Bellaire, Montgomery, or even Houston Public Library.”

Shawver was born and raised primarily in Houston. “It’s a large city. I grew up in the inner loop and had a very different view from someone in the outer counties. It was more progressive in the city center.” Shawver loved growing up in Houston, which had a thriving Latinx community, among other multi-racial groups. Though her high school was located within one of the wealthiest areas in the state, she also saw the realities of living below the poverty line.

Since Shawver’s time in Houston, the Houston Independent School District has doubled-down on censorship, removing school librarians from most of the public schools in Houston. Shawver sees this as a backlash against a progressive and diverse city. “They are compromising important social development with a deluge of conservative fundamentalism,” she says of the censorship taking place. “[They are driven by] small groups of vocal, rich [people] that can have a lot of say.”

After graduating from Simmons School of Library and Information Science, Shawver worked at a public library in Arlington, Massachusetts where she didn’t encounter the influx of challenges that she does in Texas. “We do get requests for reconsideration [of materials] fairly frequently, though my branch doesn’t attract the animosity that others [nearby] experience. Our community is more progressive by nature.”

While face-to-face interactions with patrons are calm, their social media accounts receive negative comments. Shawver considers these comments the work of internet trolls who attack posts on the Harris County Library’s page due to the high number of followers. “Facebook tends to have the most egregious issues…but I don’t have empathy for people who are just trying to get a rise.” Social media comments are reviewed by a committee, who decide whether to respond with a quote from the policy or to ignore, entirely. The library also has a thorough process in place for responding to requests for reconsideration of materials, which has become more stringent since becoming a book sanctuary. In addition to filling out a form, “you need to be a legal citizen and resident of the county, have a valid and active library card, and have read the book in its entirety,” says Shawver. When a complaint is lodged at a specific branch, the staff at that branch are not allowed to participate in that complaint, to avoid bias to impact the response. All responses are kept on file for reference in future issues.

“I have a more progressive view than some of my more moderate co-workers; we balance each other out very well.”

Shawver has served on the reconsideration committee since 2020, and has heard seven requests thus far. “Only one of them did not include LGBTQ characters,” she notes. “I have a more progressive view than some of my more moderate co-workers; we balance each other out very well.” Shawver is known among her colleagues as someone quick to shut down confrontation. “I’m thinking of the optics of my branch and the safety of the kids in my branch,” she says, recalling an argument that erupted in the voter line during the 2020 election. “I just don’t take tomfoolery at this branch!”

That diplomacy extends to face-to-face interactions with patrons who express concern over titles, most often those in the children’s section. “There are many varied ways I’ve learned to tell people we aren’t going to remove a book.” She notes that people often just want their concerns to be heard, but their complaint doesn’t necessarily escalate to an official request for reconsideration. In one such instance, the parent chose not to lodge a complaint, but simply returned the book. “That was their right,” Shawver notes. “We’re not going to censor this book or offer warnings. You learn [your own] boundaries as you go as readers. You either close the book and walk away, or you read it. Don’t withhold it from other families. There is some family out there that this book will do more good for than this small uncomfortable incident that another family had.”

Sometimes, she notes, patrons will complain no matter what the librarians do. Shawver is willing to quote library policy on what materials are displayed, and will attempt to redirect patrons. “I’ll ask, if you don’t like these books, what are you looking for? The last time [I said that], they left in a huff. [The patron] just wanted to be reactive. If an adult is acting rude, the understanding is, if they are going to act like a child, get the children’s librarian who will manage them like a child.”

 “I know that I’m making a difference, but the road feels steeper here.”

While the work is riddled with frustration, Shawver remains optimistic. “Our branch is full of happy kids, and I’m so happy with the community we have here,” she says, showing off the children’s artwork in her office with pride. “Our manager says that every instance of progress is met with transitory periods of backlash. I know that I’m making a difference, but the road feels steeper here,” she says.

As for her time at Simmons, she is grateful for the exposure to theory and practice that she calls upon now in her real world experience. “I had a great community in Arlington, but part of the reason I moved to Houston was because of the ways I saw the nation turning after 2016. I needed to show that I could rise to a challenge, so I threw myself into the fire. It has been exhausting but rewarding.”

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Alisa M. Libby