As book bans rise, could Nevada libraries offer solutions?

LGBTQ+ titles once again top the list of most challenged books nationwide.
A photograph of the Northwest Reno library branch.

The Northwest Reno library branch. Photo credit Black Hawk Virtual Media / Courtesy Washoe County Libraries

Banning books that contain ideas certain people don’t like is not a new idea. Yet, censorship in the form of challenging whether books should be available in school and libraries is at a record high. Across the country, parents, activists and provocateurs are especially pushing to remove material including LGBTQ+ themes and content.

Last year, the American Library Association (ALA) reported a new record number of book challenges. 2,571 unique titles were challenged in 2022, compared to 1,858 unique titles in 2021 and just 223 in 2020.

A graphic showing a huge increase in the number of book challenges. In 2020, it was 223. In 2022, it was up to 2,571.
A report from the American Library Association shows a steep rise in book challenges beginning in 2021. Credit ALA

Last year, 30% of all book challenges came from parents, while 17% were initiated by political or religious groups. Lessa Pelayo-Lozada, the ALA’s 2022-2023 president, said these groups do not represent the view of most communities.

“In March of 2022, ALA did a study of voters across party lines (so red, blue, independent, conservative, liberal) and found that 71% of voters were opposed to book challenges, were opposed to removing books from public libraries,” Pelayo-Lozada told the Sierra Nevada Ally.

So why are there a record number of book challenges happening? Pelayo-Lozada said a concerted effort is underway, as part of a larger political movement.

“It used to be a one-to-one situation. One individual would ask for one title, or maybe two titles, to be removed from the library. But what we’re seeing now is an organized effort to challenge multiple books at one time,” Pelayo-Lozada said.

The ALA releases an annual list of the top 10 most challenged books, and in 2022, LGBTQ+ titles and content led the list. Seven of the 13 titles that were most challenged (four titles tied for 10th place) were done so because of LGBTQ+ content. All titles in the top 13 were claimed to be sexually explicit, with Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye” being challenged because it had equity, diversity and inclusion content.

Courtesy ALA

The director of the ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, Deborah Caldwell-Stone, emphasized the scope of the problem in the organization’s annual State of America’s Libraries report.

“These numbers . . . are evidence of a growing, well-organized, conservative political movement whose goals include removing books addressing race, history, gender identity, sexuality, and reproductive health from America’s public libraries and school libraries that do not meet their approval,” Caldwell-Stone wrote.

While it may seem like this rise of book challenges is representative of a shift in attitudes, the ALA’s Pelayo-Lozada said that’s not the case.

“It’s really important to for us to understand that it’s not all of us, but if the 71% of us who are against it come together, then we can be even louder, and we can put a stop to all of this,” she said.

How a book gets challenged

The process to get a book banned depends on the individual community and library and their guidelines. The process is often like this:

  1. An individual or group requests that a book be removed from the library’s collection.
  2. A librarian will meet with the person one-on-one to discuss why they want the content removed.
  3. Most of the time, that is the end of it. But if the requester is not satisfied:
    • They would likely fill out a form with the title and reason for the challenge.
    • A committee may be formed, which will then read the book and send a response to the request.
    • If the person is still unsatisfied, they may go to a public hearing of the Library Board.

Debi Stears is the collection development librarian for Washoe County Libraries, which follows the same process. She’s essentially in charge of deciding what materials get added to the overall collection.

“It’s really a thrill to try to say actually. It’s a great metaphor for living in Nevada, because it’s really a bit like gambling. You read about a book that’s coming out and we kind of place a wager on do we think folks in our community want to read that book,” Stears said. “We’re very careful that we want to spend our money well, and buy the things that people want to read. And so every every title we look at, we try to anticipate, ‘Is there a reader for that book?’”

She points to the library’s collection development policy if there are ever any questions about whether or not they should acquire certain materials.

“When we’re looking at a title and thinking, ‘Boy, I don’t know if that’s a good fit for the collection,’ we literally pull out that collection development policy and walk through [it] and remind ourselves, ‘What’s the framework for what we’re trying to do? And does this fit that framework?’” Stears said.

Ultimately, Stears said it’s the job of public libraries to provide titles that local residents want, as well as expose them to a variety of viewpoints, experiences and content.

“We don’t steer away from controversial topics, but we do really try to make sure that we’re representing multiple viewpoints on that topic. And we definitely encounter things that we don’t personally agree with. And part of the usefulness of going back to that form is to remind ourselves of the bigger goal of the collection that we’re building, that we’re not building our own personal libraries to reflect our interest. We’re building a collection to reflect the interest of the entire community,” she said.

For example, the Northwest Reno branch has a Holocaust collection, which Stears said was created to serve a specific need.

“Sadly, Holocaust titles are coming under attack…Because the state of Nevada does not have a Holocaust Museum, there is a statewide effort to make sure that we are addressing the history and not forgetting the Holocaust,” Stears said.

The Americans and the Holocaust exhibit was created in part due to a rise in challenges related to Holocaust materials. Courtesy Washoe County Libraries

While Stears isn’t seeing a noticable increase in book challenges in the public library system locally, she said there has been a noticeable shift.

“It used to be that public libraries were places where books were being challenged, but it appears that people are now shifting that concern to the schools saying, ‘You have provided this book to my child, you’ve made this decision that it’s okay for my child to read this book,’ she said.

Public vs. school libraries

The ALA reports that 51% of last year’s challenges were against materials in schools and school libraries. This is a key distinction, as public libraries and school libraries fall under different jurisdictions. Public libraries are usually managed by county or municipal governments, while school libraries fall under the school districts and the Department of Education.

“In public libraries, we really view ourselves as partners with the parents. But we recognize that authority and responsibility rests with the parents, that we’re not taking that responsibility on for ourselves. With schools, they are there in the place of parents, and so they have a much higher burden in determining what is appropriate for children,” Stears said.

The person who has that burden in determining what is appropriate in schools is Kindra Fox. She is the director of secondary curriculum and instruction for the Washoe County School District.

“We have state standards around libraries and media specialists. So our librarians curate a collection of books that is great, developmentally appropriate, but also tries to give all students the ability to see themselves in books. So we are careful about what books we put in the library to make sure they’re appropriate. However, we do like to make sure that students can go find a book that that they can engage with,” Fox said.

“It’s a really fine line these days.”

Fox mentioned in Middle School libraries in particular, it can be difficult to get the right mix of materials. Many sixth graders aren’t ready for young adult books, while eighth graders who are about to enter High School need books that have more depth. But, parents have a choice when it comes to what their kids access at school. In Washoe County schools, parents have the option to restrict their child from checking out particular titles from the library – without removing the title for the rest of the students.

“Our premise is the parent is definitely the first line of defense, so to speak, for what they want their child to engage in. But they don’t get to say what other children are able to read. If a parent then says, ‘I don’t want that book in the library at all,’ then they usually work with the librarian and the principal to determine maybe if it was misplaced,” Fox explained.

This policy can help to keep books from being challenged locally, but Fox said she still runs into the occasional issues.

“What we see more often is when a Language Arts teacher, English teacher, reading teacher has a book on their reading list that the parent is not fond of. We’ve seen more of that rise over the last three or four years than anything else,” Fox said.

To help students and the community get materials they need, the Washoe County School District is working with the public library system.

“One of the things we allow students to do is when their parents register them in Infinite Campus (the district’s student information system), they can select that they would like to get a Washoe County Library card. And when they click yes for that, we share that information with the public library. The public library issues the student a library number, and then they can go check out books if they don’t already have a library card,” Fox said.

Debi Stears with Washoe County Libraries agrees and said this is the ultimate aim of libraries: to provide the community with equal access to information and different kinds of ideas.

“Our goal is to make sure that as a community member, you are finding something in the library that does speak to what your interest is. And of course, the risk of that is there may be things that that very much are contrary to what you would care to engage in.”

Editor’s Note: At the Sierra Nevada Ally, we believe in the humanity of all people, including those who identify as LGBTQ+ and we will not engage in any debate that argues otherwise.

A previous version of this story incorrectly identified Lessa Pelayo-Lozada as Lessa Pelayo-Loza. We apologize and have corrected the error.

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