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Banned books stay on county shelves

STARKSBORO PUBLIC LIBRARY Director Catherine Goldsmith displays two books that have been challenged in school libraries and classrooms throughout the county. Goldsmith and other local librarians are committed to ensuring banned books and a diverse selection of other titles remain accessible to county readers. 
Independent photo/Marin Howell

ADDISON COUNTY — As an increasing number of books are challenged due to their content and pulled from shelves throughout the country, Addison County librarians are working to ensure local readers continue to have access to a diverse selection of titles — including those that have been banned in other states. 

Kathryn Laliberte, Teen and Tween Librarian at the Ilsley Public Library, said the Middlebury library hasn’t faced any recent challenges to titles in its catalog. Though, the issue of banned books is still of importance to her and other librarians in the county. 

“The challenges that are happening throughout the country will always affect librarians in other states as well. Any time books are put under any kind of negative light or any kind of challenge, it affects any library,” Laliberte said. “We’re working really hard to both educate the public and provide resources about banned books and challenged books themselves, to make them available to the public.” 

BOOK BANNINGS

A report published by PEN America this past September found that over 1,600 individual titles were affected by book bannings across the United States during the 2021-2022 school year.

 Frequently challenged books have been flagged for their focus on issues of race or the history of slavery and racism, LGBTQ+ issues and experiences, or sexual content. Nearly half of the titles banned during the 2021-2022 school year were young adult books. 

The report focused solely on bans that occur in schools, though the country’s public libraries have also dealt with a heightened number of challenges. The American Library Association in March released data documenting 1,269 requests to ban library books and resources during 2022, the highest number of attempted book bans since the organization began recording such data over two decades ago. Forty-one percent of those challenges targeted items in public libraries. 

Despite a growing number of challenges to books in other states, the Vermont Library Association wrote in a September 2022 press release that “Vermont has had relatively few attempts to curtail the freedom to read.” 

That statement holds true for many public libraries in Addison County, including at the Bixby Library Memorial Free Library in Vergennes. Library Director Catharine Findiesen Hays said the Bixby hasn’t had any books challenged, though like other libraries, it has a policy in place should someone want to question a title in the library’s catalog. 

While not battling any challenges, the issue of preserving local readers’ access to books that explore a variety of interests and experiences is still at the forefront of the Bixby’s work. 

“It’s what we’re all about actually, I think that’s a big part of our mission,” Hays said. 

The Bixby received American Rescue Plan Act funding that helped support diversification of the library’s collection, and regularly refreshes its catalog, such as by monitoring what books have been awarded for a particular collection and well represent different identities and interests.  

Hays said offering a diverse collection is a key part of making sure local readers find a space for themselves at the library. 

“The role of the public library, and really libraries in general, is to ensure individuals are able to find themselves in books. They call it windows and doors, windows and doors to other points of view, to other people’s life, to your own life,” she said. “We all have enjoyed the joy of finding a book that’s talked to our souls.” 

The situation is similar at the Starksboro Public Library, where books remain unchallenged, and providing access to a diverse selection of books remains an important focus of the organization’s work. 

“In Vermont, we’ve been fairly lucky. It’s not that there have been no challenges, but it’s been pretty few and far between,” said Catherine Goldsmith, director of the Starksboro library. 

ENSURING ACCESS

Like other local librarians, Goldsmith aims to provide community members with a wide range of titles. She believes doing so is an important part of any librarian’s job. 

“All public librarians in America have a responsibility to reflect all of America,” Goldsmith said. “This is hard, this can be really hard for librarians. It can be a hard road, it can mean losing your job, it can mean very difficult times.”  

The Starksboro Public Library’s selection policy includes the organization’s mission to foster a community of readers and thus offer a “collection that represents a wide range of experiences and viewpoints.”

Like librarians at the Bixby, Goldsmith wants community members to be able to see their experiences reflected in the Starksboro library’s collection. 

“Everybody needs a safe space to find themselves. All young people need a place to see their lives, their desires, reflected. All adults need that, because no one should feel alone, even in a small town,” she said. 

Among a variety of other books, one can find multiple titles in the Starksboro Public Library’s catalog that have been taken from shelves in other parts of the country, such as “Maus,” a graphic novel that recounts the experiences of the author’s father during the Holocaust. 

And if library patrons can’t find what they’re looking for on the Starksboro Public Library’s shelves, they might be able to find it online. The library is part of the Green Mountain Library Consortium, through which Starksboro Public Library patrons receive digital access to collections of ebooks and audiobooks. 

The Starksboro Public Library can also help patrons access titles through interlibrary loan, a free service that allows the library to borrow books from other libraries. 

“We can pretty much get anything,” Goldsmith said. “People can request through email if they don’t want to talk to me or see me, because that can be an issue for people, coming up and talking to someone they don’t know about a sensitive topic.” 

A WIDE SELECTION

Elsewhere in the county, the Ilsley also aims to offer a wide selection of titles for county readers. The library’s Materials Selection Policy states that materials “will not be excluded because the race, religion, nationality, or political views of an author or creator; offensive language; depictions or descriptions of violence or sexually explicit activity; controversial content of an item; or endorsement or disapproval by an individual or group in the community.”

In addition to making sure community members can access banned books, Laliberte said she’s also tried to start conversations about challenged titles. This past summer, the teen and tween librarian created a reading challenge focused on banned books. Readers were given a bingo carded filled with banned or challenged book titles and invited to participate in discussions about the books they were reading throughout the summer.  

Laliberte said conversations touched the reasons the book was banned and why the content is important. 

“It was hugely popular. Teenagers don’t like being told no, so usually when you tell them not to do something, they want to do it. So, banned books are kind of a cache for a teen audience because they want to know what they shouldn’t be reading,” Laliberte said.

Laliberte plans to include banned and challenged books in this summer’s reading challenge, which will focus on social justice. The librarian said providing access to banned books and a variety of other titles is an ongoing part of the Ilsley and other libraries’ work. 

“It is every library’s responsibility to make sure that our public and our taxpayers have access to any materials that they would be able to read, regardless of being potentially controversial,” Laliberte said. “We want to provide all of the resources for people to make their own informed decision-making about. Even though we’re not specifically facing these problems doesn’t mean we’re not just as concerned.”

Back in Starksboro, Goldsmith said the team at the Starksboro Public Library is also committed continuing to offer a collection for readers that mirrors the world around them. 

“We work for our communities, but if we call ourselves professionals and call ourselves librarian there is that idea that we don’t just respond to someone who doesn’t like something that’s on our shelf, but that we have a responsibility to the people that either don’t come to the library, or have never been in. We have an obligation for people to see all of America, because otherwise, small towns can stay really insular,” she said. 

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