University of Pittsburgh at Greensburg professor Liz Jones can still remember the first time she picked up a copy of Elie Wiesel’s memoir “Night,” at 12 years old.

The book’s frank descriptions of the horrors of the Holocaust would stick with her for life.

“It blew me away. I was horrified,” she said. “Yes, it upset me to the core. But it also, I think, had a very positive effect on my life as a whole. The whole trajectory of my life changed when I read these books. I had nightmares — I still think about it. How do you not, once you’ve read that?

”But that’s education.”

Jones and other experts from local universities talked about the benefit that having access to books on complex topics like “Night” can have for students during a panel discussion Thursday evening.

The panel — titled “What Do We Lose By Banning Books?” — highlighted the harms of restricting books in libraries and schools across the country.

The event was held at the Greensburg YWCA and organized by community organization Voice of Westmoreland. Professors, librarians and administrators from the University of Pittsburgh at Greensburg, Saint Vincent College and Seton Hill University discussed the topic and answered questions from the audience of parents and adults.

The meeting comes nearly a full school year after Hempfield Area School Board voted to adopt new rules governing books and other library materials.

The policies, finalized last August, were the result of more than a year and a half of debate. They dealt with how books are evaluated and which ones can be added to the library, set restrictions on sexual content and nudity in texts and formalized procedures for book challenges.

Earlier last year, Norwin School Board also debated and rejected proposals to ban a book, “Al Capone Does My Shirts,” from the school’s curriculum.

Impact of bans

The panelists shared their experiences and perspectives on book bans and restrictions.

Dean of the Seton Hill University School of Humanities David Von Schlichten moderated the panel. The panelists were Jones, an English literature professor; Keisha Jimmerson, the dean of students and diversity officer at Seton Hill University; Renee Kiner, a public services librarian at the University of Pittsburgh at Greensburg; and Dennis McDaniel, English professor at Saint Vincent College.

Jones talked about her history working with young people who had experienced trauma and mental health struggles, and how books that dealt with traumatic topics were useful tools in helping those children.

“A book can be a very good friend to a child,” Jones said. “I’m deeply aware of how valuable these books, which are frequently challenged because they deal with difficult material, really are a good friend to children who have been in crisis, who maybe aren’t able to talk about what’s happened to them, because they emotionally can’t handle it.”

Jimmerson spoke on her experience as an educator, parent, woman of color and former first-generation college student. She juxtaposed the history of marginalized people’s struggle to access education and the ongoing conflicts against censorship.

“For me, I will be very transparent, it evokes a visceral reaction, a mixture of sadness, anger and disbelief. It is a betrayal of the sacrifices made by those who fought for the right to learn and to be heard,” Jimmerson said of book bans. “As educators, parents and advocates, it falls upon us to uphold enlightenment to nurture the next generation of critical thinkers and truth seekers.”

She encouraged people to have open dialogues about challenging topics.

“If you ban books, if people aren’t educated, it’s easy to control them. It really is that simple,” she said. “I really believe in that open dialogue, and to hear other people’s perspectives on things. It’s OK to be uncomfortable. … We don’t have to wrap our young people in cocoons.”

McDaniel noted that many Saint Vincent students come to the university from Hempfield and Norwin. He expressed concern that students from schools that restrict books may graduate less prepared for college and the real world.

Books, he said, can give students exposure to people who live different lives than they do.

“The books that have been suppressed are not sexually explicit books necessarily. They’re books that champion diversity, or books that champion queer people,” McDaniel said. “The theme seems to be throughout history, in every instance of book banning is we’re trying to suppress the ideas that challenge the ideas of the powerful. That’s what has to be addressed.”

Kiner encouraged people who care about fighting book bans to get involved and run for school board seats. She talked about her experience as a librarian and pointed out that librarians have access to information about the age-appropriateness of certain books. She said she gives Pitt-Greensburg students a warning about content if she is recommending them a book that might be disturbing.

“An individual has their right to read whatever they want. If we’re talking about young children, it’s the responsibility of their parents to check,” Kiner said. “Even with students now, if someone asks for a recommendation, I will say, ‘I recommend (whatever) book. But just so you know, there is this in it, if you’re uncomfortable with it.’ I don’t just say, ‘This book is great, go read it, and then be upset by it.’ ”

Gathering on reading

Ceil Kessler, a leader with Voice of Westmoreland, helped organize the event. She has spoken at Hempfield Area School District meetings in the past on the book policy issue.

Although it has been nearly eight months since the new book polices were approved at Hempfield, she hopes to keep the conversation going about access to books.

“These things are still happening. I really felt like it was important for people in the community, people sitting on school boards, to understand the colleges that are locally here, the faculty that’s locally here, they are still very much opposed to this,” she said. “They see a lot of downsides for students. Especially when we’re talking about high school students going into their next step to college, the college faculty sees that this is a detriment for students.”

She was encouraged to see new faces at the meeting.

“There’s community members here that I haven’t seen at school board meetings. It’s nice to see that people still have interest in this topic,” she said.

Anita Leonard, a Greensburg resident, said she is passionate about literacy because of how a librarian helped her when she was struggling with dyslexia.

“I thought it was an excellent outcome and discussion,” she said. “It was better than I anticipated.”

Eileen Krynock, who lives in Kiski Area School District, said she worries about the opportunities kids will have to access information in the face of book bans. She said she has paid attention to the Hempfield Area School District discussions about book restrictions.

“My youngest daughter is nonbinary,” Krynock said. “Being able to read about things doesn’t change who you are — it just educates you a little bit.”

Julia Maruca is a TribLive reporter covering health and the Greensburg and Hempfield areas. She joined the Trib in 2022 after working at the Butler Eagle covering southwestern Butler County. She can be reached at