Karissa O’Reilly, a high school librarian and 2020 Syracuse University iSchool graduate, was recently honored by the state of New York for her work fighting censorship and providing children with access to LGBTQ+ books. New York State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli chose O’Reilly for the honor and interviewed her in June during Pride Month as part of “Books Unbanned: Ensuring Youth Access to LGBTQ+ Books.” (O’Reilly’s segment begins at 22:00.)

“There are many, many librarians doing the exact same work as me. Most of us, really,” says O’Reilly. “By nature, we are protectors of free speech, guardians of the world’s stories. It is only natural that when the stories that represent marginalized communities are challenged, we would step up to protect those stories.”

O’Reilly works as a library media specialist at Carmel High School in Carmel, New York and serves as advocacy chair for the School Library Media Specialists of Southeastern New York. She advocates for bills that would mandate media literacy education in the state’s K-12 curriculum, as well as policy changes that better protect intellectual freedom.

“What our country needs more than anything is for the majority of our population to be media literate,” says O’Reilly. “Information comes at us at a more rapid pace than ever before. It’s becoming increasingly difficult to make up our own minds about things when information is being filtered specifically for us based on our already preconceived ideas. Or when our neighbor’s Facebook posts hold as much value as a Washington Post headline.”

Protecting Students’ Rights

O’Reilly’s school district made headlines last fall when the board of education voted to keep the book Gender Queer in the district’s libraries, a vote O’Reilly supports. She and her district’s leaders have faced backlash since the decision. 

“We have some conservative extremists in our community who loudly and publicly objected to certain books in my collection,” she says. “I was called many names, my photo and contact information were posted online and people were encouraged to reach out to me to tell me what a ‘perverse’ person I am.”

O’Reilly credits Syracuse University for helping her handle the intense scrutiny. On her very first day in her first class over Zoom as a student at Syracuse, O’Reilly got a copy of the Library Bill of Rights. Her professor sent one to each student and asked them to put it somewhere they would see it every day. Four years later, she still remembers that moment and says she has worked hard to uphold the values in that bill.

“Knowing I have a duty to uphold those values – and that librarians everywhere are fighting the same fight and have been throughout history – has been one of the many things that has made it easy to work towards protecting my students’ rights,” she says.

O’Reilly received the master’s degree award from Syracuse her graduating year. She credits the following classes at Syracuse for being instrumental in her career:

  • “IST 613 (Library Planning, Marketing and Assessment) was crucial in showing me how to effectively plan my space and my programs so that they would serve my students as well as possible.”
  • “IST 663 (Motivating 21st Century Learning) and IST 564 (Accessible Library and Info Services) majorly informed my teaching style and how I think about differentiation when planning instruction and library services.”

‘Little Reader’

O’Reilly has always been passionate about books, but she didn’t always feel the same about libraries. As a child, she was a voracious reader, but she didn’t spend much time in libraries. They intimidated her, and she didn’t understand their value. Still, she read so much that her grandmother had a special nickname for her.

“My grandma’s friend thought my name was ‘Rita’ for a little while because she used to call me her ‘little reader’ with her New Jersey accent,” says O’Reilly. 

That’s why O’Reilly is so determined to help young students love reading as much as she does. She also wants the library to be a safe, welcoming, inclusive place without the intimidation factor that she felt as a child. To do that, she wants to host more community-building events and create a media literacy course.

Despite the backlash she has faced in the past year, O’Reilly says she still loves her job and is thankful for the education she received at Syracuse. 

“When I first started my MLIS program, I wasn’t sure if I’d end up in a school or public library,” she says. “But I’m so, so glad I chose schools. The kids make me laugh every single day. They’re just so full of life and good, positive energy. I come home with happy stories to tell every single day.”