An elementary school in Prineville doesn’t have its own school library and had been sending students to the local public library to check out books and learn how to use the library as a resource. As first reported by the Bend Bulletin, the school district decided to end the practice recently after some parents brought up concerns about books their children brought home that discuss race, gender and puberty. The district declined our request to come on “Think Out Loud.” Crook County Library Director April Witteveen will join us.
The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer:
Dave Miller: The Steins Pillar Elementary School in Princeville does not have its own school library. So it had been sending students to the local public library to check out books and even just to learn how libraries work. But as first reported in the Bend Bulletin, that partnership is over. The school district decided to end those visits after some parents brought up concerns about books their children had access to at the library ‒ books that explore race or gender or puberty. Meanwhile, other residents in the community are also complaining about the public library’s offerings. They did so at a packed library board meeting last week. April Witteveen is the Crook County Library Director. She joins us with more. It’s good to have you on the show.
April Witteveen: Hi. Thanks so much for having me.
Miller: When did you first become aware that there was an issue that that parents had brought about elementary school trips to your library?
Witteveen: It was probably about 3.5 weeks ago, maybe almost a month at this point, that I had a conversation with a parent who had a child who was taking part in these school visits. The parent had come to the library with one of the books that her child had taken home and proceeded to start a conversation about how did they the book, how this wasn’t something that they would have allowed their child to check out if they had been there. Then the conversation went from there.
Miller: Could you tell us what the book was about?
Witteveen: I actually don’t know the title of this particular item, but the parent did share that it had LGBTQ+ content.
Miller: ...in some shape or form?
Witteveen: I think characters.
Miller: How is a public library different from a school library? It seems like a distinction that’s important for this discussion.
Witteveen: That’s a really great question. Public libraries exist to serve everyone in our community. So we have a mission to collect broadly for our materials to represent our communities, not just a direct demographic representation but also to represent what our community members might like to learn about. So in a school library it’s a little bit different where teachers, everybody working in a school, is more in the role of in loco parentis, which means they have an ability to act in the place of a parent, in the best interests of the children when they’re at school.
So that means there can be more oversight over reading material, curriculum involvement, that kind of thing. And at the public library in loco parentis isn’t really the same. We have materials for everyone in the community and then if we have minors visiting the library, they’re able to access everything in our building just the same as anyone else regardless of age. So then the responsibility really falls on the parent, guardian or other adult that would be in that child’s life to oversee the reading lives of their kids as far as the public library goes.
Miller: The Crook County School district declined to make anyone available for this conversation today, but they did send us a statement. I want to read part of it.
‘The school district and the school board weren’t part of the recent discussion at the county public library. Community members apparently raised concerns about certain books and materials they believe are inappropriate for children. Steins Pillar Elementary is a small magnet school that opened in the fall of 2020 and has been using the Crook County Public Library since there isn’t an on-site library available in the school. After months of feedback from parents and reviewing our practices, we believe our school libraries are better designed to connect directly with our curriculum and student’s needs. Steins Pillar students will now access the libraries at Barnes Butte Elementary or Crooked River Elementary.’
The statement went on to say, ‘We value our partnership with the Crook County Public Library and we look forward to creating opportunities for our students in the future.’ When did you find that out the superintendent had decided to stop sending students from Steins Pillar to your library?
Witteveen: We basically found out as we were awaiting our next class visit, what would be two Fridays ago. So we had had one of our regular classes visit first thing in the morning on Friday and then the next bus didn’t show up. And we didn’t know what had happened. So then we had had some communication with a couple of teachers who let us know that there was a new policy in place effective immediately.
Miller: What went through your mind when you heard about that ‘effective immediately’ policy?
Witteveen: It was just a moment of disappointment. The school visits had been going so well and we had seen just incredible engagement from teachers and students and it was really a bright point in the student’s month to come and get their visit. They were learning about the library, how to find things here, and they were getting familiar with the library workers. So to lose that relationship was just, it’s disappointing. When school is out for breaks and during the summer the public library is where everybody can come. So getting that chance to educate kids on how to use the library, what’s available here, and who they can talk to is really valuable. So we definitely understand the statement that the superintendent issued. And it’s true that school libraries are designed with curriculum support at the forefront of their mission. So we hope that we can at least continue to offer tours to promote our summer reading program and things like that within the school if these formal school visits no longer continue.
Miller: Have you spoken with anyone at the district directly?
Witteveen: I have not at this point.
Miller: So when they say that they hope to have some relationship with the library in the future, creating opportunities for their students at your libraries, that partnership they talk about, there’s no further progress in cementing that reality?
Witteveen: No, not at this point. I anticipate that we’ll probably be able to get back into conversation once school’s out leading up to the next school year.
Miller: The district’s communications director, Jason Carr, wrote to us in an email that this is a non issue. That was his phrase for the district, basically saying that this is about the community and the library and not the district. Do you agree with that?
Witteveen: That’s tough because this all came up specifically because of the school visit that kind of alerted the parents. So, you know, while on one hand, the community conversation about how the public library collects materials is in a separate sphere, you could say, from how the school district operates, public libraries are part of the educational ecosystem. In a smaller rural community, public libraries play a pivotal role in not just providing information, but being a place where people can come and be. So to say that there’s, you know, no relation or that it’s, it’s a non issue, I think that’s oversimplifying things a little bit or at least not recognizing the value of what a public library has to offer students in that ecosystem.
Miller: One of the issues at the core here for parents as far as we understand it from a statement by the superintendent earlier is that kids on a school visit don’t have as much parental oversight as they would if a parent took them to the library. And that echoes what you’d said. Is there any workaround to that? Is there a way to prevent kids from taking out books that their parents wouldn’t want them to take out if they were on a school visit?
Witteveen: That was some of the conversation that we were hoping to have, leading up to the cessation of these visits. We were starting to think about some potential solutions so that we could still keep that access for the students while also satisfying that parental need to know what’s going on with their kids. We were starting to think about this being something that we engaged parent volunteers with? Is there the potential for just an opt out? You know, if a parent were specifically concerned about what their child might find at the public library, would there just be an opt out instead of that visit? Could we engage more volunteers?
One thing that was going on is that we were using classroom cards to check out materials. Those accounts are not as easily accessible by parents, but if we had done a student library card drive and so students use their own cards … We do library cards for minors. As we do them here, we do need to have a parent or guardian signing off on them. And then in theory, that parent would be able to log in and access their child’s list of checked out materials. So that might have been something that we could look at. But there are a handful of options I think that we could look at to address this concern. If we could.
Miller: As a librarian, just more broadly, how do you feel about the fact that we’ve gotten to the point that some parents don’t want their kids to be taken to your library?
Witteveen: As a librarian, it’s very hard to hear that sentiment and that was a sentiment that was expressed at our board meeting.
Miller: This was the community meeting last week?
Witteveen: Yeah, that’s correct. So this was just our regular board of trustees meeting where our agenda included discussing this and the agenda was circulated and we had a really great turnout, which was great to see. I want everybody to feel comfortable here. However, there is the basic understanding of what a public library does and what we collect and how we serve our community, and that means that there is something for everybody and we have a mission to represent underrepresented voices to make sure that we have minority communities visible in our collections. Because to ignore that is then to ignore part of your community.
So my biggest hope is that everybody feels comfortable here. My door is always open to those families who may have concerns. But overall the guiding principles of intellectual freedom, the American Library Association’s Right to Read, all of these really grounding policies really support the work that we’re doing. And then you know taking care of the reading lives of our children is then falling to the responsibility of the parent and guardian.
Miller: At that meeting last week, did any people there bring up specific books that they had issues with?
Witteveen: Yes, the parents who had a concern had checked out a stack of materials that they had some concerns about. One in particular is the book, Rick by Alex Gino. There was some misinformation circulating about the content of that book. There was some misinformation out there that there was an inappropriate relationship between a minor and an adult in that book. And upon further investigation (there was actually a copy of that book available at the at the board meeting) and when we looked at the page that we were directed to, what we discovered was that in the back of the book there’s a list of resources for LGBTQ+ youth in order to find support and resources to be safe and healthy. And one of these resources was for the Trevor Project. Their phone and helpline is advertised for ages 11-24. So this advertisement for the helpline had been conflated as being part of the story, part of the narrative of the story. And somehow somebody turned this ad into part of the story with an inappropriate relationship, when actually it was very different and included as part of the resources in the back of the book.
Miller: So if I understand correctly, a resource at the back of this book for a helpline designed to prevent young people from taking their own lives and a nonprofit focused on ages 11-24 was turned into a talking point that the book was about relationships between somebody who is 11 years old and somebody who’s 24 years old?
Witteveen: Correct. We see a lot of misinformation about pedophilia in LGBTQ+ books. And that results from misinformation like this. If a book isn’t read to its completion or read in its entirety, it’s pretty easy for some folks to make assumptions about what’s actually in that book.
Miller: You’re being very generous about this. I mean, did you take those complaints at face value? Do you think they were being made in good faith, that the people who made those arguments honestly thought that the book was depicting or was about a relationship between an 11 year old and a 24 year old? Or were they just making this up as a way to get a book that they didn’t want in a library out of it?
Witteveen: Yeah, you know, at some point, somebody made the statement that this is what’s in that book. And then what we see a lot when we get materials challenges at public libraries is that the book just hasn’t been read. So, you know, they believe that it’s true. Somebody told them that was what was in this book. And as we know about echo chambers, a lot of time, that information will just bounce around and be taken as truth until the information is actually dug out.
Miller: What’s going to change, if anything, at your library going forward as a result of these kinds of concerns?
Witteveen: That’s a great question. So, right now, after going through some community conversations, after discussing with our board of trustees, after talking with our librarians, we are not making any changes at this point in time. We have had some discussions about, you know, the potential for labeling, moving collections and essentially all that those types of actions do is restrict access. So whether you’re giving a warning label to something or you’re creating a collection that only exists behind the desk or needs to be accessed with a permission slip or something like that, those are all pretty antithetical to the Library Bill of Rights and access for all general users of a public library. So we kind of had to work through some of that and realize that we really are grounded in these policies.
Our library collection development policy is very clear about the type of feedback that we can receive on our collections. And we take that very seriously. So someone can file a request for reconsideration to have us review a material. Every patron is able to submit a suggestion for purchase to get items added. So we felt like we had really done some good work and community education. How does a public library operate? What makes us different from school libraries? How can you communicate with the library about your concerns regarding our collections? So having covered all of those bases, at this point, we’re doing business as usual and will continue to deal with any individual reviews or requests as they come. And at this point we have not received any requests for reconsideration.
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