LARAMIE — Libraries and school boards across Wyoming have become the target of complaints about books that explore LGBTQ and sexual issues on their shelves.
The complaints have stirred up a growing controversy that has raised questions around free speech, censorship and the role public and school libraries should play in education.
Accusations in Gillette over the past six months attracted national attention when parents filed a complaint with the Campbell County Sheriff’s Office alleging it was a criminal offense for such material to be in the children’s or teen sections of the local library.
The titles under scrutiny include “This Book is Gay” by Juno Dawson, “Doing It” by Hannah Witton, “Sex is a Funny Word” by Cory Silverberg and others, according to the Gillette News Record.
Some parents have argued the books cover topics that are inappropriate for younger audiences. Prosecutors ultimately dropped the charges, saying there wouldn’t be a viable case against the library.
On Dec. 13, parents of students in Natrona County voiced their concerns over books on similar topics in addition to those about slavery, sex trafficking, addiction and other themes. Laramie County School District 1 also has had parents protesting certain books in school libraries.
The controversy hasn’t yet made its way to Laramie, but some locals feel it could have an impact here all the same.
Katie Morgan, president of PFLAG Laramie, said LGBTQ-related books can provide an important resource for LGBTQ people, their families and friends.
“Young people have enough challenges in their lives,” Morgan said. “To be denied access to library materials that can help them understand what’s going on in their lives … it’s sad that they’re removing that access.”
Morgan said some kids are not met with support from their families and communities when they come out as LGBTQ. Even when they do receive support, there could be a gap in resources that the books help fill. She added that the concerns over the subject material poses a threat to young LGBTQ people.
“There’s no way to take that (controversy) other than a negative aspersion on who they are as individuals,” Morgan said.
Albany County Commissioner Pete Gosar said he feels Laramie is a more tolerant community than Campbell, Natrona and Laramie counties, and that the local commission would handle similar complaints radically different than the others.
“I think this is a dangerous thing when people go to censor books in public libraries,” Gosar said. “I don’t think people should do that lightly.”
Morgan felt that many of the books listed aren’t political and that people are making their own leaps of judgment about them where perhaps they shouldn’t.
“We know that reading a book about being LGBTQ doesn’t influence you to become LGBTQ. It’s not an influence on people,” Morgan said. “We don’t fully see the reasoning to remove those books.”
Some of the disputed titles aren’t on the shelves but are available in a digital format from the Albany County Public Library. Library Director Rachel Crocker said that she has never received a formal complaint about a book in the four years she’s worked there.
While there have been questions about some titles for a variety of reasons, Crocker said those can usually be resolved through a conversation about the person’s concerns and why the library chose to buy the book in question.
Crocker welcomes discussion about the materials in the library because she feels the conversations can help build new understandings. She added that learning the content of books from readers allows librarians to better recommend them to the right people.
“We wish we could read every book that we put on our shelves, but we can’t,” Crocker said.
Instead, librarians at ACPL rely on bestseller lists, selection magazines and reviews to choose which books to buy. Selectors write out a plan for what types of books they feel should be added to the library and what resources they will use to find them. The majority of books selectors add to the library are published in recent years, if not the current year.
Crocker said selectors welcome suggestions from the public and have a purchase request form people can use to request books they’d like to see in the library.
“Our colleagues in the public libraries and school libraries … have a real way of identifying which works are of the highest quality,” said Cass Kvenild, associate dean of libraries at University of Wyoming. “It’s not an arbitrary process. … I don’t think most librarians are trying to make a political point with their collections.”
If a complaint ever did come up, Crocker said the public library has a formal system in place called a Collection Development Policy. Following this policy, complaints would first go to the selector of the book and then to the director. If the situation can’t be resolved from there, a committee would read the title and determine where it should be placed.
The library recently updated the policy to make it more understandable as a part of a greater policy update. It will be up for public comment for 45 days in the spring.
The complaint system is slightly different for e-books, as these come from a database from the Wyoming library consortium, known as WYLD, which reaches across the state. Because e-books could have come from any library in the consortium, more groups, such as the Wyoming State Library, would be involved in that review process.
Crocker said that an important part of the selection process is making sure the community is fully represented in the library. She also emphasized the importance of including challenging titles that can lead to difficult conversations and hopes to strike a balance between the targets.
“My goal is that anyone in our community could walk into this library and find books that reflect them,” Crocker said. “I also want books on our shelves that everyone in our community can walk in and say … ‘That’s a new idea,’ (or) ‘That’s something that’s out of my comfort zone.’”
Kvenild said that the library at UW functions a bit differently than a public library because of its specific goals of research, education and outreach.
Kvenild said the library never removes a book but has bought additional titles in response to the ones already there at the request of community members. The library is open to the public, and all questions and requests are handled through a set vetting process.
The university has a collection of about 2 million volumes, which includes many painful and controversial topics and ideas, Kvenild said. While inclusion of these materials doesn’t signal endorsement of the ideas within, the UW community uses them as educational tools and views them as an important part of the historical record.
Crocker said that one of the safest places to encounter differences is in a book, and that those issues can be used to start important conversations.
“Libraries are a beautiful place of coming together in our community, and that’s not always without tension,” Crocker said. “That tension is good if we can embrace it in a civil discourse kind of way.”
Crocker said that making the community feel safe and welcome is one way to respond to potentially harmful challenges. She said library staff consider ways to do this every day through programming and content.
Some of these programs include Yak!, an after school club where all teens are welcome and there are events that focus specifically on the LGBTQ community such as Drag Queen Storytime, which takes place during Pride Month.
“The beauty of the library is that literally everyone is welcome,” Crocker said.
“Party affiliation is a technical thing," Chadwick said. "We care about public leaders that reflect our platform.”
Chadwick said Newcomb has “represented the platform of the Democratic party.”