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On Libraries, Books, And Bans: An Interview With Library Director Jennie Pu

Jennie Pu is a well known figure in Hoboken, NJ which is just across the Hudson river from Manhattan. As the city’s Library Director, Pu is a book lover, a promoter of libraries as community hubs, and a staunch opponent to book bans. Pu was instrumental in the Hoboken public library becoming the first book sanctuary in New Jersey after right wing backlash initiated by Libs of Tikton following the library’s Banned Book Read-A-Thon as a Pride event in June 2023. That wasn’t quite enough though for Pu. Working with the City Council, the entire city of Hoboken declared itself a book sanctuary. Pu has given a number of interviews both video and old school style like this one for local news and other media outlets in the months since the library was targeted by rightwing elements to spread the word on the importance of people being able to read the books they want to read. If you are like me and feel anger and despair at every new report of a book ban then I sincerely hope this interview will give you reason to hope. My deep gratitude and appreciation to the director for her time and willingness to be interviewed.

Gay League: Hello, Director Pu! How are you? I’ve been looking forward to this interview for a while. Thank you for waiting while I recovered from a severe cold and allergy episode.

Jennie: Hello Joe! Thank you so much for taking the time to interview me; I am happy to be here. Hope you are feeling better as well.

Gay League: Yes, I’m feeling almost normal. Thank you. Let’s talk about two great things — books and libraries! I have some fond memories of books from my youth. There was the time I discovered some old school books on the steps leading to my grandparents’ attic. The geography books (horribly outdated and slanted by contemporary standards) were my introduction to other people and countries. Discovering Maurice Sendak’s Where The Wild Things Are in my third grade library was amazing. Even more amazing was my first trip to a library and finding books about Greek mythology. Unfortunately, my evangelical father put an end to that. I had to wait till I had more freedom as a teenager to make secret visits to the public library. Sorry, I went on a bit of a tangent there. Would you tell our readers a little about your love of books and interest in library sciences and being the Hoboken Public Library Director?

Jennie: My favorite topic!

Growing up, I was an insatiable reader, but I did not know I wanted to be a librarian until later. Libraries are actually my second career, and I’ve been fortunate to work in all kinds of libraries, from museum libraries to K-12 school libraries. I came to Hoboken Public Library because I knew how beloved it was by the community, and I wanted to be a part of that. I’ve been able to help shape the library to become a vital community hub and oversaw the historic restoration of our gorgeous 3rd floor, home to our children’s wing. We built Hoboken City’s first free, public makerspace, which is fittingly located in the library’s former Carving Room. It’s a place for people to come tinker and design and try their hands at new forms of tech, like a digital embroidery machine to a 3D printer.

Gay League: America has a history of banned books. Just a few off the top of my head are novels such as Farenheit 451, The Handmaid’s Tale, 1984, To Kill A Mockingbird, The Color Purple, and graphic novels from Art Spiegleman (Maus volumes 1 & 2), Alison Bechdel (Fun Home) and Maia Kobabe (Gender Queer). These efforts have both escalated and intensified during the last several years though, haven’t they?

Jennie: You’re absolutely right. Though book banning has actually been around for a long time, the acceleration of bans is truly unprecedented. We are seeing book banning used as a political tactic that is continually putting strain on educators, librarians, and most importantly, anyone out there who wants to read a book of their choice. A recent Rutgers-Eagleton poll found that many book bans take place because politicians want to win votes and not because parents are concerned with the topics and reading materials surrounding their child. Even so, these politicians are losing votes, so instead we are beginning to see the switch from direct book banning to use of calling out “obscene” materials. What this means is that educators could be jailed for providing what is considered “obscene” content to minors – the definition of what is “obscene” being vague. Although the language has shifted a bit, the desired outcome of wanting to remove diverse collections from the shelves is the same.

Gay League: How many book bans occurred last year? My impression is that most if not all of the bans targeted books about LGBTQA people and topics as well as Black history, culture, voices, and experiences, and other minority communities. Is that accurate?

Jennie: Joe, you are exactly right. And in fact, the American Library Association (ALA) recently released new data on the number of book bans in 2023. Last year, public libraries saw a whopping 92 percent increase in the number of titles targeted for censorship, the highest levels ever documented by ALA. In 2023, of the 1,247 demands to censor books and other reading materials, 4,240 unique titles were affected. Titles featuring LGBTQIA+ characters and stories by and about people of color account for half of the titles that are most frequently banned. Yet despite the increasing number of bans, an American Library Association poll shows that an overwhelming 71% of America voters are against the removal of books from their public libraries.

Gay League: As the director of Hoboken’s library, you were involved in an effort to address book bans. I’d love for you to talk about that work and how it was received by the local government and community. Oh, and also the Freedom To Read Act in New Jersey’s legislature and your part in it.

Jennie: In Hoboken the sentiment surrounding our effort to fight censorship and expand the number of book sanctuaries in New Jersey has been overwhelmingly positive. First, I never thought I would have the opportunity to speak with so many people who wanted to publish stories on our library and the measures we take to maintain our book sanctuary status, so I thank you for that.

Last June, we held a Banned Books Read-A-Thon in celebration of Pride Month. The event was quickly attacked on social media by book banners who spread a misinformation campaign and attacked our local elected officials and the library. Despite the pressures, we held the event as planned. It was a huge success, and the community came to celebrate and affirm the library. The overwhelmingly positive feedback from the Hoboken community is what sparked our decision to make Hoboken the first book sanctuary city and to fight for more legislation to protect our diverse collections, which leads me to The Freedom to Read Act.

The New Jersey Freedom to Read Act is one that I am quite proud of and am hopeful that will pass this year. Introduced to the senate at the end of January, the bill ensures that all public libraries and public-school libraries have diverse collections, protects these collections so they remain on bookshelves, and protects all library workers from harassment. I am a strong believer that our diverse books and collections need to be reflective of the diverse community that our libraries serve.

Gay League: Typically, when learning about another book ban, I feel anger and despair. I’m fortunate to live in Illinois with a governor who signed legislation outlawing book bans statewide. Do you have suggestions for what people can do if they encounter a book ban in their area?

Jennie: You’re so right to speak to the emotional impact of book bans and that’s why book sanctuaries can be such a powerful and actionable strategy because anyone can start one.

They are important places where everyone has the freedom to read whatever they like, whether at school, in a library, on a park bench, or at home. This can be done in both formal and informal ways. In September 2023, we became the first Book Sanctuary in New Jersey, along with our City of Hoboken. Since then, 15 libraries across the state have followed suit, and we expect many more to follow throughout the country. So, it’s less about the anger around book banning and the hope and positivity regarding freedom to read. That’s my mantra.

The most basic thing everyone can do is pick a banned book, read it, share it, and talk about it with your friends, family, colleagues, and others in your community. Also, the creation of a “book sanctuary” is not limited to just established libraries. What I mean is that you can take the measures to create a book sanctuary within your own home, on your own bookshelf. Create a space where your family and friends can read as they please. If you are interested in learning about how to become a book sanctuary, please visit https://hobokenlibrary.org/booksanctuary/.

Gay League: A question on a different note. Living in the twin cities of Champaign-Urbana, IL gives me access to both cities’ public libraries. Occasionally I like to take photos of some of the new graphic novels and share them on social media to encourage people to visit their libraries. On more than one occasion a person remarks their library either has a poor graphic novel section or worse, none at all. Are there steps people in situations like these can take to encourage their libraries either to start or expand their graphic novel departments?

Jennie: Sure! As public libraries, we want to make sure that our collections reflect and serve our community: I’m proud to say that Hoboken Public Library has a strong and robust graphic novel collection and we’re continually adding to it with all the fabulous new graphic novel titles coming out. Libraries serve the community so if your library is lacking in this area, just reach out! Most libraries have a fairly simple and straightforward process for soliciting reading suggestions, usually online form or email that you can use to submit your suggestions for titles to add.

Gay League: What would you say to entice a person to visit and use their library if they haven’t done so in years or possibly never?

Jennie: I would say they will be surprised and delighted by all the services and programs that they discover at their library. We have something for everyone from ages 0-99 and it’s all free!

Whether it’s the newest best-sellers, streaming media, social services, family activities, or community events, we offer so much more today. At Hoboken Public Library, we are always introducing new and exciting programs such as American Sign Language (ASL) and ESL classes, movie nights, yoga classes, book clubs, and events and activities our patrons tell us they want. We are constantly providing more ways for our community to come together to learn and share and be together. Just recently we debuted our “Library of Things” where library cardholders can borrow anything from a knife sharpener to a power washer to a SEGA Genesis gaming device. Our community loves it!
Whether you’re in Hoboken or somewhere else, check out your public library, their events and get a library card!

Gay League: Thank you very much for your time!

Jennie: Thank you so much for the opportunity to chat about libraries! Take care!

Gay League: And thank you, dear readers, for taking time to read this interview!

March 22, 2024
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