As battles over banned books escalate across the country, Utah librarians are on the front lines

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Wanda Mae Huffaker wears a lapel pin with an image of a book and a megaphone, and the words “Speak Out! For banned books.

Huffaker, who has been a librarian in the Salt Lake County Library system since 1993, has become an expert on banned and disputed books — a topic that has received increasing attention lately, with school districts across Utah and across the country.

“I think our very democracy is in danger when we start [banning books]because it endangers the First Amendment,” Huffaker said, citing the section of the Bill of Rights that enshrines freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom of religion, freedom of the press and the right to redress grievances.

Banning books, she says, ‘goes against my very heart’ – and in nearly 30 years as a librarian, censorship is a topic that has always existed, but has become more intense in recent years .

“Every parent has to choose for their own child what to read, but only their own child. It’s like our mantra,” she said firmly.

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake County Librarian Wanda Mae Huffaker is interviewed at the Ruth Vine Tyler Library in Midvale, Monday, Feb. 14, 2022.

According to PEN America, the nonprofit free speech advocacy group, 156 bills offering what it calls “educational gag orders” have been introduced in 39 states since January 2021 – and 12 from between them, in 10 states, have already become law.

Meanwhile, incidents of school boards taking action against books deemed “controversial” are on the rise:

• In January, the McMinn County School Board in Tennessee voted unanimously to ban ‘Maus’, the graphic novel by Pulitzer Prize-winning Art Spiegelman about his father’s ordeal surviving the Holocaust, in which Jews are depicted as mice and Nazis as cats. Board members said they objected to the swear words in the text, the naked imagery of a woman – which was used to describe the suicide of Spiegelman’s mother.

• Also in January, the Mukilteo, Wash., school board removed Harper Lee’s acclaimed novel “To Kill a Mockingbird” from the ninth-grade required reading list in English and language arts classes. The council responded to at least one parent’s complaint that the book, which chronicles life in Alabama in the 1950s and includes the trial of a black man accused of raping a white woman, is insensitive to the race.

• Last November, the Canyons School District in Salt Lake County removed nine books from library shelves, in violation of the district’s own policies, after parents complained. The books are currently under review.

• And the Murray School District, also in Salt Lake County, suspended a diverse book program after parents complained about “Call Me Max,” a book about a transgender boy.

How does a book ban work?

Utah has a long history of censorship – beginning with Reed Smoot, the U.S. Senator from Utah who in 1930 railed against such imported junk as DH Lawrence’s “Lady Chatterley’s Lover,” “The Kama Sutra”, Casanova’s memoirs and some of Robert Burns’ poetry.

At the Ruth Vine Tyler Library branch in Midvale, where Huffaker is based, another librarian, Kathryn Kidd, has two children in the Canyon District. She said she had read most of these nine books pulled from the shelves of the Canyons District and enjoyed them.

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake County Librarian Kathryn Kidd is interviewed at the Ruth Vine Tyler Library in Midvale, Monday, Feb. 14, 2022.

Kidd is a new librarian, compared to Huffaker. She has worked as a teen services librarian for 3½ years and said she hasn’t dealt with a lot of censorship issues herself, but there are quite a few challenges.

When it comes to getting a certain book banned, the process is a bit more complicated. In fact, Utahans don’t see many banned books.

“I was kind of proud of that for many years – how the people in Utah are so good that we hardly ever ban books, that only happens in Texas or Tennessee,” said Huffaker, who served as president of the Utah Library for 10 years. Association’s Committee on Intellectual Freedom, and is a trustee of the Freedom to Read Foundation, a nonprofit organization affiliated with the American Library Association.

Huffaker attributed Utah’s hands-off approach to the state’s overall identity. “I think it’s because here in Utah, we all believe that everyone can choose for themselves. That’s what we were born with, that great gift,” she said. “We have to choose ourselves what we are going to do.”

Kidd described the challenge process like this: Patrons who have concerns with topics or content are encouraged to speak to librarians, like her, who are experts in their respective fields.

If the conversation resolves no concerns, the customer is asked to complete an online reconsideration form, which is then forwarded to a committee of county librarians, who discuss the book and determine how to move forward. In some cases, this means moving a book from the teen section to the adult section – but, in general, it takes a lot of conviction to get a book banned.

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) The teen section of the Ruth Vine Tyler Library in Midvale, Monday, Feb. 14, 2022. Graphic novels are among the most-reviewed books to be pulled from the shelves, according to librarians Kathryn Kidd and Wanda Mae Huffaker.

The Salt Lake County Library system is working to refine the process because Huffaker is an expert and she plans to retire. His efforts with the team are aimed at making the process more objective.

“Our goal is not to censor what they can access, so they can learn and make decisions for themselves,” Kidd said.

Lately, Huffaker said, there’s been an increase in censorship efforts aimed at graphic novels — “Maus” being a prime example — and that over the years themes of racial diversity, LGBTQ+ representation and transition to adulthood have been constantly questioned.

Regarding the book challenges, Huffaker said, “For the most part, the people who challenge the books really have people’s best interests at heart.”

Although Kidd and Huffaker agree there’s nothing to be gained from banning books, the challenge process and dialogue allows librarians to connect more with patrons and educate them about what’s going on in the selection. books.

Kidd said: “I feel like sometimes librarians are accused of saying, ‘Oh, they’re just using our money to buy all these bad shoddy books’, but that’s not how I see it. . I see it as always trying to work with the community when there is a demand, and [to meet] whatever their needs. »

Huffaker added that the process, “from the moment someone walks into our library and sits down and speaks with a staff member, should be done out of respect and consideration for their opinions and how they feel, how we interact.The whole process should not be adversarial.

That antagonism is growing, however, due to campaigns focused on one side of the political spectrum, Huffaker said.

“We have all these people who are so conservative, banning all these books, writing all these letters all over the country, but also here in Utah,” Huffaker said.

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake County Librarian Wanda Mae Huffaker is interviewed at the Ruth Vine Tyler Library in Midvale, Monday, Feb. 14, 2022.

On Raising Well-Balanced Adults

Katie Wegner has been a librarian at the Summit County Library Branch for five years, as well as co-chair of the Utah State Library Association’s Intellectual Freedom Committee.

Wegner, who is moving to the Salt Lake City library system, said Summit County isn’t getting a lot of book challenges. She did, however, notice that social media has given rise to controversies around the ban and even the book burning.

Wegner said she thinks people use social media “as a tool to organize and report books, and [to] share a list of books deemed inappropriate, even if not necessarily reading or checking out [them] outside.”

When such lists target hundreds and hundreds of titles, Wegner said, it’s difficult to have civic discussions with the people who create them.

As for parent rights groups that want to ban certain titles outright, Wegner said those groups seem “out of touch.” …I think people want to protect their kids from anything that’s uncomfortable, instead of having these conversations.

For some teens, Wegner said, certain books help them feel seen and heard in ways that people close to them can’t. “As librarians, we see the difference books can make for teens,” she said. “It’s scary to see this under attack.”

Many of these current challenges, Wegner said, “are not so much about the books themselves. It’s more of an attack on public education.

Both Huffaker and Kidd echoed Wegner’s concerns, citing that those who want to limit the books teenagers can read do not encourage the growth of well-rounded adults with critical thinking skills.

“I firmly believe that with books and everything else, [if] we’ve shielded them and protected them and banned books and everything all the way, when they turn 18, then they’ll be lost. They won’t know how to make choices,” Huffaker said.

Everyone, Huffaker said, “is part of this, not just librarians. The freedom to read is essential to democracy, to the freedom of individuals. And if we lose that, you don’t get freedom back. We all have to fight for it. We need everyone to fight for this.

Wegner shares a petition tool that customers can sign, to bring their voice to the conversation about censorship.

Huffaker has taken positive steps to keep banned books alive: Last Christmas, she gave away such books to all of her grandchildren.

The librarians had one last piece of advice, something they instilled in their own children: if you don’t like a book, shut it up, don’t read it, and find a new one.

About Stuart M. McFarland

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