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Excerpt from ON CENSORSHIP by James LaRue

I. The Role of the Library

My Censored Life

I wish I didn’t have so much experience with censorship issues. On the one hand, it’s been a handy skill set throughout my library career. On the other, developing that skill meant hanging out with some very angry people.

From 1990 to 2014, I served as director of the Douglas County (Colorado) Public Library District. During that time I personally responded to about 250 challenges. By “challenges” I mean public attempts to remove or restrict access to various library resources. By “responding” I mean reviewing the entire resource, consulting library policies (adopted by the citizen Board of Trustees), deciding about the disposition of the challenged item or resource, and communicating that to the complainant. This response is called a Request for Reconsideration process, and it usually ends with an optional appeal to the board.

Mostly, the targets of challenges were books. But I also fielded attempts to remove or restrict access to magazines, movies, music, programs, displays, artwork, and digital databases—virtually anything a library provides. The good news: my library district checked out more than eight million items in 2014 alone, and had more than four million visits to our buildings and website. So “challenges” represented only a tiny fraction of public use—which is still true today. The not-so-good news: those challenges often came from extremely vocal and influential people in the community. At the beginning, the complaints originated almost exclusively from the political and religious right. Over time, I saw challenges from parents across the political and religious spectrum, for reasons I’ll get to later in this book (see “Why People Challenge Library Resources”).

From 2016 to 2018, I worked for the American Library Association (ALA) as the executive director of the ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom (OIF), which was founded in 1964. Many countries have library associations; however, ALA is the only one to have a dedicated office for resisting censorship. During my tenure at ALA, our office tracked and responded to around a challenge a day. In my almost three years there, this meant exposure to almost nine hundred attempts to block access to information. I also wrote OIF’s Field Report summary for all publicly reported challenges the following year. This national dataset differed from my Douglas County experience in several ways, unearthing a more generic panic over national demographic and cultural shifts.

In 2022, I took another public library director position, this time on Colorado’s Western Slope, which serves six rural communities. In my first eight months, I faced five challenges. Three of them reflected the huge shift in public challenges that the OIF has highlighted since 2020. Rather than being individual complaints, these were coordinated campaigns—often with an overtly partisan, Republican bias—likely designed to rouse the conservative base in time for the 2022 midterm elections.

All told, throughout my career as a defender of free speech and public access to knowledge in all its varied forms, I have dealt with more than a thousand attempts by the public to censor the library. It has always been interesting. It hasn’t always been fun.

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