Libraries see rise in requests to remove books

The Carver County Library Board of Advisors is set to discuss Tuesday a library user’s request to yank from the shelves the book “Gender Queer: a Memoir” — a graphic novel marketed for adults that has been decried as obscene by some.

The library board has never before considered removal of a book, according to library director Jodi Edstrom, but will take the unusual step Tuesday amid a national rise in requests to remove books, mirrored in several local libraries.

“We have seen, nationally, a significant rise in book challenges since the start of the pandemic,” said J.R. Genett, deputy director of the Hennepin County Library system, who also works with the American Library Association on intellectual freedom initiatives.

Nationally, Genett said, the American Library Association tallied more than 1,200 attempts to remove books from libraries in 2022, the highest number since the association started counting.

Challenges used to be more often about violent content, Dakota County library director Margaret Stone said, but now are more often made about books that deal with sexual orientation and gender identity, or books that deal frankly with race.

“When I first became director [in 2016] we had one or two a year,” she said. “We had three at the last meeting.”

In a scene repeated across the country over the last two years, sometimes with the backing of the conservative organizations like Moms for Liberty, a Bloomington school board meeting saw several people reading passages about sex from books they wanted removed from school libraries. On Monday, more than 100 people spoke for and against the books’ removal.

At the Carver County library board’s meeting last month, library patron Erin Busse showed pictures to board members from the comic book-like novel and asked if they thought the pictures were appropriate for children.

Removal requests typically begin with a conversation between a patron who objects to a work, and library staff who talk about why that book is on the shelves.

Stone said the one-on-one discussion at the library desk is the most important part of the process.

“It’s important to have the opportunity to question,” she said.

If a patron still does not agree that a book has a place in a library’s collection, they can fill out a form to request the book be “reconsidered,” and the form will be reviewed by some combination of the library staff and board, who make a final decision.

Forms to request a book’s removal typically ask if the person making the complaint has read the book in its entirety. In Carver County, the board members asked Busse if she had read “Gender Queer.”

“I have not sat down and read the book. I don’t know what the words are. I only know the pictures,” Busse said in August. Busse does not have a listed phone number so the Star Tribune was not able to reach her for further comment.

Though many recent challenged books are about gender identity, efforts to ban books do not always come from conservative factions, Genette said. More progressive readers might challenge materials that are racist or contain hate speech.

Genett said part of the library’s role is providing access to lightning-rod books. For example, she said, when the estate of Dr. Seuss decided to stop publishing some lesser-known titles because of racist tropes, Genett said Hennepin County libraries kept the books on the shelves.

“Our hold lists went through the roof,” she said, as a rhetorical storm gathered around the Dr. Seuss books a few years ago. “People wanted to learn about what was so controversial.”

The library has seen calls to remove Bill Cosby’s books after he was convicted of sexual assault, Genett said, but the books are still on the shelves. The library even carries Hitler’s “Mein Kampf.”

“We have never gotten rid of a book,” Genett said. “We always keep them because there are valid reasons.”

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