Tensions grow amid challenged book discussions at Phillips Public Library
National conversations about race and sexual identity played out on the local battlefield last school year, with a record 1,600 books banned from public libraries nationwide in 2021. As the new school year gets underway, a ceasefire has yet to be called at the Phillips Public Library.
Board meetings at the Phillips Public Library used to be relatively sleepy affairs.
On a good day, one or two members of the public would listen as the board discussed decisions about craft time, book sales and the library’s building project.
But that all changed this spring, when dozens of people started pouring into the meetings to express their opinions about children’s books.
Library Director Rebecca Puhl traces the public outcry to a single moment in February.
“There were four titles, one of them had some racial connotations to it and there were three queer titles, that ended up being on the new shelf next to each other in February,” she explained. “This was not done on purpose. This was not a queer display. We were not highlighting these books. But somehow, they all got shelved right next to each other.”
It was the spark that ignited the national debate about race and identity into a local firestorm.
Conservative members of the library’s board formally challenged books — and not just the just the four on the new titles shelf, but 30.
“I had never gotten a written challenge before this in the 14 years that I’ve been here,” Puhl said. “So, we were ill-prepared to take on 30 of these challenges.”
The challenges included books like Antiracist Baby, You Be You and Two Grooms on a Cake, along with a list of other children’s books all dealing with the topics of race and sexual orientation.
“I think one of them that is currently challenged, just for an example, is a book about this child named Jacob. I believe it’s called Jacob’s New Dress,” explained Jake Wyrzykowski, the youth services librarian. “He decides that he doesn’t want to wear the pants that his mom picked out for him. He’s just a little kid and he wants to wear this dress, so they allow him to do it and he’s happy and he gets to be an individual.”
In total, the challenged books make up less than 1 percent of the library’s children’s collection.
Nearly 50 people attended the library’s next board meeting.
Half argued the challenged books were inappropriate for kids. They claimed librarians were using the books to push a political agenda.
“Why are they using these books to groom children?” one speaker at the board’s April meeting asked.
“It is not the librarian’s responsibility to proselytize a political, social or personal ideology,” said another. “We must let children be children. Children deal with enough garbage. They should not be exposed to adult topics when they’re still struggling to learn how to tie their shoes.”
The other half disagreed. They defended the challenged books on the grounds that representation matters.
“Teaching our children while they are young that they are worthy of love and respect, regardless of how many mommies or daddies they have, is how we instill in our children traditional values like self-esteem, community and respect for all people,” said another speaker.
Youth Services Librarian Jake Wyrzykowski agreed.
“A library should work for everyone,” he said. “If you’re that concerned about your child finding different points of view, then you need to monitor what they’re looking at.”
Like the community members in attendance, board members are also divided. But unlike the community, they’ve been forced to meet in the middle.
Book by book, the board has spent the past five months deciding how each title will be presented.
Instead of banning the books outright, they’ve come up a series of compromises.
First, they’ve developed two new sections to shelve children’s books under.
“Now we put them in the community social activism section,” Puhl said, pointing out a small section on a lower shelf. “We even have a pro-life book down here. We thought that was activism. There are books on pride and Harvey Milk and the rainbow flag.”
“So, we’ve created that,” Puhl goes on, “and we’re going to create a parental guidance section called family conversations, which will go here.” She points to a much higher shelf, out of reach of small children. This will house books about puberty and sexuality.
In addition to this, the library has placed a rainbow sticker inside each book that deals with LGBTQ+ concepts.
“I think one concern was that they really wanted to be able to tell if their child had checked out one of these books, and I think the stickers really help out with that,” Puhl said. “It’s a great compromise.”
But these compromises leave much to be desired on both sides.
As October approaches, discussions about the challenged books continue. As they do, community members on both sides keep turning out.
It’s a show of public participation the library has rarely seen, but also one that’s caused increasing tension across a community where everyone claims to want what’s best for kids.