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Colorado libraries criticize book bans

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2023 saw the most book challenges ever recorded in the United States at 4,240 unique titles — a 65% increase from 2022, according to the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom. There were eight challenges of 136 titles in Colorado from January to August 2023.

The sharp increase in book bans aligns with a tense and polarized political landscape dating back to the 2020 presidential election. “Free speech” is a buzzword that has been brandished in social media debates and social justice movements — it’s enshrined in the U.S. Constitution, but what is the First Amendment doing for books in American libraries?

American Library Association Office for Intellectual Freedom

Diane Lapierre, executive director of the Poudre River Public Library District, has never had to officially remove a book from their collection. Some individual titles are evaluated according to their criteria — such as whether there are updated editions available and what other libraries’ decisions have been — and emerge with a verdict to be re-shelved from the children’s section to the teen’s section, for example.

Lapierre said she’s seen no common thread between content, authors or genres that are challenged at Poudre Libraries but that she always gives it careful consideration. In her experience, removal requests have included a children’s book containing a cartoon gladiator battling a lion in ancient Rome; a biography of women in the Middle East that began with a map including Palestine but not Israel; Spanish photo novellas containing sexually violent scenes; or the movie “The Comedian” starring Robert De Niro because “it wasn’t very funny.”

Other states like Texas and Florida that ban the most books often challenge LGBTQ+ content or authors of color; some of the most nationally challenged titles include “All Boys Aren’t Blue” by George M. Johnson, “The Bluest Eye” by Toni Morrison, “This Book is Gay” by Juno Dawson and “Gender Queer: A Memoir” by Maia Kobabe. But beyond what the ALA reports, many book challenges take the form of informal requests on a local level.

“While I don’t get a lot of requests for reconsideration of LGBTQ titles, what we do find is that people — if we have a display — will go to the shelves where the books are and ‘hide the pride’: They will take books and remove them from the display or the shelves and put them in other parts of the library, tuck them down behind the shelves or put them with the pages forward, which makes it really easy for us to see which ones have been misshelved,” Lapierre said.

Colorado has seen multiple counts for book banning legislation to attempt to regulate the process, many without coming to fruition. In February, Colorado’s Senate Education Committee voted against Senate Bill 49 that would have made it more difficult to ban content from schools’ or public libraries. But in 2022, the Board of Trustees of Wellington, Colorado, passed a resolution effectively banning book bans at their local library.  

In essence, the city prohibited the restriction of any content available by the Wellington Public Library: “The Board of Trustees hereby supports the freedom to read and opposes book banning and other attempts to patrons’ access to information. The Board of Trustees shall take no action to censor, suppress, remove, monitor or place age restrictions on ideas or information in our public library. The Board of Trustees stands firmly with the mission of the Wellington Public Library, which is a vital part of our democratic fabric and provides knowledge access for all.”

Wellington Deputy Town Administrator Kelly Houghteling drafted the resolution after one community member began rallying support on social media and questioning why certain titles were provided by Wellington Public Library. Houghteling said the passionate community response was unlike anything she’d seen, swiftly cutting the conversation short before it could constitute an official book ban — even making national headlines.

“It’s incredible how much impact that a local group of involved residents can have on the community,” Houghteling said. “People so often don’t know what’s going on at the local level. … We have council meetings every board meetings every Tuesday night. Respectfully, it’s the same five people: Those same five people, their voice is amplified more than others, and that could be — for some people — for better or for worse. So if people actually got involved, got engaged and made their voice heard, you would have the community that you’d like to see.”

Wellington’s recent city elections April 2 leave open the possibility for any preexisting legislation to change with new leadership. When the resolution was passed 5-2 in September 2022, Houghteling said Wellington’s city council meetings evolved into long nights of heated discussion from both sides of the spectrum: those against a ban in the community and those wanting to leave open the possibility to restrict some content.

“It gets complicated because you can end up restricting that very thing that you are about, which is free speech,” Lapierre said of Wellington’s resolution. “It’s a fine line and something that intellectually can be very challenging to consider: … how far you want to be on ideas of free speech versus protecting the community.”

The definition of each varies from person to person; what some call censorship is viewed by others as protection.

“Overwhelmingly in my library and my experience in libraries across the country, it has usually been a parent or a grandparent who has a concern about content not being appropriate for their children or their grandchildren — or even if it’s not a parent, again the concern is that this content is not appropriate for children,” Lapierre said. “It comes from this place of protecting.”

“I think it comes from fear, and everyone can understand that at its most basic level, but your fear shouldn’t allow you or motivate you to remove something that somebody else might not be afraid of and something that might be vital to them,” said Annaclaire Crumpton, digital communications specialist with Poudre Libraries.

National groups like Moms for Liberty have taken the issue of book bans and put it on steroids, Lapierre said. Beyond community members making requests for an individual title, such organizations have formed that introduce entire lists of books that, in their opinion, aren’t suitable for schools or public libraries.

“The common thread doesn’t lie with the books themselves,” said Louis Force Torres, founder of Polyverse Publishing Group. “It’s not the theme of the book that’s being banned, but rather it’s the people who ban.”

Groups who believe their word is the only word goes against the founding principle of Torres’ company: “poly,” meaning “many,” and “verse,” as in “universe.” Torres said the common denominator among those in favor of banning books is often being told to dislike a work without actually having read it, which makes the national book banning movement — driven by lists and group chapters across the country — dangerously imposing on local communities.

“We are a public forum, and there are going to be ideas and images and displays that may not be the thing that you would choose to experience, but that’s sort of the risk and the benefit of having a public library — where people from all walks of life can come in and hopefully see themselves reflected in what we carry and also see a different perspective reflected,” Lapierre said. “This is a place where you can come and experience a broad range of ideas, and some of them may make you feel uncomfortable or not align with your own personal values, and that’s OK.”

It can be a slippery slope when someone makes a claim about a certain type of content based on a personal or political stance that is neglected to be applied to similar content; it can be impossible to standardize.

“Who gets to decide what is and isn’t controversial, and what if there is value in having conversations about things that are controversial?” Lapierre said. “Do you set yourself up for not having the wide range of views and perspectives that the library should have? … What criteria do you use, and how many other things would fit that criteria?”

The book banning conversation comes down to whether every community member can agree on the content that should be removed, the likelihood of which is close to zero and an unreasonable expectation in a vastly diverse country founded on the notion of freedom.

The question is raised of whether silencing certain voices can be justified — and for whom.

“Book bans can come from the whole political spectrum and from any background of beliefs as well,” Crumpton said. “If you look at the data of what books have been challenged in the state, it doesn’t necessarily ascribe to one particular ideology always.”

Diversity of thought is the basis of literature, the basis of democracy and the basis of innovation. Productive discourse is not defined by agreement but by expansion of thought.

“That’s what democracy and what our country is based on: You’re able to read, think, explore and interact with each other in a way that preserves free thinking and new ideas coming forward,” Lapierre said.

Torres said bans rarely achieve what they’re meant to achieve.

“It’s almost like the unfortunate situation with abortions,” Torres said. “If something is vilified — even for health reasons — if something is being crushed and stomped down, then people will find a more dangerous and potentially life-threatening way to get that needed service.” Torres added that with the digitization of books and piracy in a global network of communication, it can be impossible to ban any one piece of media completely.

Libraries and bookstores are divided into sections for a reason. As keepers of knowledge, tomes of history and indicators of the future, different books serve and attract different readers. How is a public library meant to serve everyone if it is constantly being asked to remove content that has every chance of being essential to another? Even the darkest chapters of history are to be learned from, not erased.

“The books are written; they’re there. And you can learn from them and take from them what you will, but they’re not jumping off the shelf and screaming in your face their message,” Torres said. “To be assaulted by advertising is a more bannable thing in my mind than a book that sits there on the shelf waiting to give knowledge. Whether it’s considered good or bad to the reader, you can still learn from it.”

Poudre Libraries was one of many libraries that celebrated Banned Books Week in October, with events that included a challenge to read a banned book, public readings of banned books and writing postcards to various elected leaders advocating for the right of people to have access to a broad range of ideas.

“(Book bans are) an infringement of our First Amendment at its most basic form,” Crumpton said. “We don’t want more book bans, but it’s good that awareness of the issue is appropriately responding to the amount of books being challenged and banned.”

Poudre Libraries offers many services that Crumpton said she wishes residents knew more about. Beyond books, library card holders can check out gadgets ranging from ukuleles and record players to state park passes and GoPro cameras. Their free events include monthly book club meetings, adult crafting nights and language learning resources, “whether you’re learning English as a second language or you’re wanting to learn some conversational Italian before you go on a trip,” Crumpton said.

A Poudre Libraries card is free with a photo ID and proof of a Colorado address.

“Intellectual freedom is one of our core values, and that is closely connected to censorship and book banning and book challenges,” Crumpton said. “As stewards of democracy and intellectual freedom, we’re not going to bow in the face of any challenges or bans to defend that intellectual freedom.”

Lapierre quoted Jo Godwin to epitomize her mission after having worked in public libraries for 30-plus years so far: “A truly great library contains something in it to offend everyone.”

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