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Stateside Podcast: Libraries weigh book ban demands

Photo by Alexander Grey on Unsplash

Over the course of the past year, there has been a significant uptick in challenges to the books that should be allowed in public libraries. Michigan has been no stranger to this phenomenon. “Gender Queer: A Memoir,” a graphic novel by Maia Kobabe, has been a particularly hot topic. It covers Kobabe’s experience on sexuality and gender identity throughout life. The book was challenged nationally, and in Michigan’s own Patmos Public Library and Lapeer Public Library.

The graphic novel, which includes sexually explicit illustrations, caused concern from some parents, who are worried about how these images may influence children.

On the other side, members of the LGBTQ+ community spoke out about the importance of the book for LGBTQ+ youth. MLive politics reporter Jordyn Hermani has been covering the issue around “Gender Queer.”

“[Members of the LGBTQ+ community said] ‘Hey, you know, this might not be a book for you if you aren’t struggling with thoughts of gender and sexuality,’” Hermani said. “‘But I would’ve killed for a book like this as a kid. To see that I’m not alone in these feelings and that other people have worked through them as well. They were able to come out on the other side as an adult able to live their life.’”

While both Patmos and Lapeer libraries voted to keep the book in their libraries, it was not without consequences. The town of Patmos later voted to defund the library and it is currently running on donations.

“It's definitely sparked a [sort of] culture war in Michigan over libraries and the roles that they play,” Hermani said.

The controversy has also sparked questions about what the process looks like when a community member raises concern over library materials. Clare Membiela, a law consultant with the Library of Michigan, explained that the process starts with a form. The form details the issue the individual has with the material, as well as more supplementary information.

The decision on whether or not to keep the book on the shelves lies with the library director, who is typically guided by pre-existing policies that govern questions and concerns on materials. If the community member is unhappy with the decision, they can appeal it to the library’s board.

The entire process is dedicated to First Amendment rights. The First Amendment guarantees freedom of information, and Membiela explained that public libraries are a crucial way that Americans exercise that right. In order to uphold this, librarians and library directors maintain a neutral viewpoint when examining a complaint.

“You'll talk to librarians and a lot of librarians will say, ‘Look, there's items in this library that aren’t things that I want to read,’” Membiela said. “‘But the job of a library is to represent the community that it serves. And to ensure the community has information on everything from history to current world events – and not just any information, but authenticated information, good quality information and good quality stories.’”

Listen to today’s podcast to hear more about the intersection between children, public libraries, and the First Amendment.

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Ronia Cabansag is a producer for Stateside. She comes to Michigan Public from Eastern Michigan University, where she earned a BS in Media Studies & Journalism and English Linguistics with a minor in Computer Science.
Cate Weiser joined the Stateside team as an intern in May 2023, and is a second-year at the University of Chicago.