While efforts to ban books in certain genres have increased across the country as of late, Colorado has also seen a few book-ban efforts — but not nearly as many as the rest of the U.S.
Nicolle Davies, assistant commissioner of the Colorado State Library, noted that Colorado is a local-control state, so the state library itself doesn’t directly deal with book bans or challenges. But local libraries are supposed to report to the state any challenges to material the libraries offer, and the state tracks the challenges. In 2021, the state had 20 challenges reported, the majority of which related to LGBTQ communities. This number was double the amount of challenges reported in 2020.
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Jamie LaRue currently serves as executive director of Garfield County Libraries, but spent three years at the helm of the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom and 24 years with Douglas County Libraries. In his time at Douglas County he said he got about 250 challenges, which he described as “an attempt to either remove or restrict access to some library resource, so it could be a book, could be a movie, could be a periodical, it could be music CD, could be an exhibit could be a speaker, all kinds of stuff.”
LaRue said in his experience, most challenges come from parents of children age 4 to 6 or parents of children age 14 to 16. This is because these are stages in a kid’s life when they are transitioning from infancy to childhood or from childhood to adulthood, he said.
“I began to notice that as I looked at the top 10 challenges each year, they fell into two categories of their own: They were either about the LGBTQ (community) or about people of color,” LaRue said. “That means, who is challenging most of these books? The answer is kind of a majority — so basically straight white people.”
LaRue attributed the recent national uptick in book challenges to 2022 being an election year. He said the challenges are “coordinated campaigns” by people with similar opinions on exposing teenagers to information on gender, race and sexuality, making threats against politicians and other officials. There have even been attempts to file criminal charges against librarians in some states, including Iowa, Idaho and Oklahoma for allowing access to books that are “obscene or harmful to minors,” LaRue said.
The two things you really need in a democratic society are free press and public libraries. People need to be able to formulate their own ideas and be able to get good quality information that's accurate, and that's what happens at a public library. When you start to play around with the profile of a collection, you risk not providing an accurate and balanced perspective. – Nicolle Davies, of the Colorado State Library
The two things you really need in a democratic society are free press and public libraries. People need to be able to formulate their own ideas and be able to get good quality information that's accurate, and that's what happens at a public library. When you start to play around with the profile of a collection, you risk not providing an accurate and balanced perspective.
– Nicolle Davies, of the Colorado State Library
Davies agreed the national uptick is “indicative of what’s going on in our country” when it comes to divisiveness.
“I feel like we’re just more divided than we’ve ever been, and that’s kind of playing out in all sorts of different ways,” Davies said. “In Colorado we’re not seeing the same volume, so I don’t know how much of the political landscape of the state plays into that.”
While Davies said she doesn’t know exactly why Colorado is not seeing the same volumes of challenges as other states are, she’d like to think Colorado is further along in accepting new ideas and ways of thinking.
To Davies, libraries are an opportunity for someone to find accurate and important information to formulate their own opinions. People who work at libraries are qualified professionals who have no agenda other than helping their patrons find the publicly available information and ideas they seek, she said.
“The two things you really need in a democratic society are free press and public libraries,” Davies said. “People need to be able to formulate their own ideas and be able to get good quality information that’s accurate, and that’s what happens at a public library. When you start to play around with the profile of a collection, you risk not providing an accurate and balanced perspective.”
LaRue also cited an ALA poll conducted earlier this year that showed 71% of voters oppose efforts to ban books. The poll also found that a majority of parents support an individual parent’s right to set rules and standards for their own children, but they don’t have a right to dictate what materials are available to other children.
Colorado book ban efforts
There have been three key book ban-related events in Colorado, LaRue said: an attempted book ban in Gunnison, a ban on book bans in Wellington, and a school board president in Colorado Springs asking parents to bring “objectionable materials” to the school’s attention.
Earlier this year in Gunnison, a woman challenged a book called “Gender Queer: A Memoir,” seeking its removal from the Gunnison library collection, the Gunnison Times reported. The title is a comic book-style memoir describing the author’s life growing up as nonbinary and asexual — it has been the target of many groups looking to censor the shelves of school and public libraries.
The Times reported that a library board meeting saw a turnout of at least 75 people, the majority of whom opposed removing the book from the library and came to show support for the LGBTQ community. The library board did not make a decision at that meeting after hearing public comment from more than 30 people.
The library’s director reached out to the person who made the challenge, informing them the library would keep the book on its shelves.
We should never be banning books, because if you start banning books and words then you're going to start banning ideas ... If we do that, I mean, we're all lost, right?
– Calar Chaussee, Wellington mayor
In Wellington, a small town north of Fort Collins, the town’s Board of Trustees also oversees the operations of the library. Wellington Mayor Calar Chaussee said a citizen initiative sought to ban or censor a list of books relating to gender and sexuality, but he said even as a conservative he doesn’t think any entity should ban books. He said a majority of the books of concern offered a perspective different from a conservative Christian lifestyle.
“We should never be banning books, because if you start banning books and words then you’re going to start banning ideas,” Chaussee said. “If we do that, I mean, we’re all lost, right?”
At Wellington’s library, children who are 11 or younger cannot check out a book without adult supervision, and kids between 11 and 17 need parent consent to register for a library card. This means parents of minors are likely aware of what their kids are reading from the library.
The initiative trying to ban certain materials started to take up a lot of town staff time as well as trustee meetings with public comment. It led to a Board of Trustees member proposing a resolution that would effectively ban future book-ban efforts in the town, and the board passed it. Chaussee said it’s even led to more citizens getting involved in the town’s processes.
Ideally, Chaussee said he’d like to see other entities follow in Wellington’s footsteps. He said especially in America, a “country where we want to promote freedom of speech and freedom of religion,” starting to ban books becomes “a slippery slope.”
In a video posted to the website of the Culture Impact Team, which aims to educate on issues of concern to the Church for All Nations, Tom LaValley, school board president at Academy District 20 in Colorado Springs, boasted about the district’s commitment to academic excellence. He then said he believes in parental rights in education and encouraged parents to “in the words of Ronald Regan, ‘trust but verify’ what your children are being taught.”
LaValley said he believes parents have every right to see every handout and video and to know “all the details” of what children are being taught in schools and that they need to hold teachers and the district accountable.
“Stroll through the school library. If you see objectionable material, go to the teacher or librarian, or better yet take several others with you who are like-minded,” LaValley said. “If you don’t get a satisfactory answer, then go to the principal, superintendent, or bring it to our attention on the Board of Education. Please partner with us. We need your eyes and ears in the classrooms. We want our classes delivering academic excellence, not woke agendas. Our job is to challenge kids to think, not tell them what to think.”
Libraries are mirrors. We hold a mirror to our culture. We're not writing these books. We buy them from mainstream publishers. We buy them because people ask for them. We buy them because people are talking about them.
– Jamie LaRue, executive director of Garfield County Libraries
Davies said it’s important to note that school libraries operate differently than public libraries, so the process for challenging materials is different as well. She said there’s an old adage about public libraries that says “if you have a great collection, you should have something to offend everyone,” and that isn’t the case for school libraries.
Pride Month challenges
Representatives from the library systems in El Paso and Mesa County both said they’ve seen material challenges coming through, but neither has removed any items from their collections. Most public libraries have a process for challenging a material or resource, and depending on whether a library is run by a district or a local government, the process for challenging something might differ. Denver Public Schools also hasn’t had any recent attempts to ban materials.
In his current role, LaRue said he’s seen four book challenges since he started in Garfield County in May. He said the challenges all came about when the library had a pride display during Pride Month.
LaRue said the real job of a library is to reflect cultural change. While the vast majority of library collections represent the status quo, LaRue said the small percentage of material expressing new ideas and methods of thinking are what the majority is afraid of.
“Libraries are mirrors. We hold a mirror to our culture,” LaRue said. “We’re not writing these books. We buy them from mainstream publishers. We buy them because people ask for them. We buy them because people are talking about them.
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