It turns out, on Day Three of my screed against censorship, that I did not address the county’s public library board as planned Thursday afternoon. I would have, but just as I crammed myself against the stacks on the east side of the building they announced that the forms to speak were located with a librarian one giant pile of people away to the west. So instead I became, as one other attendee described herself afterward, “an active listener.”
Throughout the hour-and-a-half meeting, I only heard one comment that genuinely distressed me, and that was when Mariah Davidson announced this very library had been her safe haven for 40 years. Forty! I would have sworn she was in her 20s. How did this happen?
But I should have known she was older than I thought, because there was a definite divide in the room: either you had your prepared remarks on paper or on your phone, depending almost entirely on your age. Other than this age distinction, the overfull room was united: no censorship, and the LGBTQ —
[Here’s how old I am: I’m not even 100 percent sure what the Q stands for. I thought once upon a time it was “questioning” but now it seems like maybe “queer” is the word. But then there’s a lot of other letters too: I heard an A and an I, and perhaps a U, and the word “plus.” I still have much to learn. Maybe the book Gender Queer could help me, although it was checked out Thursday.]
— community and its allies want representation in the library’s collection.
There were so many thoughtful and impassioned comments from such a wide range of speakers. Speakers included high school students, college students — the campus club Spectrum appeared to have mobilized its membership — and the community in general, ranging from their 20s (which turns out to no longer include Mariah) to retirees.
Some spoke of libraries as saving them, or helping them find themselves. Retired school librarian Lyda Hardy called them “the heart of the community,” and someone else referred to them as the “living room.” Some people were there to oppose the notion of book bans and censorship in general; others were there specifically to protect Gender Queer and similar books that speak to populations that have been marginalized in the past and still — as many, many speakers noted — have a five-time higher rate of suicide and attempted suicide than other teens.
One young man, who identified himself as an “ally,” has moved to Gunnison from Erie, where he said a middle schooler recently did kill him or herself. Erie also made the news recently when its library board fired the teen librarian (a librarian who catered to teens, not a teenager herself) not long after cancelling the programs she offered to address racism and LGBTQ+.
This came in the wake of a new policy established by the High Plains Library District board. According to the Colorado Sun, the new policy states:
- Program topics should reflect community interests and should not be intended to persuade participants to a particular point of view.
- While controversy is not avoided, the district does not present programs that are intentionally inflammatory or polarizing in the community.
So, a library that doesn’t want its patrons to think. That ought to scare the hell out of all of us, especially in light of a report of a recent teen suicide in its vicinity.
The Gunnison library board, thankfully, appears headed in the opposite direction. Executive Director Drew Brookhart, who runs an impressively efficient meeting and who gave everyone who wanted it a chance to have their say while also reading a selection of the 60-plus written comments received, noted that the library’s strategic plan calls for making the library a place where all feel welcome, and dedicating itself to a collection that reflects that.
He did say at the outset of the meeting that the board would not be taking any action at the meeting on the book in question, and he offered handouts of the library’s collection management policy. (Those were at the wrong end of the room, too, but I’ll get one sometime.)
Only one speaker swam against the tide, and it may have been the woman who filed the original complaint. She attended the meeting on Zoom from her home in Crested Butte (more speculation on my part: it sounded, based on her accent, that she might be a part-time CB resident with another house south of here). Without identifying herself as the original complainant, she said her objection to the book was its location in the young adult section. It needs to be moved to the adult section, she said, adding she wasn’t asking for it to be removed from the library. But there are pictures that aren’t suitable for its location right at 6-year-old eye level, she said.
I gathered, from later comments, that the pictures she objects to may be confined to two pages of the book, 167 and 168, and that a warning on page 150 advises you of the pictures ahead. One speaker, who poignantly said she didn’t want others to have to wait, as she did, until they were 30 to understand why they felt so different from many of their peers, noted the book has won an Alex award as an adult book of great significance to teens and that it does not meet the legal standards for obscenity, which she provided.
One high school student did agree with shelving it in the adult section. “By all means,” he invited, “Put it there, too.” This young man, a grandson of my classmate Mary, is a very active advocate for teen mental health, and he said the most important phrase is “Me too” [not just limited to sexual assault]: everyone ought to feel included. They should be able to see their “me” in the library.
The meeting hit a high point when a young woman who identified herself as biracial made a Star Trek reference. She talked about the taboo that show broke in the 1960s with television’s first interracial kiss, between Captain Kirk and Lt. Uhura. That took place within a year of the U.S. Supreme Court striking down miscegenation law. Fifty years later, we are still talking about the need to give people their place at the table — or in the library.
For me, it was a very uplifting afternoon, and affirming. It was interesting to see so many people standing up and saying, This is who I am, and I deserve to be heard.
I don’t know if there will be blowback two weeks from now, in the letters section of the Gunnison paper, or if others are going to ramp up their criticism of books in the library’s collection, or if attention will turn to the school libraries and whatever ideas teachers are putting in impressionable young minds, but for one shining afternoon a large cross-section of our community stood up for the right to read whatever a reader might choose. And that made me happy.