By the Books

When defending libraries is a job, and a calling.

illustration of a person dressed in superhero costume with a red cape standing with hands on hips atop a stack of books, by Marcos Chin


I was a library kid. I always brought an extra bag on school library day to carry new books. During the summer months, I participated in every reading activity or club my public library offered. I even said I wanted to be a librarian, though I didn’t truly know what that meant at the time. Looking back, I think it was mostly about wanting to be part of the safe and sacred world of libraries. I simply loved the way the information and stories found there allowed me to know myself more deeply, to find myself in the countless pages on the shelves.

When I was a first-year student at Penn State, landing a dorm in West Halls—just a few steps from Pattee Library—felt like winning the lottery. I spent hours tucked in the stacks, finding inviting spaces to study and meet friends. The hushed reverence and endless rows of knowledge were a homecoming.

Fast-forward a few decades, and I am finally working toward that dream after earning my master’s degree in library and information sciences. But even when I began pursuing this new path in 2021 as an online student, I never imagined that libraries and librarians would be at the center of so much of today’s political and cultural conversation.

On the heels of the COVID-19 pandemic, as the parental rights movement in schools began to gain momentum and the discourse around gender, sexuality, and race in America became more heated, the question of what should and should not be on library shelves became the subject of intense debate, political campaigns, and—increasingly—book challenges.

According to the American Library Association, there were 3,637 unique book challenges from 2001 through 2020; the average annually was 273. In 2023 alone, there were an astounding 4,240. Coupled with this dramatic increase, librarians are also being held accountable in new ways. According to an ALA report, state lawmakers have initiated 151 bills that threaten to curb library funding or implement criminal prosecution of librarians because “pressure groups claim access to diverse books and ideas harms young people.” At University Park, I am part of a group of professionals in the University Libraries analyzing ALA datasets to better understand the trajectory of these book challenges and what they might mean for the future.

As I pursue a career as an academic librarian and think back on a lifetime spent in libraries, I hope it’s a future in which young readers can still feel safe, and seen, and represented in the diverse characters and experiences they discover in the books that line library shelves. I may be new to this fight—at least professionally—but some library kids never grow up or lose sight of the magic, mystery, mischief, and self-discovery that reside within the pages of a book.

My journey is a testament to the power of libraries and the call to be protectors of knowledge, defenders of intellectual freedom, and champions of the stories that bind us together.


Katie O’Hara-Krebs works in microforms and government information at the Penn State University Libraries.