On Oct. 2, the first weekday of National Banned Books Week, more than two dozen reading advocates lined the steps and sidewalks in front of ImagineIF Libraries’ Kalispell branch.
Individuals held up signs with slogans like “Free People Read Freely,” and carried around various titles — George Orwell’s “1984,” several volumes of the best-selling “Harry Potter” series, copies of the Holy Bible, and James Joyce’s “Ulysses,” among others.
“I wanted people to see the range of books that have been challenged and banned in the past,” said Diane Taylor Mahnke, who was holding a copy of Sherman Alexie’s “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.” “There is something that will offend everybody in a library, but there should also be something that supports everyone in a library. It’s not just a place for one viewpoint to exist.”
The Flathead Valley residents were assembled to protest a recent directive from the ImagineIF board of trustees prohibiting any programming around Banned Books Week, a national initiative that celebrates the freedom to read and draws attention to censorship attempts throughout history. The holiday week is sponsored by a coalition of organizations including Amnesty International, the Freedom to Read Foundation, National Book Foundation and the American Library Association (ALA). It’s the latter organization that has drawn the ire of the local library’s trustees, which last summer voted to distance the county’s library system from the national library advocacy group.
This year, that meant directing the library’s staff against programming or displays promoting Banned Books Week due to its ALA association, though in the past such displays have been low-key arrangements that drew little attention beyond the walls of the library.
“I’ve always loved educating the general public about previous items that have been challenged or banned,” ImagineIF Director Ashley Cummins said. “It often comes in waves based on the hot button topics of the day.”
Cummins added that she understood the controversial nature of the week, given ImagineIF’s publicized book challenges in recent years, along with what she said is “misleading” messaging about the holiday week, which is designed to celebrate intellectual freedom.
“The library isn’t losing out on anything [by not having Banned Book weeks programing] … we’re still doing our job with the Right to Read and denouncing censorship in the work we do every day,” Cummins said.
The directive to abandon the programming came from ImagineIF Board of Trustees Chair Dave Ingram, who in an email stated he was “implementing the will of the board as I understand it,” a position that trustee Jane Wheeler pushed back against at a Sept. 28 meeting.
While the vote to remove ALA language from board policy came before Wheeler was appointed to the board, she told the trustees she felt there should have still been a public discussion about enacting it.
Citing the trustee manual, Wheeler said trustees cannot give orders or suggestions to the library director unless the action is approved by the board.
“There was no public meeting, motion, or formal board approval to direct this program,” Wheeler said. “Individual board members have their opinions on the banned books being displayed, but there was no formal and public consensus. I see nothing in any of our policies that addresses this.”
A majority of trustees said they viewed the removal of ALA-associated programing as an extension of the previous board vote. Several members of the public also spoke up in support of the decision.
“I think it’s the right move. I don’t believe that we need to go out of our way to bring confrontation into the library,” said Travis Taylor. “The library should be a safe and welcoming space for everyone … The books we’re talking about in Banned Books Week are purposely offensive and divisive.”
The most challenged book in public libraries between 2010 and 2019, according to the ALA’s Office of Intellectual Freedom, was “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian,” by Sherman Alexie. Also making the top-100 list is the “Captain Underpants” series (No. 2); “Fifty Shades of Grey” (No. 8); the Holy Bible (No. 52); “Anne Frank: Diary of a Young Girl” (No. 62); and “Prince and Knight” (No. 91). Two of the top-10 most challenged books in 2022, “Gender Queer” and “Lawn Boy,” were both challenged at ImagineIF Libraries, the former by current trustee Carmen Cuthbertson. No book has ever been removed from the ImagineIF Libraries collection due to a book challenge.
“It’s just a repeat of history. I protested this same thing back in the 1980s,” Randy Mohn said Monday from the steps of the Kalispell library branch where she and her daughter, Tara Lee, brandished copies of banned books. “As a parent and grandparent, it’s really upsetting to me that people think they can control what I let my kids read.”
Mohn recalled a wave of pro-censorship sentiment that swept through the Kalispell area in the 80s, focused on books found in elementary school libraries throughout the Kalispell School District.
To counter the wave of book bans, Mohn said groups of parents were recruited to write book reports that could be referenced by parents if they had concerns about the appropriateness of a title for their children.
“There was a real fear in the community over what the kids were ready for, though not quite as pronounced as today,” Mohn said. While writing book reports, Mohn would read a challenged title — she recalls some by beloved children’s authors Judy Blume and Beverly Cleary — and make a note of anything that could be deemed objectionable so a parent could make an informed decision about whether to let their kids read a book.
“Some might have just had bad words like ‘Damn’ or ‘Hell,’” she recalled. “Other times, like with Judy Blume, there were a few pages about menstruation and that wasn’t considered appropriate. But I don’t think anyone was ever scarred for life by reading those things.”
Mohn’s daughter, whose kids currently attend school in Kalispell, said she’s always enjoyed when libraries showcase historically challenged titles.
“It brings to light books with authors who might have different backgrounds than I typically pick up. Bringing attention to these titles makes me wonder why some people don’t want them around and helps introduce different viewpoints to me as a reader,” Lee said. “They’ve also spurred discussions with my family about why people might have wanted a particular book banned. As a family we get to talk about it, and as a parent I can make my own choices about what my kids can read.”
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