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'They called the sheriff': Libraries under threat from parents for diverse book collections

Michigan libraries have been the focus of controversies surrounding book displays and catalogs highlighting the LGBTQ community and non-white protagonists.
Ben Jodway
Michigan libraries have been the focus of controversies surrounding book displays and catalogs highlighting the LGBTQ community and non-white protagonists.

Book challenges around Michigan have led to a public library being defunded and parents raising their voices at local schoolboard meetings. Educators and experts say a child’s right to read could be threatened.

One public library in Ottawa County was reported to have lost funding because of an inclusive display. Some patrons have described them as going against family values or pornographic.

“If we ever have a violent incident, we at least want a way to record," said Cindi Place, library director of Bellaire Public Library in Antrim County. She says patrons began to harass the staff after they put up Black Lives Matter and LGBTQ book displays.

“We’ve had patrons come in and be very vocally violent with our staff, and as a result—I never thought we’d do this—but two months ago we actually put two cameras looking at our circulation desk and one in our meeting room," she said.

She has told critics that her library should be a “mirror into the community, and windows into the world." At a library board meeting two months ago, a gay man in the community, unaware of the controversy, said how happy he was that a diverse collection of books was available to him.

The patrons who are criticizing the books were not speaking for the whole community, she said.

“We treated them with respect. We would always do that," Place said. "But we’re not gonna back down if it’s something we truly believe this community wants and supports.”

Controversies around inclusive library catalogs could point towards some dangerous signs.

“Any time we see book banning, it’s a sign of a less than healthy democracy," said Kristin Fonticharo, University of Michigan information science professor.

Many arguments for removing books have avoided the word "obscene.” By using that word, she said it would have to go under a legal test to see whether the material is protected by the First Amendment. Instead, the challenges use words like pornographic and erotic.

“We respect your ability to make your own choices for what you read in the privacy of your own home," Fonticharo said. "Where the line gets drawn is assuming that everyone needs access to the same canon of materials. We don’t want policies that say only certain perspectives are okay to have in this library.”

But labeling a novel pornographic can be used to remove books if it's deemed "developmentally inappropriate" and "pervasively vulgar," said Jonathan Weinberg, law professor at Wayne State University. A federal district court judge ruled on August 5 against the American Civil Liberties Union in a lawsuit claiming that a Missouri school district violated the First Amendment by removing books that contained non-white protagonists and LGBTQ content, including novels like "All Boys Aren't Blue" by George M. Johnson.

The judge, Matthew Schelp, said in his order that removing the books had explicit sexual content. Thus, the school district was "removing access to particular materials to determine whether they are appropriate for children. In doing this, it is not banning protected speech."

According to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the books were available to teenagers in the school district.

The Missouri Library Association wrote in response to the lawsuit that such scenes depict "authentic representations of Queer experience to provide context for growing up in a predominantly ‘straight’ society."

If parents are concerned about explicit scenes, the parent is expected to be responsible for what their child checks out in public libraries. But schools operate differently. Teachers need to be mindful of the values a parent wants their child to have.

But educators must be fair to all children too. It might be important for some to be able to find books that represent who they are. Educators in Rochester Hills are experiencing blowback from parents while trying to provide those diverse books that feature a Muslim protagonist or the gay community.

“Finding a great fiction book that’s written by a young adult on those topics can be really affirming," said Emily Sommer, retired teacher and cofounder of Free to Read Rochester. The group provides a diverse collection of books to teachers’ personal libraries in their classrooms.

It formed after parents were outraged at the school library’s catalog of LGBTQ books, she said. And once word got out about Free to Read, parents turned their anger towards her.

“Parents who had talked about, challenged these books found out about it through social media and got really angry and said that we were distributing pornography, and they called the sheriff. And that just made us more mad," Sommer said.

The parents say librarians are allowing their children to have books that go against their family’s values, but she said "it's kind of a red herring."

Parents can call a school library and ask a librarian to restrict specific titles. By doing that, Sommer said if their child tries to check out a book, the librarian must stop them and get permission from the parent first.

It’s a policy in a lot of school districts in Michigan. Instead of using it, she said parents pressured the school. A principal removed books without going through a formal policy.

One Rochester Community Schools librarian asked WCMU to conceal her identity.

"It's been a stressful few years, let's say, for teachers," she said.

The school district implemented a review committee made up of educators, administrators, and parents. The librarian said it’s actually fun to read the books and discuss them with others, and so far there hasn’t been a book they’ve reviewed that they believe should be removed. Some people even thought some books should be required reading for students, she said.

With the review committee rarely removing a book, she said it casts doubt on the validity of parents’ complaints.

“They aren’t reading these books. They’ve never read these books," the librarian said. "Someone told them about the books, and they’re going in our library to get them removed.”

At the heart of this issue lies the question is whether parents are molding their children to see the truth the parent sees, rather than letting their child explore and experience the world on their own terms.

One way they can do that is through the help of libraries. While complaints have been the most vocal at the school level, public libraries are still seeing patrons who protest books. What happens to the freedom to read if threats of defunding and violence aren’t just threats anymore?

Ben Jodway is an intern, serving as a reporter for WCMU Public Media and the Pioneer in Big Rapids. He has covered Indigenous communities and political extremism in Michigan.