"Doesn’t feel like a coincidence": John Oliver alarmed over right-wing efforts to censor libraries

The efforts are "coming through highly organized groups — often conservative, and extremely religious"

By Nardos Haile

Staff Writer

Published May 6, 2024 12:20PM (EDT)

Last Week Tonight with John Oliver (Courtesy of HBO)
Last Week Tonight with John Oliver (Courtesy of HBO)

John Oliver during Sunday evening's edition of  "Last Week Tonight" highlighted that libraries are "in trouble because they’ve become another front in the ongoing culture war."

"We’ve talked before about how conservatives have targeted school libraries, but those debates have now emphatically migrated over to public libraries as well," he said.

Oliver cited the growing number of community members and parents across the country who fear harmful and sexual books are available for their children to read at public libraries.

"The American Library Association documented efforts to censor over 4,200 unique book titles last year in schools and libraries, the highest level they’ve ever recorded, with the number of titles targeted for censorship at public libraries, in particular, rising by 92% from the previous year," he said.

Even librarians themselves have been at the receiving end of "nasty abuse," facing bomb threats on their workplace and accusations of pedophilia and grooming children.

The show highlighted a librarian who stated: "I can say unequivocally we’re not pedophiles or groomers, and I can say that on behalf of our staff. That– that is not why we go into public service or librarianship."

Oliver joked in response, "Yeah, of course not. That’s why you go into the clergy. Everybody knows that. We all know!"

However, Oliver added that book challenges and removals are the most pressing issues facing libraries alongside their budgets being slashed by local governments across the country.

"You can’t just demand a book be banned even if it is 'to protect the children.' But there’s an exception when it comes to obscenity which for minors is defined as material that appeals to their prurient interest, is offensive to prevailing standards about what is suitable for minors, and lacks serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value," he noted.

According to the show, places like Huntington Beach, Calif., mandated that library books with a sexual nature be moved away from minors, including books about the human body, puberty and even books about boats.

Oliver stated the reason why these book challenges are banning books that have nothing to do with harmful content for children is because they are "coming through highly organized groups– often conservative, and extremely religious."

"Up until 2021 the vast majority of challenges only sought to remove or restrict a single book. But now, 93% of them involve attempts to censor multiple titles, with more than half involving 100 or more," Oliver said. "And you do get the sense that people who want to censor these books can have no real idea of what’s inside them– or, indeed, if they’re even at the libraries they’re protesting at all."

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But mostly, LGBTQ+ books are at the center of these new censorship bills and book bans. Oliver highlighted the book "Gender Queer" by Maia Kobabe as one of the most frequently challenged books in America for the last three years. The graphic novel is a memoir of Kobabe struggles with gender identity, "but it’s often reduced, out of context, to some of its most explicit passages."

While Oliver agreed the book isn't for children because of some of its sexually explicit content, he stressed that it is appropriate for teenagers who are curious about themselves and their identity.

"Frankly doesn’t feel like a coincidence so much of this conversation concerns LGBTQ+ themes– as it seems this is the latest way to try and push that community out of public spaces, to send a message that their lives and stories aren’t welcome, and by extension, to tell anyone growing up questioning that the answers are off-limits to them," Oliver emphasized.

He continued, "All of which is basically just a long way of saying: libraries need our support right now, so they can continue to serve the diverse needs of their communities, while also, of course, lending out air fryers, seeds, and copies of 'The Berensteam Cheetahs.'"

Last Week Tonight with John Oliver airs on Sundays at 11 p.m. ET on Max.


By Nardos Haile

Nardos Haile is a staff writer at Salon covering culture. She’s previously covered all things entertainment, music, fashion and celebrity culture at The Associated Press. She resides in Brooklyn, NY.

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Books Culture Wars Hbo John Oliver Last Week Tonight With John Oliver Lgbtq Public Libraries Recap