St. Tammany library board chips away at mountain of challenged books
Dolores Crain, left, protests a new St. Tammany Library Policy that would place certain graphic novels behind the circulation desk. (Piper Hutchinson/Louisiana Illuminator)
MANDEVILLE – A book shelved in the adult section of the St. Tammany Parish public library system was challenged on the grounds that it is inappropriate for children. Ten months and $400 later, the parish library board voted to keep it there.
At a Thursday meeting, the St. Tammany Parish Library Board of Control voted to keep two more challenged books on the shelves. “A Court of Thorns and Roses” by Sarah Maas, an adult romance novel with some sexual themes, was allowed to remain in its section, where it had already been unavailable for minors to check out without parental consent. Also staying put: “The Deep & Dark Blue” by Niki Smith, a young adult graphic novel with no sexual content. It was allowed to remain in the juvenile section.
One year after it received its first book challenge — the first step to having a book reshelved or banned — the St. Tammany Parish Library Board, which received about 16% of the 1,200 book challenges filed nationwide in 2022, has come to a decision on just 19 of over 100 challenged titles. At this pace, the library director believes it will take three years to finish.
The process requires a panel of librarians and library staff to read each item in its entirety and formulate a report to the board with suggestions on how to respond to the challenge. This duty is heaped on top of a librarian’s usual responsibilities. The board is also required to read the book, resulting in members only able to act on two or three titles per month.
Like many library systems, St. Tammany has a tiered card system that allows parents to control what books their children are allowed to check out. The options range from a juvenile full restriction card, which allows holders to check out children’s books but not young adult or adult books, to a juvenile unrestricted card, which allows holders to check out any item in the library.
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Some conservative activists say that is not enough parental control.
Connie Phillips, the activist who submitted the complaint against both books and is responsible for the vast majority of challenges in the parish, wants the books to be moved to a restricted section in the library.
Advocates of this plan want to move romance novels and books with LGBTQ+ themes put in an area minors would be physically unable to access — not unlike a backroom in a video rental store.
Such a practice is called “red flagging,” which various censorship groups have condemned, and refers to singling out and segregating books with mature content.
“Federal courts have held that stigmatizing controversial books by hiding them behind counters or removing them from circulation is a First Amendment violation,” Katie Schwartzmann, director of the Tulane First Amendment Law Clinic, wrote in a letter to the St. Tammany Library Board earlier this year.
Another common theme in many of these book challenges is the idea books about LGBTQ+ people are intended to groom children. In this context, “grooming” is an anti-LGBTQ+ dog whistle. The term usually refers to behaviors sexual predators use to coerce potential victims.
When it is used in other contexts — such as when Phillips’ describes a young adult book that contains no sexual conduct as part of the “[American Library Association] grooming agenda” — it characterizes benign actions by LGBTQ+ people as somehow harmful to children.
“If you read this book, you’ll see it’s an allegorical fantasy, and it explores what it’s like to develop an understanding of someone we at first fear because we know nothing about them other than what we’ve been told by others,” board member Bill McHugh said of “A Court of Thorns and Roses.”
“Draw your own parallels,” he added.
The board also discussed tweaks to its tiered card system to better conform to the policy a state law approved earlier this year requires.
In order to comply with the law, library director Kelly LaRocca announced one juvenile non-fiction book, “Sex is a Funny Word” by Cory Silverberg, will be moved because of mentions of masturbation. The book is meant to teach kids about bodies, gender and sex in an age-appropriate fashion.
Libraries must adopt policies in conformity with the law by the beginning of next year. If they don’t comply with the law, they risk having parish governments cut their funding or construction projects rejected by the state Bond Commission.
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