Keeping Banned Books on the Shelves

Former Tufts roommates Allison Lee and Stacy Lieberman team up to defend access to controversial titles and information

Allison Lee, J92, read Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye in a Tufts class taught by the late Gerald Gill, a history professor who focused on the experiences of Black Americans.

“It opened up an entire world to me that I would not have known from my own lived experience,” Lee says.

Stacy Lieberman, J92, read Art Spiegelman’s Maus in a Holocaust literature course taught by Jonathan Wilson, now a professor emeritus of English.

“It was a life-changing experience for me to read a graphic novel that so accurately depicted not only the pain of what happened during the Holocaust, but what happened to the children of survivors,” Lieberman says.

These titles have made headlines for being banned in parts of Florida, Missouri, Oregon, and Tennessee, among other states. Lee and Lieberman are fighting to reverse and prevent such bans.

Allison Lee and Stacy Lieberman in their Miller Hall dormitory room

Allison Lee and Stacy Lieberman, shown in their Miller Hall dormitory room in August 1988, are now the managing director of PEN America’s Los Angeles office and the president and CEO of the Library Foundation of Los Angeles, respectively. Photo: Courtesy of Allison Lee and Stacy Lieberman

The two met when they were assigned to a triple in Miller Hall their first year at Tufts, though after a few weeks, Lieberman moved out when space in another room opened up. Their paths rarely crossed again. But now, 30 years later, they’ve reunited in Los Angeles through their work.

Lee is the managing director of PEN America’s Los Angeles office. The organization’s mission is to “protect the liberties and freedoms that make creative expression possible,” she says. Lieberman is president and CEO of the Library Foundation of Los Angeles (LFLA), a nonprofit that supports the city’s public libraries. Both have focused their careers in the nonprofit sector with a deep commitment to the arts, culture, history, ideas, and social justice issues.

Together, they have spoken at events focused on the impact of book bans on public and school libraries. This past April, they were the featured speakers at a public salon held to celebrate the premiere of a new documentary about author Judy Blume. In March, Blume’s 1975 novel Forever was among more than 80 books banned from Florida’s Martin County middle and high schools, along with The Bluest Eye.

Lee, an American studies and politics double major, and Lieberman, an English and French double major, remember being dazzled by the ethos of diversity at Tufts — including the books they read for courses. “The emphasis was on creating a community, on celebrating difference, on understanding that your job as a serious student was to explore topics that you did not know, that you maybe weren't comfortable with, that maybe challenged your point of view,” Lee says. “That was part of the liberal arts experience.”

Librarians tell Lieberman that their greatest concern is how bans might affect a generation without access to certain books, including those in which young people can see themselves as they’re exploring their own identities. From July to December 2022, Lee says, PEN America identified 1,477 instances of individual book bans that impacted 874 titles, an increase of 28% from the prior six months. The report notes that young adult books are most likely to be banned.

Lieberman worries about efforts to defund libraries, too. “When libraries close, it’s not just access to books that ends, but also access to information—all the community programming that libraries offer. It's where new immigrants go to learn about citizenship. It’s where many learn digital literacy.”

In their work and at public events, the women urge everyone to get involved in protecting such access.

“I’ve been an activist since my time at Tufts,” says Lee, who organized five buses for the 1992 March for Women’s Lives, which drew hundreds of thousands of abortion-rights advocates to Washington, D.C. Lieberman remembers boarding one of them. “Of course Allison organized it all!” she recalls.

“Today,” says Lee, “what gives me hope are the people on the ground, the parents, writers, school librarians, and teachers who are fighting back and are making their voices heard.”

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