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Inside the movement to ban books at libraries and in schools

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Posted at 5:06 PM, Mar 03, 2023
and last updated 2023-03-03 17:06:32-05

Jamie Larue has spent much of his career fighting censorship.

“My whole belief is the purpose of the public library is to be a place to investigate the world," LaRue says.

For nearly 25 years, LaRue was the head of a public library system outside Denver.

“When I was there, I got 250 challenges. And by challenges, I mean attempting to remove or restrict access to books," LaRue says.

Now the head of the public libraries in Garfield County, Colorado, Larue also used to head the American Library Association's Office of Intellectual Freedom.

The American Library Association says in 2022, there were a record number of attempts to ban or restrict access to books at libraries.

According to PEN America, a group that fights book bans, books written by or about members of the LGBTQ community and people of color are challenged the most.

"In the last 15 to 20 years we’ve started to see new voices, people of color, LGBTQ, different experiences," LaRue says. "And as those voices start to rise, our society starts to change.”

LaRue says most libraries have a process in place where people can challenge books to have them either removed or placed in a different section of the library.

“You’re seeing cases immediately jump from, 'There is a book on the shelf,' to, 'We’re going to stop this in a state.' Instead of, 'There is a book on a shelf, let's talk to a librarian about what can we do about this,'" says David Fasman, an archivist at the University of Denver.

He helped put together an exhibit of banned books in the school’s library.

A growing number of states have passed laws that limit topics, like sex and race, being taught in school.

Anti-censorship advocates say that makes it easier for books to be banned.

Last year, Utah’s conservative state legislature passed a bill that banned books the state considers pornography.

Critics of the law say many of the books that have been banned offer important perspectives.

For example, "All Boys Aren’t Blue" is reportedly one of the most banned in the country. Supporters describe it as a story of growing up Black and Queer and feeling different.

“I read about the book 'All Boys Aren’t Blue' and I was pretty shocked to read about the boy's sexual encounters or adventures or you may call it and that’s when I said I have no idea this was in schools and other parents need to know," says Brooke Stephens who is with Utah Parents United. It's a group that is in favor of books, which she considers sexually explicit, being banned from public school libraries.

“That’s where our kids can go in and check books out without our knowledge they can go in and they can read it," Stephens says.

Stephens runs a website that encourages parents in Utah to challenge books in public school libraries.

The site has a list of 400 books that are rated, on a scale of one to five, for what she considers sexually explicit content.

“Yes, I believe that fives and fours should be pulled from the schools completely and if they do want to keep them, have them labeled restricted area if the child is 18," Stephens says.

The spreadsheet of rated books on her websites also marks whether books contain topics like LGBTQ issues and critical race theory, but Stephens says she's focused on what she considers sexually explicit.

“That's not a criteria that we are looking for," she says, "And so we don’t have a record of LGBTQ because we’re focusing on sexually explicit books."

School districts in more than half of U.S. states have banned books since the middle of 2021, according to PEN America.

In response to the rise in book bans nationwide, the Brooklyn Public Library in New York launched its “Books Unbanned” program, offering free library cards to people between 13 and 21 to access their entire collection— no matter where they are.

Chief Librarian Nick Higgins says more than 6,000 students have applied, representing every state.

“Young people who write to us are seeing that books that reflect their own experiences, that reflect the lives and narratives of people that they care about the most, being targeted, and they feel threatened in their own communities," Higgins says.

When asked what LaRue says to those, especially parents, who believe certain titles shouldn't be in the library, he said it's on parents to communicate with their children.

“Talk to your child. Tell them that you don’t want them to read it," Larue says.

LaRue believes it's a vocal minority leading the charge to ban books in libraries and schools.

"I believe in America today, besides all the noise and polarization that goes on, I believe we have a deep thirst for meaningful conversation," LaRue says. "We want to figure out what matters, what’s important."