Last school year – for the first time in Gena Marker’s 14 years as a librarian – two books were pulled from her shelves.
Marker, the librarian at Centennial High School in Boise, was able to hand those books — “Gender Queer: A Memoir,” by Maia Kobabe and “This Book is Gay,” by Juno Dawson — to an LGBTQ teen who deeply appreciated them. But this school year, Marker won’t have the same opportunity, because those titles are now forbidden on campus.
Marker moderated a panel discussion on book challenges, censorship and serving students Wednesday at the Idaho Commission for Libraries’ Summer Summit conference.
The conversation was timely, following a session session where the types of books on shelves became a flash point for Republican lawmakers. The library commission budget was threatened due to controversy over whether Idaho kids could access what some lawmakers deemed “obscene” reading materials (the budget bill eventually passed). And Legislators introduced a bill (which did not become harmful law) that would see librarians, teachers, and museum staff members fined and/or jailed if they disseminated “material to minors.”
And Idaho districts are banning books, sometimes in large numbers – the Nampa School District made a controversial decision to pull 22 books from its shelves this year.
Wednesday’s panel aimed at foster conversation about how to navigate the increasing calls for censorship in libraries.
“It’s easy to feel personal despair in the wake of book challenges,” Marker said. “I was seen as a peddler of pornography by providing access to these books.”
Marker said the process that led to pulling the two books from her shelves — both of which are on the American Library Association’s list of the Top 10 Most Challenged Books of 2021 — was long and involved. But for librarians, such processes are likely to be the new normal.
“Would I do this again in the name of intellectual freedom? You bet,” she said of her efforts to protect the titles. “Will I do this again in the near future? Most likely.”
Librarians are preparing for continued efforts to ban books by creating clear policies and processes
Librarians across the state are revamping their policies and processes in anticipation of more attempts to ban books.
Generally, here’s what happens when a parent or patron challenges a book:
▪ Most districts ask them to fill out a form like this one that details their concerns.
▪ Some districts temporarily remove the titles while they are being reviewed; others leave them in circulation until a decision is made.
▪ The complaint is reviewed by a panel that ultimately decides whether to remove the book.
▪ The panel might include a librarian and/or teacher, an administrator, a district official, parents, and students. The complainant and teacher/librarian most involved are sometimes excluded, but can attend the hearing and offer their thoughts.
▪ The complainant can sometimes appeal the decision. At that point, it would likely go before a second panel or the school board. That decision would be final.
Julie Briggs, the district library coordinator for Bonneville Joint School District in Idaho Falls, said it’s important that concerned patrons read the entire book in question and do not base complaints on “passages pulled out of context.”
She also pointed out that a third book challenge outcome – in addition to keeping or banning a text – is to move the book to another, more age-appropriate grade level. This school year, Briggs said her district moved a book from the elementary library and placed it in the middle school library.
Last fall, Briggs created a procedure for book challenges in her district, and she’s grateful she did because it streamlined the process.
In the face of public distrust, librarians are also working on building strong community relationships.
Building relationships helps dispel distrust and invite conversation
Natasha Rush, a teacher-librarian at Boise High School, said she does whatever she can to get out in the community and build relationships – whether that means keeping score at basketball games, subbing for classes, or participating in games at assemblies. Being part of the community makes civil, in-person conversations more likely if a parent becomes uncomfortable with a book, she said.
Her efforts seem to be working.
This school year, a parent approached her with concerns about a book called We Are the Ants by Shaun David Hutchinson. Rush discussed options with the parent. They could start the formal book challenge process and procedure, or she could make an electronic note so that the parent’s child would be unable to check out the book.
That way, she told the parent, “you can make the parenting decision for your child and not another.”
The parent hadn’t realized that was an option and decided to add the note instead of seeking permanent removal of the title.
“I’ve had lots of interactions like that with parents,” Rush said.
And it’s not just parents who question titles. Rush recalled a moment when students visiting the library were dismayed at seeing a biography on former president Donald Trump.
“Yes,” she told them. “Libraries have information on everything.”
Diverse books help students find belonging and better understanding of others
Kiersten Kerr, a teacher-librarian at Coeur d’Alene High School, said it is imperative for libraries to have a wide array of reading materials available for students.
“By giving choices, students can find something they relate to,” she said. “Students want to see themselves in what they read and know that they’re not alone, even if they feel alone in their schools.”
In her library, she hopes that all 1,600 of the school’s students can find a book that reflects them, whether in regards to race, sexual identity, home life, mental health, homelessness, trauma, or any other aspect of their experiences lived.
“Dominant social groups have always been reflected, but [those groups] may not know as much about others,” she said. “Regardless of a community’s demographics, students have a lot to learn about other people and groups.”
Rush agrees that library collections should have something for everyone.
“I will chain myself to my books,” she said. “I don’t care, I want every single person reflected.”
To look up your district’s policies on topics like challenge processes, intellectual freedom, and library and instructional materials, visit their website and navigate to the school board section. You should see a link to board policies. Most policies related to these topics will be classified under “instruction.”