The impact of censorship  in New Jersey school libraries  

By Elissa Malespina

As we observe School Library Month in April, let us take a moment to appreciate the vital role played by school libraries and librarians in nurturing educational development while acknowledging the significant challenges they face in light of our nation’s cultural divisions. The assumption that book banning and censorship are issues exclusive to some conservative regions of the country is debunked when we look at New Jersey. The state, presumed by many to be a stronghold against such conflicts, has experienced its share of these contentious issues. 

From January to August 2023 alone, New Jersey’s educational and public libraries faced 10 attempts to restrict book access and encountered 23 challenges against specific titles. This trend of censorship attempts, spread across 14 of New Jersey’s 21 counties since 2021, reveals the breadth and depth of the issue, showing that no area is immune to these disputes. 

My story 

In May 2022, I embarked on a journey into the heart of cultural wars that abruptly changed my career path. My work as a librarian at Verona High School had been marked by positive evaluations and no disciplinary issues for three years, but I found myself without a job. My dismissal was due to an alleged overemphasis on race and LGBTQ+ themes in the library’s collection. The administration suggested that those topics made some students uncomfortable, ignoring the library’s primary goal of creating an inclusive environment that fosters mutual understanding through a broad spectrum of literature. 

It is important to note that the incident in question was not an isolated one. Still, it was part of a larger ongoing controversy within the school district regarding diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives. Although no formal complaints were directed toward me, I learned after my dismissal about concerns from a small but vocal group of parents in the community regarding the content and displays in the library. These concerns reflected the broader societal tensions and pressure exerted by specific segments of the community, highlighting the need for continued efforts towards creating an inclusive and equitable environment for all. 

I’m far from alone 

Many school librarians in New Jersey have been caught in the crossfire of ongoing culture wars, facing numerous challenges and legal battles due to their commitment to maintaining inclusive library collections.  

Martha Hickson and Roxana Caivano are New Jersey librarians who have had to navigate turbulent waters. Hickson has repeatedly been forced to confront book challenges at North Hunterdon Regional High School. At the same time, Caivano is currently embroiled in a defamation lawsuit in response to baseless accusations regarding the content of her library. These librarians’ experiences testify to the importance of defending intellectual freedom and the right to access diverse perspectives in our schools. 

In today’s world, culture wars are becoming increasingly common, and unfortunately, they can have severe consequences for those targeted. These repercussions extend beyond the professional realm and can manifest in personal attacks, including online harassment and even death threats.  

Protecting ourselves and intellectual freedom 

To counter these threats, protective measures such as filing police reports and arranging security during public engagements have become necessary for other librarians and me. Despite these obstacles, my transition to Union High School in Union County has been met with overwhelming support from the community. It’s heartening that the district values diversity and inclusivity and is dedicated to working toward creating a safe and welcoming environment for all its students. 

The toll these battles take on mental and emotional health cannot be overstated. Speaking from my journey, I’ve navigated through anxiety, sunk into the depths of depression and battled the relentless waves of PTSD, all stirred by my experiences over the last few years. My experiences echo fellow librarians and educators who have been victims of the culture wars.  

We must show our dedication to maintaining school libraries that are inclusive and open to all, where students can develop their understanding and imagination under the guidance of passionate librarians. 

During School Library Month we acknowledge the importance of libraries and are prompted to take action. This month is a call to action to champion intellectual freedom and renew our commitment to maintaining libraries as safe havens for learning and exploration for all students. Below are action steps that educators can take to help support intellectual freedom.

Educate yourself  

As we strive toward fostering a society that embraces intellectual freedom, we must emphasize continuous professional development. This entails actively seeking out diverse educational opportunities that promote the value of intellectual freedom. Pen America ( and the American Library Association ( offer a wealth of resources and toolkits filled with essential information. 

Educate others 

By developing programs highlighting the richness of diverse voices, we can enhance our collective understanding of the significance of intellectual freedom. To this end, we can organize author talks, book discussions and clubs dedicated to exploring banned or challenged books. These initiatives can ignite meaningful conversations within our communities and foster a deeper appreciation for the importance of intellectual freedom. 

Reinforce policies and procedures  

Advocating for solid library policies safeguarding intellectual freedom has become increasingly important. These policies must provide transparent and equitable procedures for handling book challenges. By working with school boards, administrators and other stakeholders, we can refine and strengthen these policies to ensure our libraries remain safe and welcoming spaces for free expression and exploration. Explore the Resource Material and Public Complaints policies and regulations of the South Orange Maplewood School District, which are excellent examples of policies supporting intellectual freedom.  

Community engagement  

Another effective way to promote intellectual freedom is by expanding community engagement. This can be achieved by forming alliances with local bookstores, community organizations and fellow libraries. By doing so, we can amplify our advocacy for intellectual freedom and create a broader coalition dedicated to preserving the open exchange of ideas.  

In addition, targeted outreach programs for parents and community members can be developed to dispel myths and build support for diverse collections. These partnerships and outreach programs can help us foster a more inclusive and supportive community that values intellectual freedom and diversity of thought.  

Leverage social media  

Leveraging social media in the battle against book banning and censorship is a strategic approach that significantly extends the reach and impact of advocacy for intellectual freedom. Through platforms like Facebook, Instagram, Threads, X and TikTok, we can disseminate compelling stories and factual information as we engage a wider audience, including those unaware of censorship’s implications. Shareable content such as infographics, videos and live discussions raise awareness and spark broader conversations.  

Highlight personal experiences  

Emphasizing personal experiences of censorship is vital in the fight to protect intellectual freedom. Highlighting the personal experiences of librarians, educators and students who have encountered censorship firsthand sheds light on the consequences of limiting access to information.  

By revealing the real-life effects of censorship, these stories underscore the critical need to protect various ideas and literary works. They are potent testimonies that connect with a broad audience, generating empathy and prompting collective action. 

School Library Month serves as a reminder of the critical role of school libraries and librarians in fostering student’s educational development. It is also a time to reflect on the challenges faced by these institutions, especially in light of cultural and political divisions that can lead to censorship.  

As we move forward, we must prioritize diversity, equity and inclusion and defend intellectual freedom and the right to access diverse perspectives in our schools. By doing so, we can create a safe and welcoming environment for all students and ensure they have unlimited access to knowledge and resources to explore the world beyond their classrooms.

Elissa Malespina is a teacher librarian at Union High School in Union Township. She served on the South Orange-Maplewood Board of Education from 2021 to 2024. Malespina is the founder of Educational Equity Advisors. She can be followed on Threads and X through @elissamalespina and reached through her website,