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Northwoods libraries respond to increasing book challenges

Erin Gottsacker

In the past few years, local librarians, as well as their colleagues across the country, have noticed a sharp spike in book challenges.

In fact, in 2022, the American Library Associationdocumented 1,269 demands to censor books and resources.

That’s the most book challenges since the organization began compiling data, over 20 years ago.

Their preliminary data suggests that that number has only increased in 2023.

Before 2022, the Phillips Public Library Director, Rebecca Puhl, certainly had parents question the material of library books.

They’d sit and talk it out.

She’d explain that as a public library, they’re for everyone and they’d talk about the importance of representation.

Before 2022, a book challenge never actually went all the way to the library board.

But that changed pretty quickly.

Last year, the library had 30 titles challenged in the children’s books section.

That included books with LGBTQ+ content, books about race, books that talked about puberty, and others.

As a result, after many board meetings, the library made a separate section called the “parental guidance” section.

Now, that’s where their titles on gender, death, puberty, illness, incarceration, gun control, safety, and race are housed.

“I think the family discussion section is actually a pretty good compromise because we can make people aware of the fact that that section exists and then they know that that's where those books are. But you know, for people who come in in the summer that don't know that that's there, I don't know,” said Director Puhl.

They also decided to place a sticker on the inside of any children’s book that touched on LGBTQ+ content.

Puhl said that while children don’t seem to notice the changes, their parents have been upset.

“As I said, we've gotten pushback about the stickers. We've discussed it twice now at board meetings. We're trying to, we're trying to do what we think is best for our community,” said Puhl.

This past month, Puhl received two more challenges- for the first time, one of them to a Young Adult book.

“I'm worried about the new YA challenges, I think that the teenagers will notice,” she said.

Reflecting on the situation, Puhl said- “I think library patrons need to understand that in a public library setting, you, as parents, have complete control over what your own child consumes, and what your own child checks out, and what you read with your own child. You do not have the right to restrict what anyone else's child might read. And I think that that's getting lost in a lot of places.”

Other local libraries have had fewer issues.

For example, Peggy O’Connell, Director of Minocqua Public Library, says their library’s one and only formal book challenge was in November, 2021.

“Sometimes we have patrons that will ask us, how are things going here? And are we experiencing any challenges? Because they're concerned and want to know if the library is having to deal with that. But we really haven't had a problem with that,” said O’Connell.

O’Connell reiterated that the library believes every community member has the right to question library resources, and that a complaint from the community would be taken seriously.

“Libraries are for everyone, and we purchase books for everyone. And I just think it's a simple statement, but it really gets to the heart of it. You may not think this book is appropriate, or you may not like it or want a family member reading it, but there might be somebody out there who does. Because we serve everyone, we hope that everyone can find something that speaks to them in the library,” said O’Connell

According to national data from the American Library Association, 90% of books challenges in 2023 were part of an attempt to censor multiple titles at once.

In the past few years, challenges have transformed. They used to come more often from individual parents with concerns, but now, libraries are looking at organized mass campaigns, often finding their home on social media.

Banned Books Week, a time to draw attention to the removal of books and other materials, is held October 1st through 7th.

Hannah Davis-Reid is a WXPR Reporter.
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