By Jamie LaRue, Executive Director
Garfield County Libraries
on behalf of the Colorado Association of Libraries Future Interest Group
In a recent Youtube presentation on the public good, former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich cited a startling statistic. Public confidence that government did the right thing all or most of the time fell from 71% in 1963 to 16% in 2016. That was before Donald Trump became president.
Pick an institution–the church, the Supreme Court, public schools, Congress, television news–and the general trend seems pretty clear. Confidence in institutions is falling across the board. There are outliers, but after reviewing this Gallup report, I can’t help but wonder how America’s libraries are doing.
Today we’re witnessing the greatest surge of book challenges since the founding of ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom in 1967. Some of these campaigns are certainly coordinated, but it’s not always clear by whom. These challenges aren’t just against particular titles or themes (although most of them focus on books by or about LGBTQ+ and people of color). Increasingly, they are against librarians themselves.
A new case in Colorado raises some interesting wrinkles.
In November of last year, the Gunnison County Library District received a request to remove Maia Kobabe’s book Gender Queer: A Memoir. After a very public presentation by the complainant at a Board of County Commissioner meeting, and a large public turnout at a library board meeting where citizens mostly opposed censorship, two local newspapers requested a copy of the original Request for Reconsideration form. The library complied.
But then the complainant went to the Gunnison Police Department claiming that the library had violated Colorado’s patron confidentiality law. The District Attorney agreed with the library that releasing the name of a person filing a public challenge did not violate the law. Following extensive media coverage of public discussion on Gender Queer, the library received several more book challenges. The Crested Butte News requested all of those challenges, too. After reviewing both the Colorado Open Records Act and the confidentiality law, the library sought a clarifying opinion from Colorado’s seventh judicial district. The judge determined that the records could be provided to the newspaper, but that the names and addresses should be redacted.
At this writing, the Crested Butte News, with the help of counsel from the Reporter’s Committee for Freedom of the Press, is filing an appeal. As Drew Brookhart, Executive Director of the Gunnison County Library District, notes, “The 7th Judicial District’s decision is only binding on six counties in western Colorado. The Colorado Court of Appeals decision will be binding on all of Colorado’s sixty-four counties.”
On the one hand, patrons might well be concerned that revealing their names opens them to public attacks and personal harassment, much like those directed against school librarians in Texas. On the other hand, as the newspapers allege, it is a matter of public significance to know just who is behind concerted attacks not just against library materials, but against public policies. And of course, the original complainant had already made the challenge at a public commissioner meeting.
While we don’t know how this situation will resolve, it raises many questions. Here are just a few. Please leave your comments and thoughts below.
- Librarians have long valued patron privacy. Does that extend to shielding patrons’ names and residences when they seek fundamental changes to library policy?
- Harassment, up to and including death threats, is a growing problem for many public officials, from librarians to election workers to Supreme Court Justices. How should librarians (and, potentially, Trustees) defend themselves?
- How should libraries respond to challenges that may well reveal diminishing trust in the institution itself?
1. I just reviewed my own district’s reconsideration of materials policy; I assume Garfield County’s is much the same. The fourth step in the process allows the patron to present their complaint to the library’s governing board during a regularly-scheduled board meeting. What is unspoken in the policy is whether the patron must present their complaint during the open meeting, or if they could request to make the presentation within an executive session. I think we all assume the former, at which point the patron has willingly spoken in a public meeting and therefore has relinquished their right to privacy. Indeed, any time the complainant presents their participation in the request process in a public forum, including a county commissioners’ meeting, they have relinquished their right to privacy.
It’s another question whether the patron could request to make their presentation in an executive session. My brief review of the Colorado Open Meetings law (https://coloradofoic.org/open-government-guide/#Executive_sessions) suggests that the patron could do so. But the board must make their decision during the public meeting. Maybe we all need to amend our Reconsideration of Materials processes to give patrons the option of presenting in executive session. And some language about the patron’s giving up privacy when they discuss the matter in a public meeting might be useful, too.
2. Harassment is scary, but not new. I served on one municipal board where I remember very clearly being shown the panic buttons installed at the dais. I now serve on a different commission where citizens may have great passion about the topics under discussion. When we know there is a sensitive issue on the agenda we request that a police officer be present & visible at the meeting. It’s a sad statement about civility, but town business must go on and must be transparent to the public.
One of the things I love about being a public librarian is wearing my name tag when I’m out & about. It sparks the most interesting conversations and gives me opportunities to meet our patrons where they are. But I’m in an administrative position and signed up knowing that identifying myself in public is part of the deal. For security’s sake, we always give most staff the option of leaving their last names of their name tags.
3. I think the materials reconsideration process must of us follow is, frankly, the best way to preserve trust in the institution. My homeowners’ association’s processes sure aren’t as transparent. We also must remember that sometimes the patron is right. I recently took a complaint about an easy book that a mom felt featured too much nudity. I had very intentionally chosen the book because of its lovely presentation of a different culture. But I could also understand the mom’s dismay when she went to read aloud the book her small son had pulled off the shelf. I talked it over with my staff. We decided to move the book to adult non-fiction and specifically give it a “[country – social life and customs” subject heading. When I called the mom to let her know how we resolved her issue, she was astonished. She said she never expected us to follow up personally. It was wonderful to thank her for her interest and let her know how much we value her use of the library.
Laurie, interesting thoughts. It might make sense to change the policy to say an appeal doesn’t have to be in person, but may be confidential, whether as a review and decision without the patron present, or to be present in executive session. What do others think?
The lower court’s decision is erroneous in that it confuses book challenges with library use. A challenge is inherently not use because a challenge does not involve a transaction in which a person derives some kind of value from services. In fact, a material challenge represents quite the opposite: An attempt to deprive others of their value and enjoyment of a given material. Therefore, it is “anti-use.” It is widely agreed among librarians and public officials that a certain degree of confidentiality is essential in order to allow an individual to feel safe so that they can obtain and explore information without fear of stigma or retribution. However, a person or group who is challenging and preventing others’ use and enjoyment of materials or services is not attempting to obtain knowledge or enjoyment for themselves. Their attempts at secrecy are a political tactic which obtains power through a lack of accountability created through anonymity. A fundamental precept to the function of our democratic republic is transparency. Transparency needs to exist for effective dialog and negotiation. If a political person is doing political things for an ideological reason, then that should be transparent because they are affecting the lives of countless others. A political or ideological move based on beliefs is not use of the library. It is a public act attempting to alter public policy and public resources. Therefore, the essential synchrony of privacy and intellectual freedom does not apply here.
Thanks, Tim. That’s one defensible read. Here’s another: a local trans woman finds a book that she believes promotes violence against trans women. She seeks its removal and replacement with another book. The director disagrees, so the original complainant wants to appeal the decision to the board. But she also fears outing herself in a community that has already shown some hostility. In that case, it IS library use, it’s an earnest dialog about collection standards, and either she has to give up her privacy, or has to let her appeal go. Of course, MOST of the challenges I see are more like your view (coordinated campaigns for political purposes). But all of them don’t have to be.
For me, the trickiest part is that many librarians appear to assume right now that all the requests for reconsideration are “attacks, ” often politically motivated. Undeniably, a lot of them are, and so my first instinct was that book challenges should be open record, but, after thinking about it a little more, I think I’m changing my view. Many patrons have concerns that are well-intentioned and in line with their values and only want to have a dialogue with their library; should they be subject to having their views open record? Would I want mine? I’m a public librarian who believes deeply in the freedom to read, and yet I”ve had times when I don’t agree with how certain materials are cataloged, shelved, etc. I don’t expect my views to prevail, but I like to have the conversation. If I’ve felt nervous raising certain questions with my colleagues, how must certain of our patrons feel?
I think the often vague language in these statutes (which vary state by state) make this an important issue to consider — but one that is not conducive to conclusions that reach beyond the borders of one state. I don’t expect the answer will be the same everywhere. But it’s an issue I had not thought about before and will now — so thank you for the post.
Thank you for the thoughtful post, Jamie. This is an interesting discussion.
I’ve been thinking about your broader comments on trust and potential harassment.
A few years back I wrote a bit about trust in libraries, why we might need to be cautious about trust rankings, and what we might learn from the challenges of trust that journalists face. The world has changed a lot since then, but the context still seems relevant (https://www.nextlibraries.org/2018/03/in-libraries-we-trust/, https://www.nextlibraries.org/2018/04/the-truth-about-trust-building/).
As we think about how librarians and trustees might protect themselves from harassment, we could look again to journalists, who have been dealing with serious threats for a very long time. There’s safety curricula in journalism schools, the international Committee to Protect Journalists, and a lot more (https://jamesfoleyfoundation.org/journalist-safety, https://cpj.org/about/, etc.).
Looking ahead, I’m afraid we’ll need to get more proactive about strategies for librarian safety. For starters, there’s much to be learned from the privacy lessons of the Library Freedom Project—for our patrons and our libraries, as well as for ourselves (https://libraryfreedom.org). I think this is just the beginning of a discussion that we’d rather not have to have, but unfortunately, we need to.
Thank you all for your thoughts. Laurie, thanks especially for the other links on trust. Great reading.