Utah Library Association and PEN Utah: We need common sense solutions to book challenges

The good news is we have a roadmap for collaboration.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Ken Sanders is opening a new Children's Reading Room in his space at the Leonardo in Salt Lake City. on Tuesday, Sept. 6, 2022. Banned books in Utah

Reasonable parents don’t lock away their family Bible to protect their kids from reading it. But in Utah, a law passed in 2022 (“Sensitive Materials in Schools” HB 374) has resulted in schools pulling Bibles off shelves because they were deemed “vulgar and harmful.” The recent pulling of the Bible from schools in Davis County, and the understandable outcry in response, shows that we need to go back to work together to fix the law and bring common sense solutions to managing book challenges in libraries.

Some have questioned the motivations of the parent who filed the challenge against the Bible. But we can all agree that, regardless of their motivation, the challenge has helped us clearly see the deficiencies of the law. It has led to the removal of hundreds of books — not just the Bible — and has required thousands of hours of work from professional librarians, teachers and principals, who now have to manage an avalanche of book challenges. Their time (and taxpayer money) is better spent on educating students and preparing them for success instead of being consumed by endless and unpopular bureaucratic processes.

We also know that book challenges are being driven by a handful of people. Investigations in Utah and and nationally have shown that there is a tiny minority of people filing book challenges, often using copied, boilerplate complaints which are being circulated around the country. For example, in Granite School District, one investigative news report found that a single couple filed over 97% of the 205 challenges. Nationally, The Washington Post analyzed over 1,000 book challenges and found that they were filed by just 11 people.

It is not surprising that book challenges are generated by such a small number of people when we consider the findings of the 2022 American Family Survey (administered by BYU and the Deseret News), which found that Americans have a strong opposition to book bans. The survey reported that a mere 12% of Americans agree that books should be removed from libraries if a parent objects, and that only 16% believe public school libraries include inappropriate books on their shelves.

There is a growing consensus that Utah’s “Sensitive Materials” law has created problems, not solutions. Back in November 2022, Alpine School Board President Mark Clement testified at the Interim Education Committee meeting that Alpine already had a book reconsideration process that worked well. But since the passage of the law, Clement noted that Alpine had to deal with police showing up at the library because a parent complained that a librarian was distributing pornography to children. Teachers dropped books at the principal’s office, saying they would not teach them for fear of prosecution. More recently, Ken Ivory, the co-sponsor of HB 374, said the Bible should have been evaluated “taken as a whole” when considering whether it has scientific, literary or artistic value. We strongly agree that this long-standing legal standard should be applied to all books being considered for removal.

If we all agree that cherry-picking out-of-context excerpts is not an effective way to evaluate the suitability of books in school libraries, then we have some common ground to work together. Let’s go back to the drawing board and come up with a common sense solution, one that supports a reasonable, consistent approach to book challenges and doesn’t lead to Bible banning and Utah teachers living in fear of prosecution.

The good news is we have a roadmap for collaboration. In 2022-2023, librarians worked in partnership with legislators on a number of issues, including the drafting of a reasonable and workable background check bill for public libraries. We encourage our state lawmakers to continue this collaborative approach and work with librarians and teachers to develop a well-crafted law that doesn’t lead to nonsensical challenges or contribute to a culture of mistrust. Revising the law so that it lays out a clear legal framework for local book review processes and makes clear that all book challenges require a “taken as a whole” analysis, will ensure that all books — The Bible, the Book of Mormon or “The Bluest Eye” — are not inappropriately pulled from library shelves.

(Peter Bromberg) Peter Bromberg is the Associate Director of EveryLibrary, a national nonprofit working with grassroots groups, coalition partners, and librarians, to fight censorship and support libraries across America.

Peter Bromberg is the associate director of EveryLibrary, a national nonprofit working with grassroots groups, coalition partners and librarians, to fight censorship and support libraries across America.

(Rebekah Cummings) Rebekah Cummings is the Co-Chair of the Utah Library Association's Advocacy Team. She writes and teaches about information literacy and censorship.

Rebekah Cummings is the co-chair of the Utah Library Association’s advocacy team. She writes and teaches about information literacy and censorship.

(Copper Canyon Press) Poet and author Paisley Rekdal, author of "West: A Translation," a collection of poems and essays to be released in May 2023.

Paisley Rekdal is chair of the Utah Chapter of PEN America, the former Poet Laureate of Utah, and author of the recently published “West: A Translation,” a collection of poetry that explores what unites and divides America.