Oregon libraries receive record number of book complaints

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Oregonians pushed libraries to remove or relocate a record number of books in the past year.

A new report from the Oregon Intellectual Freedom Clearinghouse, a program of the state library, found 93 titles were “challenged” from July 2022 through June 2023. That’s more than double any year in nearly three decades.

The Clearinghouse received 46 reports of challenges for the year, a drop from the 54 reports in the prior year.

Seven of those complaints were about libraries’ Pride Month displays. Complainants protested “promoting anti-faith and pro homosexual activities and lifestyle,” “the exposure of children to LGBTQIA materials,” and “not represent(ing) all points of view,” according to the clearinghouse report.

All seven displays remained up, despite the complaints.

But administrators at one school told library staff to remove a display for Banned Books Week after a group of students claimed they “no longer felt ‘safe or comfortable’” at the library, the report found.

The Driftwood Public Library director received threatening emails calling them a “pedophile” and “groomer” after the library planned a Gender Affirming Closet event. That event was held as planned, after the library director contacted the city manager, city attorney and local law enforcement. The Lincoln City library had received backlash for the event after it was covered in the news, including on national right-wing news sites and social media.

Klamath County commissioners asked a library director to discontinue the library’s Social Justice Book Club after a community member told officials that “the topic was too political and shouldn’t be held at the library.” The clearinghouse report doesn’t name the libraries, but that incident was reported by Jefferson Public Radio.

The Tigard Public Library also canceled a drag queen storytime in June — not because officials thought it was inappropriate, but “due to repeated threats of violence and information indicating the safety of our community may be jeopardized.”

Of the challenges to books or other materials, the most common reasons cited by complainants were that the books include LGBTQIA+ or sexually explicit content.

The books were retained in 25 out of 31 incidents.

“ABC Pride,” “The Big Book of Pride Flags,” and “If You’re a Kid Like Gavin” were among the children’s picture books that were challenged for their LGBTQIA+ themes. All three were retained.

“Heartstopper,” a series of graphic novels about a gay high school couple; “Flamer,” semi-autobiographical graphic novel about a Filipino-American teen coming to terms with his sexuality as he faces bullying; and “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl,” a book about a teen boy who reconnects with a childhood friend who is dying of cancer, were the most frequently challenged books in Oregon.

“Flamer,” one of the most banned books nationally, was retained in all three complaints. The outcomes for the other two books varied in different incidents.

Canby School District removed 36 books from shelves earlier this year in response to complaints from two parents. The district said the books were removed pending a full review. Most of the books were still “under review” in the Clearinghouse report.

The American Library Association’s guidelines say books should not be removed while under review. Removal during review “is not considered a best practice, as students and the public should continue to have access to the materials to decide for themselves” — essentially, innocent until proven guilty — said Buzzy Nielsen, a program manager in the State Library of Oregon. 

Three public libraries, like the Crook County Library, have received numerous challenges to LGBTQIA+ materials for more than a year, the report stated.

“Initiators state that the libraries are ‘promoting’ content, ‘distributing pornography to minors,’ and encouraging ‘sexualization of young children.’ Staff have been intimidated and harassed, called groomers and pedophiles, and received death threats. Materials have been hidden, stolen, and turned around,” the report noted.

The state library is starting to track “challenges that bypass established processes,” like instances of library visitors hiding, stealing or throwing away books they object to. Library staff made five reports of such incidents. The state library said it will “continue to monitor this situation.”

Many of the challenges were still under review when the Clearinghouse report was published, but Nielsen said the OIFC is “seeing more complex challenges than in the past” and may start tracking those outcomes.

The 46 challenges reported to the Clearinghouse came from 27 libraries and schools. The OIFC solicits reports from the roughly 1,400 public and school libraries in Oregon, as well as tracking challenges covered by local news. While many of the other 98% of libraries likely didn’t receive any challenges, some just didn’t inform the OIFC.

One instance reported by local media, but not to the Clearinghouse, was a failed push by one Lebanon woman to get city officials to ban a selection of books, most of which were “depicting the experiences of people who are queer,” the Albany Democrat-Herald reported.

Though many complaints echoed conservative talking points, the challenges filed in Multnomah County were far different.

The Multnomah County Library received just three challenges over the year. Two were against magazines the library subscribes to: Guns & Ammo, which the complainant said was “advertising material for arms manufacturers” and promoted gun violence; and Rolling Stone, for an issue featuring Megan Thee Stallion on the cover. The complainant said the library should “stop carrying content that objectifies women.”

“Multnomah County Library strives to provide a wide selection of choices for families in our community, and we support your right to access a variety of materials even if the content may be controversial, unorthodox, or unacceptable to others,” Multnomah County Director of Libraries Vailey Oehlke wrote in responses to the complaints.

The third concerned the library’s “Everybody Reads” selection for 2023, “A Tale for the Time Being,” which includes a description of sexual violence that the complainant thought warranted a parental advisory. Oehlke said the “Everybody Reads” books are primarily for adults, but noted that library staff had informed educators of the book’s sensitive themes and developed resources to “serve teens who are coping with some of the issues presented in the book.”

“There will always be controversial and challenging topics in Everybody Reads books, because those kinds of works allow us to address issues that matter,” Oehlke wrote.

Updated Sept. 7 after the OIFC released an updated version of its annual report.

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