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Colorado librarian explores the challenges and implications of library censorship in new book

James LaRue, Executive Director of Garfield County Public Library District, has written a new book On Censorship: A Public Librarian Examines Cancel Culture in the US.
Courtesy of James LaRue
James LaRue, Executive Director of Garfield County Public Library District, has written a new book On Censorship: A Public Librarian Examines Cancel Culture in the U.S.

James LaRue is the Executive Director of Garfield County Public Library District and was the longtime director of the Douglas County Libraries.

The former Colorado Librarian of the Year speaks with Kira Zizzo about his new book "On Censorship: A Public Librarian Examines Cancel Culture in the US," which is due to be published in September 2023.

Kira Zizzo: Thanks for being here today.

James LaRue: My pleasure.

Kira Zizzo: So, starting out, what motivated you to write a book on the topic of book censorship, and can you share a little bit about your background, how your background as a librarian has influenced your approach to this subject?

James LaRue: I began as a public library director in Douglas County, Colorado, and in the time that I was there from 1990 through 2014, I responded to, received and responded to over 250 challenges.

And those challenges mean somebody officially requests either that you eliminate the resource, you know, book, magazine, program, exhibit, whatever, or you restrict access to it.

And 250 challenges is more than almost any library I had ever spoken to, and I thought, 'well, how interesting, what's all that about?'

And it finally got to the point where I realized that first I thought it was a left against right, or religious against secular, but eventually I think it was more generational.

It was about kind of a growing parental protectiveness, where they just didn't want their children to be exposed to the wolves in the woods.

And then after I left Douglas County, I went to work for the American Library Association, and I was the Director of the Office for Intellectual Freedom, and this is an agency where if someone tries to censor library materials, they're supposed to call the Office for Intellectual Freedom, and we tried to help them respond, or get more reviews, or figure out the best way to talk about this with their community.

And while I was there, I dealt with another close to a thousand attempts to restrict materials across America.

And then I eventually wound up relocating here to the Western Slope in Colorado.

I'm now a rural library administrator, which is fascinating, and now I'm kind of coming in to experience what many libraries across the United States are experiencing, which is what we call a surge.

And this is where all of a sudden a whole bunch of people show up at a public meeting.

They follow a very similar pattern, they're not just complaining about a single book, they're complaining about lots of them, so it's 15 to 20, or in the case of Texas, it's 850 books all at once.

And so this list of books sort of comes from unknown places, but almost always the challenges are directed against books by or about LGBTQ (people) or by or about people of color.

And so even though the language tends to be, 'well this is inappropriate for children,' or 'this is all about sex,' when you dig into it, it's not about sex, it's about anything that is not just white, straight people, and so that's what the challenge is about.

So as I began to notice that the number of these challenges were picking up, increasing all across the country, and getting a little scary in that In some places, in Idaho, in Oklahoma, in Texas, the idea was that it's not just that the book itself is pornographic or wrong, but that if I object to it and the librarian doesn't immediately remove it from the collection, I can sue the librarian for $10, 000, it becomes a felony on their record, and they can't pay the fine with the GoFundMe.

So it's like there's something worrisome about what's happening with these library challenges, and I wanted to explore that.

Kira Zizzo: In your opinion, what's the cause for this increase in censorship? Like, why is this movement picking up all of a sudden?

James LaRue: Well, and I think that there's something like four main reasons why people challenge things.

The first one is, it's just an often childhood trauma. In my book, I talk about this like, when I was a kid, I was traumatized by Brussels sprouts. I hate Brussels sprouts, forced to eat them, didn't like the taste, and so I still have this kind of hatred of Brussels sprouts.

And one of the things I talk about is like, I remember walking into a grocery store and seeing a big display in the frozen food aisle of Brussels sprouts.

So I go up to a manager and I say, 'I'm offended. Don't I have the right not to see Brussels sprouts when I walk into a grocery store?'

And the manager that I spoke to said something that I think really applies to libraries.

He said, 'nobody comes to the grocery store because we don't have what you don't want, some people like Brussels sprouts.'

And so I think that many people just complain about stuff because they had a bad experience with it, so it's just individual trauma.

And then the second thing that happens, and this was like the first book I wrote about censorship for librarians, was that I noticed that the common denominator for many of the challenges in libraries was parents of children between the ages of four and six, and parents of children between the ages of 14 and 16.

And I realized being a father myself is what happens from 4 to 6 is a life transition, it's the end of infancy and it's the beginning of childhood and parents kind of panic, they freak out, 'oh, my God, I want to re establish control over my child's environment' because now they're being exposed to play dates and preschool and, you know, all these other kinds of daycare sort of settings where they're being exposed to things the parents aren't comfortable about.

14 to 16, same thing, now it's the end of childhood and the beginning of adulthood.

And in both of those cases, I think what happens is parents freak out and they say, 'I want my baby back. I just don't want them to grow up. I want to preserve that innocence as long as possible.'

Typically after that two-year period in the transition, you realize you may have lots of things to worry about, but libraries probably aren't one of them, libraries are pretty helpful places.

Now, then I think like this new surge that's coming up is, there are two aspects of it.

The first one is kind of a demographic panic.

So just like parents freak out when they see these changes, many people have looked around in the United States and they say, 'you know what? America is becoming less white.'

And many people feel like, you know, even if they don't think of themselves as overtly racist or bigoted, there's still this kind of sense of, 'I have a privilege and if other people are coming up, more brown people, more LGBTQ people, that somehow threatens my privilege.'

And I think there's a demographic panic.

'I don't want things to change.'

And I'm very intrigued by the fact that as I take a look at the books that I, that have been challenged with me, and the books that were challenged at the Office for Intellectual Freedom, it's like, all of the challenges are focused on 3% of what we collect in libraries.

That 3% are the new voices, previously marginalized voices, in American society.

And so people on the right will say, 'ooh, fend those off. You know, I don't want change, we like things the way they are. Just don't talk about those people. Just only talk about white, straight people.'

And then on the other hand, on the left side, I have people that say, 'you know what, on the contrary, absorb as many of these new voices as you possibly can, and while you're about it, let's go back and clean up all those people who are not as woke as we are.'

And so the job of the librarian is to say, 'we just hold up a mirror to the culture. This is what's going on in society. And if you don't like what you see in the mirror, you don't blame the mirror, right? You blame what you see in the mirror.'

And so libraries track social change.

97% of what we've got still looks backward, it's still that mirror.

3% is the new voices.

And then I think finally, the fourth reason that many people challenge library materials, it's for power and for money.

I mean, I really believe somebody stands up and they say 'this book, "Beloved" by Toni Morrison, is about sex.'

Well, if you read the whole book, and many people who challenge materials don't, they just find the naughty bits and they read the snippets and they say, 'this is outrageous.'

But if you read the whole thing, you realize it's far deeper, more complicated, more meaningful.

That's an important discussion to have.

So I don't think that people are really complaining about what they say they're complaining about.

It goes viral, they protest it, they get, you know, clicks and likes, and they ask for money and they get it.

And so the focus is now shifting to an overtly political, overtly power-driven drive to have control over what other people can read.

James LaRue's new book "On Censorship: A Public Librarian Examines Cancel Culture in the U.S." is due to be published September 2023.

This storywas shared via Rocky Mountain Community Radio, a network of public media stations in Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico including Aspen Public Radio.

Kira Zizzo is a student at the University of Notre Dame, currently interning at KGNU.