SARATOGA SPRINGS — Caffe Lena’s stage has long been a home for musicians, storytellers and poets looking to share new work and ideas. Starting this week the coffeehouse also will be home to a library of banned books.
In its courtyard, the venue has installed a Little Liberty Library, meant to circulate banned books. From 7 to 9 p.m. Wednesday, as part of a program to introduce the library, a dozen local authors will read excerpts from their favorite banned books. There will also be a performance by Dan Berggren.
The event comes as book bans are making headlines across the country.
Last week, the New York Times reported that a school district in Texas removed the Bible, a graphic novel adaptation of Anne Frank’s “The Diary of a Young Girl,” among other books that were challenged by parents and community members while they undergo a review process.
It’s not the only school in the country that has recently done so. Book bans have occurred in 86 school districts in 26 states between July 1, 2021, and March 31, 2022, according to PEN America, a non-profit working to defend free speech. There have been 1,586 instances of books banned at schools during that same time frame.
The organization defines a school book ban as “any action taken against a book based on its content and as a result of parent or community challenges, administrative decisions, or in response to direct or threatened action by lawmakers or other governmental officials, that leads to a previously accessible book being either completely removed from availability to students, or where access to a book is restricted or diminished.”
Beyond book bans, the recent stabbing of author Salman Rushdie during an event at the Chautauqua Institution has also spurred conversations about the freedom of speech.
While organizers started making plans for the Little Liberty Library months ago, the project is even more relevant today.
“Between the uptick in book banning that’s going on right now, [and] what happened with Salman Rushdie being physically attacked and fighting for his life at Chautauqua . . . the timing of that, so close to our event, has really strengthened our resolve to show that we respect and honor creative expression,” said organizer Patricia A. Nugent. The local author is also active in the League of Women Voters in Saratoga County, which is one of the event’s sponsors.
The Little Liberty Library is modeled after the Little Free Library’s idea of a community book exchange, which encourages people to take or leave a book. The bookcase was constructed by Thomas Kinsky and is adorned with a painting of the Bill of Rights along with a depiction of the Spirit of Life statue holding banned books, painted by local artist C.A.M. Cameron.
With its history of hosting artists, especially folk musicians, Caffe Lena seems like the ideal place to house the library.
“Folk music is all about the stories of marginalized people and everyday people,” said Sarah Craig, the executive director of Caffe Lena. “Folk music creates community. It brings people together because it’s a place where people feel heard and they feel seen and they feel like their story is honored.”
From Craig’s view, book banning is a way of erasing people and their stories.
“When we exclude people like that and shut them down and silence them and tell them that they don’t belong in books or that they don’t belong on stages or they don’t belong in libraries or schools . . . it’s going to come back to bite us. It’s the wrong approach,” Craig said.
At Wednesday’s event, Nugent, among other authors, will pull poignant and powerful excerpts from some of the most commonly banned books, reading them at Caffe Lena as a reminder of what could be lost.
Nugent plans to read from “Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl.”
“I found myself getting weepy during rehearsing because how could you band this Holocaust victim’s voice when she was reporting on it from the inside?” Nugent said.
Fellow author Rachel R. Baum will read from “The Librarian of Basra” by Jeanette Winter, Matt Witten will read John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men” and Lale Davidson will read “The Handmaid’s Tale” by Margaret Atwood.
Craig hopes the evening will be a gesture of inclusion.
“Our job is to create a space where art can heal social divisions, not deepen them,” Craig said. “We have open mics, we have poetry nights, we have all kinds of opportunities for people to come and step on that stage and share their story and their art and their creative vision and I hope that people from all perspectives will do that.”
Admission to the event is free, though attendees can donate banned books or funds. Preregistration is recommended. The event will also be live-streamed. For more information visit caffelena.org.