Battle of the Books

The current state of Utah school libraries is such that teachers and librarians stand accused of peddling pornography and sexually grooming and indoctrinating children. Members of school boards have had to appear before the legislature to defend them. “We’ve had police arrive at a library because someone had reported that there were people peddling pornography to children, which scared our librarians and made them less effective,” said Mark Clement, Board Chair of Alpine School District, at a November 2022 meeting of the Utah Legislature’s Education Interim Committee. 

The State of Banned Books in Utah: How did we get here? 

“The past few years, it seems like they’ve gone from challenging types of education to coming after libraries instead.” Michele Edgley is the current President of the Utah Educational Library Media Association and the Uintah Elementary Library Technology Teacher. “It’s a small group of people who are behind it,” she says. The accusations and the calls to the police come from parent interest groups who have strong beliefs about which books should not be available to students. 

These parent groups were emboldened by the passage of H.B. 374, which targets “sensitive material” in schools, during the 2022 Utah Legislative Session. Even before that, Utah school librarians started seeing a spike in official and unofficial book challenges, more than ever before, during the 2020-2021 school year. Some librarians say they’d been following the trend in other states before it reached Utah. These parent groups would show up at every school district with the same script and the same list of books they wanted gone. “Often these books have been available for decades, and it wasn’t a problem before. Then, all of a sudden, it’s a problem,” says one Utah librarian whose district was targeted by such an effort.

Let’s talk about H.B. 374

H.B. 374 instructs local education agencies to develop and implement policy to keep “sensitive material” that is “harmful to minors” or “pornographic or indecent” out of school libraries. Supporters have latched onto the definition of pornographic material—laid out in Utah legal code 76-10-1227—and argue that any book that depicts anything in that definition should be categorically banned without consideration for the merit of the book as a whole. Such bright-line rules have a tendency to be challenged in court and found unconstitutional. 

Legal challenges are exactly what school districts want to avoid. In a November 2022 district board meeting, the legal counsel for Canyons School District explained, “Why can’t we just do a 1227 analysis and be done? Because we would probably lose in court. The court would require us to review that work as a whole.” And, because the State only covers school districts in cases with monetary damages and not injunctive, the school district would be on their own in defending an expensive lawsuit. So, in order to operate in a legally sound way, when a sensitive material complaint or challenge is made about a book in a Canyons school library, it kicks off a multi-step, multi-pronged review process to thread the needle between state law and the First Amendment.  

“It’s really strange to me that the legislature created new legislation without input from librarians,” says Edgely. “And it was for something that already existed.” Most libraries already had a reconsideration policy in place prior to H.B. 374. And, if parents are worried about their child reading a specific book, a parent could (and still can) restrict access to their own student by contacting the library. Parents already had the power to control the books checked out by their own children, so why are a small minority of parents trying to take that decision-making power from all other parents? Multiple recent surveys, including The American Family Survey by Deseret News and BYU, show the majority of Americans and parents support their public schools’ library collections and oppose banning books, even in the face of some parental objections.

Opponents of H.B. 374 and the recent push to ban certain books say this is more about censorship and squashing ideas and identities that make some people uncomfortable. At that same legislative committee meeting, Park City High School student Jackson Smith spoke on behalf of his fellow students, “My understanding of H.B. 374 is that it has taken away a lot of our freedoms,” he says. “When you look at the list of books coming from other states’ versions of this house bill, you notice it isn’t targeted at protecting students. It’s meant to hide marginalized voices.”

Indeed, some of these efforts seem to have backfired. More than one librarian quipped to Salt Lake magazine that they could use the list of targeted books as shopping lists. It goes beyond school libraries as well. Ken Sanders of Salt Lake City’s eponymous Ken Sanders Rare Books is of a similar mind. “I would like to thank all the self-righteous parents for publishing lists of books that they would like to see banned in our schools. You are providing me with a list of books to order and carry in my bookshop. I call this process ‘unbanning’ banned books. As parents, we all have a sacred right to choose what books and materials our own children read. That is part of our democracy. But when you choose to ban books from others reading them, you have crossed a sacred line. For every book, you ban I will order in 10 copies and unban it!”

banned books utah

What now?

According to Edgely, much of this trouble could have been avoided by parents and librarians working together, a better understanding of all that is required of librarians and more support for school libraries in general. “Why legislate instead of meeting with the librarian and finding your child a different book?” she asks. “I’m happy to have somebody tell me they want a book reconsidered, but read the whole thing and be prepared to discuss it in committee. That book might be needed by other children in their school, and an individual parent might not know that, but a librarian would.” 

Librarians put a lot of care into curating their collections, often reading hundreds of books a year. They’ll look at the book needs for the entire student population, what students are currently checking out and surveys on their interests. “Librarians love working with children. That’s why we do it,” says Edgely. “Any time I consider a book, I look at how I can teach from it and how it will impact my students. Students will come in and suggest books to me, and I will read them.” There might be no one in the world more passionate about the power of reading than a librarian. Librarians are concerned about the real crises going on in student populations, including mental health and literacy, which they say could be addressed by well-funded libraries and reading from collections that are current and well-maintained by librarians. 

It’s the job certified teacher-librarians are trained for, requiring not just a Bachelor’s in Teaching, but a minor in Librarianship or a Master’s in Library Science. Edgely says, ideally, there would be certified librarians in every district and school and specialized training for all library staff, which currently is not the case. Librarians say the general understanding of what occurs in a library is very narrow compared to the potential if those libraries were not underfunded and understaffed. Or not threatened by having the police called to them.

“Librarians in Utah are amazing people that work doubly hard to help students,” says Edgely. “We’re a great support system. Go and work with your librarian to see what they can do to help you.” She says librarians are willing to work with the Utah State Legislature, too, even after H.B. 374, which took school districts hundreds of hours to implement and the ongoing process could require more funding as well. “We’re happy to do what the legislators want us to do, but we want them to understand what it’s going to take to fund libraries statewide.” 

Learn more about the surge in book challenges in 2021.

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Christie Porter
Christie Porter
Christie Porter is the managing editor of Salt Lake Magazine. She has worked as a journalist for nearly a decade, writing about everything under the sun, but she really loves writing about nerdy things and the weird stuff. She recently published her first comic book short this year.

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