Banned Books: Utah Library Reports ‘Huge Increase’ in Contested Titles

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From protests over mask mandates to how teachers address history and race, public schools have become a cultural battleground for political and ideological conflict in America.

Last fall, nine titles were removed from the libraries of four high schools in Utah’s Canyons School District. School boards across the country have made similar decisions, removing books such as “To Kill a Mockingbird” and the Pulitzer Prize-winning Holocaust graphic novel, “Maus,” from libraries and curricula.

the American Library Association Office for Intellectual Freedom tracked 330 incidents of book censorship last fall alone, a rate “not seen in decades”, according to the National Coalition Against Censorshipand “books about LGBTQ people, race and racism” were the main targets.

Although extremely rare, some public libraries in Utah have also noticed an increase in book challenges – requests for books to be removed or moved to different sections of the library. Librarian Wanda Mae Huffaker heads the Salt Lake County Library committee that oversees reconsideration requests and was formerly chair of the Intellectual Freedom Roundtable.

The county library — which is the largest library system in the state — received 11 requests in 2021, a “huge increase” from the previous high of about three to five per year, according to Huffaker.

Most of the books were challenged “for depictions of sex and/or the body,” Huffaker said in an email, but many targeted books also feature LGBTQ characters, such as “Gender Queer,” “Lawn Boy ” and “Flamer”. “Two Pride displays were also disputed.

None of the documents were deleted, although the book “Sex Is a Funny Word” was reclassified in the young adult section.

Wanda Mae Huffaker, librarian at Ruth Vine Tyler Library in Midvale, flips through ‘Ultimate Body-pedia’ as sex-related books have often been targeted for removal from library shelves, Thursday, March 24, 2022.

Mengshin Lin, Deseret News

Are book bans a growing problem?

Huffaker thinks the increased focus on books in schools has contributed to the high number of challenges in public libraries, but points out that handling complaints is part of the job, and it’s something librarians try to manage with. delicacy and respect. After all, the First Amendment that guarantees freedom of speech also guarantees the right “to petition the government for redress of grievances.”

“If someone wants to come in and ask us to review a book…I don’t necessarily see that as a negative thing,” Huffaker said, adding that she’s open to discussing the library’s final decision with patrons and to explain its policies and the reasons for transporting certain materials.

What is more concerning, she says, are organized campaigns that attempt to “stir up” public outrage and opposition to certain issues.

Activist groups like Utah Parents United have made a concerted effort to fight “sexually explicit” books in schools. His website includes a video with instructions for searching for sexual content and links to a list of nearly 600 “potentially obscene books to review”.

The list appears to have been compiled in part by searching for terms such as “YA Sex Books” or “LGBTQ” on Good reads and other databases. It also includes books on race and slavery, such as “Stamped,” by bestselling author Ibram X. Kendi, and “Who Was Frederick Douglass?” a children’s biography of the black abolitionist. The only explanation claimed that the two books possibly contained “critical race theory”.

Utah Parents United recommends calling the police to report the books, although school officials have requested otherwise.

“Please don’t call the police, they have a lot of serious issues they are dealing with, and all they will do is just refer you to the district administrator,” said Ben Horsley of the Granite School District. KTV.

Huffaker said that kind of mobilization hasn’t targeted public libraries, which haven’t been as central to the recent culture wars. But there may be overlap, as most of the challenged books in the Salt Lake Library system were on the “potentially obscene” list linked to the Utah Parents United website.

Sex or violence are regularly used as a “pretext” to challenge the books, while the “common denominator” is often their focus on LGBTQ issues or race, said Jason Groth, deputy general counsel for the ACLU of the ‘Utah.

Nudity, sexual language or violence are often cited in challenges in the books, “but if you actually read the books…that’s not necessarily the goal,” he said. “And often you see that the reviews or the quotes are very decontextualized from the whole message of the book.”

Salt Lake City Public Library’s Josh Hanagarne points out that obscenity is a hard thing to define – borrowing from Justice Potter Stewart “I know it when I see it” explanation – and most libraries have items in their collections that would be objectionable to some.

“You can find horror novels in any library that have the craziest things… just the most monstrous examples of what people can do to other people,” he said.

Books can’t be pulled from shelves based on “viewpoint discrimination,” Groth said, but when LGBTQ books are the only ones challenged for their sexual content, it can amount to a “rowdy veto.” “, where one person has an outsized impact on what everyone in the community can read.

“It’s okay for you to choose what you want to read, it’s not okay for you to choose what someone else can read,” said Trish Hull, branch manager at Kearns Library. “We have books to serve our entire community, not just a subset of it.”

“If we do our job well, we should have pieces in our collection that will offend everyone,” said Quinn Smith, director of marketing and communications for the Salt Lake City Public Library.

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Wanda Mae Huffaker, a Salt Lake County Library librarian for more than 40 years, thumbs through a book at the Ruth Vine Tyler Library in Midvale on Thursday, March 24, 2022. Huffaker has received more emails challenging the books’ content over the spent a few years.

Mengshin Lin, Deseret News

Hull said she is most concerned when teen books are challenged for their content, as teen authors are generally “very aware of their role” in helping young people navigate issues of sex, pregnancy, suicide, domestic violence and drugs – topics that some parents are reluctant to discuss. to discuss.

“These are important issues for children to know about, discuss and understand as they happen in the world,” Hull said. “I’m sorry, if you think that’s not the case, you need to be a little more aware of what’s going on in the world.”

She said most teen publications solve by giving readers solutions that can encourage them to get help or find solutions to difficult situations in real life.

How often are books banned?

As rare as book-related challenges are, it’s even rarer for a book to be checked out of a public library. Libraries rely on popular bestseller lists and critical reviews to determine the literary value of anything they add to their collection, making it unlikely that a title could be considered illegal obscenity.

Yet even when they fail, reading challenges can be a deterrent. The Washington Post report that some librarians are beginning to “self-censor” certain titles.

Challenges can also hurt already vulnerable populations, Groth said, sending a message that “these are not acceptable topics” or that “there is something wrong with the book.”

“I think creating this idea of ​​otherness…becomes very problematic when you see books that reflect who you are, or what you look like, being pulled or taken off the shelves. He says ‘There’s something that doesn’t is wrong with the topic, there is something wrong with you as a result.” …It not only creates a barrier to accessing those views, but it also stigmatizes who you are as an individual “, did he declare.

“It’s okay to believe different things as long as we treat each other civilly…and understand that everyone comes from a different perspective and different life experience. Judging someone based on his life experience and say he’s wrong, you can’t do that,” Hull said. “You can’t tell someone his life experience was wrong.”

Groth said opposition to certain topics or books “boiled” time and time again – often targeting the burning political and social issues of the time – before finally fading away. He doesn’t see that happening anytime soon, however, thanks to the high level of organization online and across the country.

Hull compared it to a pendulum, saying she hopes it comes back in the middle, so “we can talk to each other and discuss the differences and not feel like we have to ban each other”. She said she was saddened and surprised to see the challenges of the books gaining so much traction recently, adding that the books are meant to build unity, not division.

“I haven’t read a book yet, or asked anyone to read a book about people they don’t know or about a situation they don’t understand and don’t feel empathy or sympathy for. compassion,” she said.

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