A recent national wave of challenges to books and other materials and services in public and school libraries continues to be felt in Oregon.
The state library’s Oregon Intellectual Freedom Clearinghouse tracks challenges across the state each year, and its new annual report found that from July 2022 to June 2023 more book titles were challenged in Oregon than in any other year since tracking began in the 1980s.
The current situation for Oregon libraries reflects national trends. Earlier this year, the American Library Association reported that more attempts to restrict library resources were made across the country in 2022 than at any point since the national organization began keeping track more than 20 years ago, nearly doubling from 2021. The number of total titles challenged nationally also increased significantly from past years. According to the ALA, “The prevalent use of lists of books compiled by organized censorship groups contributed significantly to the skyrocketing number of challenges and the frequency with which each title was challenged.”
Buzzy Nielsen is the program manager for library support with the State Library of Oregon. He said that materials targeted are disproportionately by or about LGBTQ+ people or people of color. Nielsen talked with OPB’s Jenn Chávez about their findings this year and what this trend has meant for Oregon libraries, their staff and patrons.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Use the audio player at the top of this story to listen to the conversation.
Jenn Chávez: The state library bases these numbers on reports you receive from public or school libraries across the state. None of the libraries are named. But can you take us through the top level numbers first? How many challenges did Oregon libraries see in the past year?
Buzzy Nielsen: Our report found that, this year, there were 46 challenges reported, of which 44 were determined to be official. Unofficial challenges might be something as simple as a person coming up to the library desk and saying, ‘Hey, I don’t really like this material,’ but maybe they don’t want to take that challenge any further. So, we had 44 official challenges this year. They were to a number of different things. They were certainly to library materials, but they also were to library services, programs, displays, things like that. That 44 number is not a record; actually, last year we had 54 challenge incidents. But what we did see was exceptionally high this year, a record since we started collecting statistics in 1987, was the number of materials that were challenged. There were 93 individual materials challenged this year. The previous record was in 1992-93 at 70, so it was quite a big difference. There were some titles that were repeated within that 93, but in the individual libraries, there were 93 materials total challenged.
Chávez: Generally what kind of books or materials are being challenged in Oregon? For example, I know nationally and in the Northwest, there’s been an increased backlash to books about LGBTQ+ identities.
Nielsen: And Oregon is no different. Books that are about LGBTQ+ topics, that is a really common objection to books and other materials in libraries. I mentioned that these weren’t just challenges to books but also to other things, so actually, we had seven challenges that were to Pride Month displays, for instance. So that’s really common. The other really common objection — which is often related to the LGBTQ+ topic — is claims that books are sexually explicit, or what the challenger deems to be pornographic.
Chávez: Were there also challenges around other issues of identity that aren’t related to LGBTQ+ life? Like, for example, racial identity?
Nielsen: There were. One of the things that we see consistently in Oregon, and is also seen consistently at the national level, is that materials that are challenged are disproportionately by or about people from various underrepresented groups. LGBTQ+ [people] for instance, but also Black, Indigenous and people of color. We were no different this year, as well. Sometimes challenges to those materials, it may not be the stated reason why those materials are challenged, but there might be something like, “this book is violent,” or “this book is profane,” or “sexist.” There can be a few different ways that those challenges can show up, in terms of what the objector says that they dislike about the material.
Chávez: You’ve also begun paying attention to whether people went through the established process for challenging materials at a given school or library, and it seems like a lot of them did not. What has this looked like in Oregon libraries?
Nielsen: We saw over 10 incidents this year of people going around official processes. Many libraries, if not most libraries and schools, have a designated process. A person objects to a material being in the collection, or maybe they object to the material being in a certain part of the collection, like the children’s section. That library typically has a form that that person would then fill out. Once the form is completed, then there would be a committee that would review that material and make a determination. In many of these cases, people went around that process. That could be a few different situations. That could be, say, somebody goes straight to a library board or a school board or an administrator or a local government official. In some other cases, it means maybe nobody interacted with anybody at the library or that library’s institution at all. In some cases, people hid materials, they stole materials, they placed materials in the trash can. This has certainly happened in the past, but there were 16 reports this year of processes happening that basically bypassed libraries’ established processes.
Chávez: How did you see libraries and schools in Oregon respond to these challenges? How often did they result in something actually being removed or changed?
Nielsen: Removing materials is pretty uncommon with challenges. It does happen, but it’s certainly not the norm. Of the 31 incidents that were challenges to materials in libraries, 25 of the materials were retained. There were a couple of other ones that were retained and either restricted or, maybe, relocated to another section of the library. There were only two incidents where the materials were actually removed, although we do have a large incident in which the materials are still under review. It’s pretty uncommon for a library to actually remove a material, especially in a public library setting.
Chávez: So how is the state library supporting library staff in Oregon, or how are library staff supporting each other, in the face of this high level of challenges to what they provide?
Nielsen: The state library does provide some consulting or support for libraries that are facing challenges. However, we rely pretty heavily on the statewide professional association, the Oregon Library Association. They have an intellectual freedom committee with some really fantastic volunteers from all around the state, and they are really on the front lines of helping libraries respond to challenges, giving them some best practices, just being a listening ear.
One of the other things that’s really concerning is that we are seeing a lot more anger directed at library staff. We had instances this year where library staff were called pedophiles, they were called groomers, they received threats, death threats even. Certainly, occasionally, things like this happened in the past, but the temperature has really been raised a lot in the last couple of years and it’s very concerning. It makes what is already a pretty tough job — because serving the general community can be pretty challenging, because you see a little bit of everything — even more challenging.
Chávez: Earlier this year, I talked with a couple of students in the Pacific Northwest about how they were speaking up about challenges to library books and services in their areas, and also just about how the current environment for libraries has made them feel as patrons. What would you say to students or younger readers in particular who might be worried about their access to books and libraries?
Nielsen: I would say that libraries absolutely should be a place where everybody feels welcome. Libraries are intended for their entire communities, whether that community be a school, or a town, or a city, or a college. Libraries are there for everybody, and libraries should endeavor to be open and welcoming to everybody in the community, just like we expect other parts of our governments to be open and welcoming and to serve everybody, like the fire department. So I’m really glad that libraries can often act as a place for students who maybe don’t feel welcome elsewhere in their community to be. And I really hope that students will tell library staff that, because in the vast majority of cases, library staff are fighting for people in their communities, and it can be really draining, just like it’s draining for the students that are facing that abuse as well. So, I hope that both the library staff and students can help support each other.