Coming soon to a library near you? Book wars and the battle of banning literature

By: - January 22, 2022 9:48 am

A display of banned books at a library during Banned Books Week 2016 (Photo by Charles Hackley via Flickr | CC-BY-SA 2.0)

Two library directors, weeks of controversy and hundreds of comments later, Kalispell is no closer to deciding what to do with the book “Gender Queer” by Maia Kobabe.

Last week, Kalispell’s Public Library board decided to indefinitely suspend conversation about “Gender Queer,” one of two books that had been challenged, while leaving Jonathan Evison’s “Lawn Boy” on the shelves.

Those books had become the center of a controversy about materials available at the public library in the conservative community of Kalispell, located in Montana’s Flathead Valley. Both books were part of the adult literature collection and both had been targeted in other library debates throughout the country. Both deal with gender, identity and sexuality, raising hackles with some conservative patrons who considered the content bordering on illegal.

While libraries throughout the state have often had procedures for residents to challenge offensive or controversial materials, those challenges, until recently, have been few and far between. And while the Montana Library Association said the number of challenges being reported throughout the network of libraries hasn’t really changed, national groups and organizations have said that the cultural wars that have been waged in places like Washington, D.C., or New York City are moving across the country and taking place inside local libraries.

Libraries, directors and librarians are finding themselves increasingly on the frontlines of a battle that targets materials and books dealing with sexuality and gender identity.

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Both books by Kobabe and Evison have been challenged elsewhere, but the controversy boiled over in Kalispell in a power struggle that pitted the public library’s directors against the staff. With one library director having already resigned, Martha Furman assumed the interim director position.

Furman gave notice that she, too, would resign on Dec. 10, 2021, after the controversy continued, writing a note to the community.

“I have the responsibility to protect the public’s right to freely access information, that is, free from interference from government, religious or political views,” she said. “The library is obligated to provide a wide range of views, including those that may be considered unorthodox or unpopular.”

Both books were being challenged out of concerns for their subject matter, but both books were in the adult literature section, not in the youth or young adult section.

Libraries throughout the state have their own oversight and rules, said Kirk Vriesman, executive director of the Montana Library Association.

While no other libraries in the state have reported similar problems, Vriesman acknowledged to the Daily Montanan that there’s been an increase in nationwide challenges, with the two titles being some of the most challenged literature currently.

In an article published by the 19th, Nadra Nittle reported that the American Library Association said it had counted 60 percent more challenges in September 2021 than it had recorded in the previous year in September.

In nearby Wyoming, the Campbell County Public Library was embroiled in a controversy when it disinvited a transgender magician to perform there. That was also followed by a pastor who charged that books ranging from substance addiction to witchcraft to sexuality violated the state’s obscenity laws. Ultimately, a special prosecutor decline to file charges, but experts around the country said the case has a particularly pernicious effect on libraries by causing libraries to resist having a collection of diverse materials, and also emboldening those who want to take the cultural wars to the local library.

While a repository of all challenged books and materials doesn’t exist, experts in the industry say that it appears that most of the controversial items deal with sexuality, gender or race like “Gender Queer,” but sometimes extends to something as commonplace as American author Toni Morrison.

Challenges and challenges

Gavin Woltjer, the director of the Billings Public Library, said most libraries have a challenge process for materials that patrons disagree or object to. While the format or procedure may vary, the principle is usually the same – it’s a process to evaluate the content, have a wider discussion and see if the content fits within the library’s collections.

For example, when a patron objects to materials in Billings, Woltjer said the patron fills out a form that describes the objection. From there, Woltjer himself goes and removes the item and takes it to his office. Library staff then complete history and research on the item, including what reviewers had to say about the material; where the item is located in the collection; how many times it’s been circulated, or checked out; and other libraries that have the same item. From there, the item is placed on the agenda for the library board to consider. There are a number of options available, Woltjer said. Those options include reclassification to a different section; it can remain in its original place; or it can be removed. The board’s decision can be appealed to the city administrator, who has the final call. In his experience so far, that has never happened.

Woltjer said that while book challenges have been politicized, he also welcomes the process because it’s a chance to have a conversation about expectations of a public library and to evaluate content.

“It’s never an either or – and it’s never a bad process,” Woltjer said. “You, as the patron, have every right to challenge something, and I’ll help you. “

He said that a public library is different than an academic library you’d find at a university.

“And, as a public library, this isn’t my private collection, either,” Woltjer said. “All of us has a bias. Even if they challenge an object I love, I am not going to say that. It’s very ‘Dragnet’ – just the facts. It’s not emotionless but it’s as emotionless as possible.”

Woltjer said the collection is dynamic – always changing and patrons’ interest change, too. Sometimes items that were controversial age out and are not replaced. Sometimes, an item that has been controversial for years is replaced and continues to be controversial.

“I have an inherent bias, like all people. There is plenty of stuff I think is garbage. Or maybe I am not into it. Philosophically, spiritually, I disagree. But the question is: Does it belong?” Woltjer said. “That’s the goal of the collection: If you walk up and down the aisles, is it a curated library of voices and perspectives about all sorts of things? In order to have the best education possible, you have to get all the voices.”

He said that many people understand public libraries and the librarians, most of whom have a master’s degree in library science, as gatekeepers.

“That’s a misnomer. We’re locksmiths and the role of a locksmith is to open the locks to a gate, but we don’t necessarily walk through them,” Woltjer said. “Our job is to make sure the cultural economy of the community is healthy.”

That means that the library staff has to walk a tricky line between putting objects and items that may challenge views or be controversial, but also curate a collection that matches interests and increases the public library’s usage.

“We may have a vastly different readership with different interests than, say Bozeman,”Woltjer said.

Right book, right age, right audience

Rachael Waller is a professor of early childhood education at Montana State University-Billings and studies literature for children and young adults. She teaches about diversity in literature and how teachers introduce concepts in education. Her specialty is in rural education and research.

She said that there’s been an increase in diversity of characters and that’s generally positive. The diversity comes in a variety of different ways, from different cultures, to color to sexuality. She grew up in rural North Dakota, and said she didn’t often see characters who reflected her experiences. The town’s library was the library at the high school, and the only characters that dealt with growing up in a rural setting were the classic but dated, “Little House on the Prairie.”

“Never as a kid did I encounter LGBTQ people or characters of color,” Waller said. “It was a pretty homogenous library.”

She said more diversity in literature tends to be a good thing for a number of reasons. First, it often helps expose young readers in homogenous communities to diversity that simply isn’t present. But it also helps children and youth identify with characters who are like them, if they’re in a minority group.

Even though there’s controversy surrounding books that deal with gender and sexuality, most parents, Waller said, even in rural or more conservative communities, generally want examples of diversity and their kids exposed to differing views they’re likely to encounter. Waller said most of the parents just want to know about materials their kids are reading and parents who are concerned should be monitoring what kids check out of the public library, as opposed to school libraries, which have a different type of curation or collections.

“Parents want a diverse perspective for their kids in a general way,” Waller said. “Part of the pushback is so political, and there’s a lot of talk about critical race theory, which isn’t addressed in the K-12 curriculum. Most parents are concerned that schools are teaching values contrary to the values of the parents or families.”

That controversy is making both teachers and librarians nervous to teach or have certain topics in the collection.

But Waller said it’s also the responsibility of the parents to read and judge for themselves what materials their children are viewing.

“Parents ultimately have control at least through middle school,” Waller said.

However, after that the emotional and intellectual maturity starts to vary from student to student.

“A very mature 12-year-old can handle something that a less mature teenager may not. It’s very personal, and developmentally, parents have to realize that kids are different, and it can be tricky,” Waller said.

Often, tools used by educators and librarians can help, like the lexile difficulty level of each reader.  Lexile scores are numbers that correspond with a reader’s ability. Knowing your child’s lexile level can help identify reading-level literature.

Waller said there are also more sites and information about young adult and youth literature to help parents. For example, if parents are looking for information about how to expose their children to subjects like Native American culture, looking for authors who have received awards and who are Native themselves is helpful.

In other cases, finding subject matter that is age appropriate is also essential. For example, one of the most popular books, “Heather has Two Mommies,” is a book that is often used in early elementary education and deals with the different types of family structures, like a traditional family, a blended family, a single-parent family or a same-sex couple. Waller said that without being graphic, the book does a good job of explaining different family structures, something kids often encounter as soon as they enroll in schools.

Ultimately, Waller said the discussion about these topics can be helpful – for example, a recent controversy surrounding Dr. Seuss can lead to larger discussion about what books perpetuate stereotypes and can also lead to a discussion of what material is appropriate at various age levels.

“It can be helpful if we allow ourselves to get there,” Waller said. “But often people are so angry that they just jump to conclusions.”

Waller said that one of the things that is less discussed is that the power of words, ideas and books can be a deeply personal issue.

“What you read is an extension of you and your thinking,” Waller said. “Adults need to scaffold what they’re reading. In education, we use the metaphors of windows, mirrors and sliding doors to talk about literature.

“If you’re a part of the cultural minority, having those books can help you understand and see yourself, but it also lets me as a White person have and build empathy. Shouting at each other is not an effective way to build curriculum.”

She said that while just banning books or idea may not be helpful, Waller said there’s an equal danger by just accepting as gospel, so to speak, all ideas in a controversial book.

“Yes, you should walk away from a challenging piece of literature with a new understanding of yourself and others or of a situation,” Waller said. “It’s fine to question the author and not take the author at their word. The goal is always to have a conversation but to leave with the feeling that you may have a perspective that may not be the same. Just because something is in the library doesn’t mean everyone has to read it.”

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Darrell Ehrlick
Darrell Ehrlick

Darrell Ehrlick is the editor-in-chief of the Daily Montanan, after leading his native state’s largest paper, The Billings Gazette. He is an award-winning journalist, author, historian and teacher, whose career has taken him to North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Utah, and Wyoming.