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November 1, 2022

Library bomb threats indicate nationwide challenges against intellectual freedom

Laura Chen
Public libraries are meant to be a safe place for all. However, following recent trends, the Bettendorf Public Library was targeted with bomb threats.

Following a year with an unprecedented number of book bans, action against libraries in the U.S. has only increased. Individuals have begun issuing bomb threats to libraries across the nation, causing temporary closures to dozens of buildings.

These threats most commonly arise through social media posts and individual emails to librarians. Both public libraries and school libraries have been targeted and consequently closed for safety and investigation.

This fall, the Bettendorf Public Library was targeted by bomb threats. The threats were not considered credible and no closure resulted, but they proved the reality of the dangers librarians face.

“The threats before felt far away, like a news piece rather than something that could actually happen to us. The news is definitely disheartening, especially because libraries should be a safe space for everyone,” shared Kelly Wu, president of the Teen Leadership Committee at the Bettendorf Public Library.

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Though this local scare has come recently, the threats against libraries are nothing new. This March, all schools in the Hilton Central School District in N.Y. were closed due to threats of explosives being placed in all buildings. In their threat, the perpetrator referenced the non-fiction book “This Book is Gay” by Juno Dawson, claiming that it “violated a child’s innocence”. “This Book is Gay” was one of the top 13 most challenged books of 2022 and one of the top 10 most challenged books of 2022.

A series of bomb threats to the Hilton schools followed in the next week. Though the schools were put under surveillance, attendance still fell about 2%.

On both March 23 and 24, Northwest Junior High School in Coralville, Iowa was also evacuated due to threats. After each incident, police investigations concluded that the school was safe.

The source of the Coralville threats are unknown, but a correlation to Libs of TikTok, a right-wing social media group, was made. Northwest Junior High School previously faced backlash from Libs of TikTok for having “This Book is Gay” in their libraries. “I think it’s consistent with other notes that have been from that group or tied to that group but it’s not an outright signature,” said Coralville Police Chief Shane Kron.

On Sept. 14, all three branches of the Aurora Public Library District in Ill. were evacuated to allow officers to investigate the possibility of bombs in the buildings. The online threats were unsubstantiated and the buildings deemed clear

“Even in cases where the actual threat is minimal, the intent is malicious — that is, someone means to be threatening and sow uncertainty and chaos, whether or not they intend to follow through with violence,” explained PVHS librarian Carissa McDonald.

Along with the Aurora events, libraries in Chicago and the surrounding areas have been in heavy danger of threats. Crystal Lake, Addison, Morton Grove, Wilmette, Park Ridge, Oak Park, Warren-Newport, Aurora, Joliet, Schaumburg, Poplar Creek, Evanston, Libertyville, Vernon Area Public Library and Chicago’s Harold Washington Branch have all been targeted

Many of these anonymous messages were sent through the chat reference features on the libraries’ websites. Other threats have been issued directly to library employees through email. 

These incidents even prompted the nearby Glenview and Glencoe Public Libraries, which did not receive threats, to close temporarily.

Calls for better protection of libraries and library workers have risen in Chicago. State law enforcement and the FBI have also stepped in in some of the investigations. 

On Sept. 14, the American Library Association (ALA) released a statement concerning the bomb threats in Chicago libraries. “These ongoing and rising attacks on America’s libraries pose an existential threat to the cornerstone of our democracy,” the association voiced.

Librarians share much of the same views. “Whatever the reasons, the end result is the same — public goods and services continue to be stretched thinner and thinner and the citizens of our cities, states and country lose,” commented McDonald.

Most recently, the Iowa City Public Library was closed on Aug. 29 due to threats, reopening the next day after investigation found no evidence of explosives. An arrest has also been made in the investigation into threats to the public library in Evanston, Ill., a suburb of Chicago.

Perpetrators in these cases attempt to incite fear and mistrust of libraries. Their threats have become commonplace across the country, increasing the danger to librarians and restricting access to essential resources.

Libraries are meant to provide information freely. Equal access to libraries without restriction of materials is key, yet some challenge this basic public service. The frequent threats not only put library workers and patrons in danger, but reveal an attempt to undermine the freedom to read.

This story was originally published on Spartan Shield on November 29, 2023.