LITCHFIELD, NH – On Wednesday afternoon, the LGBTQ+ display at Aaron Cutler Library was full of books, a Facebook post on the library’s page declaring, “Read with pride at the Library!”
The post continued, “Upstairs, browse fiction and non-fiction LGBTQIA+ titles for teens and adults. Downstairs, find stories featuring children with non-traditional families, non-traditional interests, and different cultures.”
That may not seem unusual – libraries across the country are celebrating Pride Month with similar displays. But it’s in stark contrast to how the display had looked for more than a week – after a patron asked that the books be removed and, when the librarian refused, checked out all 15.
News of the book removal swept across Facebook and other social media, spurring a lightning-fast grassroots response in town. More than 30 residents crowded into the library for Monday night’s monthly Board of Trustees meeting, many demanding that the display be restored. Fueling the dispute was word that a trustee was the patron who checked the books out, something board Chair Donna Ferguson wouldn’t confirm Monday.
The Cutler board, as with most public library boards of trustees, follows American Library Association policies, including its Library Bill of Rights, which states, “Materials should not be proscribed or removed because of partisan or doctrinal approval,” as well as “Libraries should challenge censorship.”
At the beginning of Monday’s meeting, board member Laura Gandia asked for an executive session to discuss “an employee issue.” The board left the room for the closed session, which lasted about 15 minutes.
When members returned, Ferguson announced the board would not discuss the Pride display at the meeting. The crowd, which loudly protested, was permitted to speak in the public remarks portion of the meeting before the rest of the agenda was addressed.
After 13 town residents spoke, board member Jennifer Ford made a motion that the trustees ask the patron to return the books. The motion passed.
“What that person did was wrong and it is censorship,” Ferguson said. “The library is for everyone and to restrict books is wrong.” She is the only one of the six-member board who spoke on the topic at the meeting – when she asked the others if they wanted to say something, they declined.
Part of a National Trend
Ferguson said the issue was put on the board’s Monday agenda after three residents – Nicola Beauregard, Tara Coakley and Elizabeth Vaughn – emailed Library Director Vicki Varick protesting the removal of the books and asking that the board support Litchfield’s LBGTQ families and individuals, as well as inquiring what the board’s role in censorship actions at the library is.
“I am disgusted that this would happen in a free-thinking democratic society in which we have individual freedoms of the press, and of individual thought,” Beauregard’s letter said, in part.
The dust-up is part of a national trend – the ALA in its 2022 report said that library staff across the country, including in every state, faced an unprecedented number of attempts to ban books in 2021. ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom tracked 729 challenges to library, school, and university materials and services last year, resulting in more than 1,597 individual book challenges or removals. Most targeted books that are by, or about, Black or LGBTQIA+ individuals.
“The 729 challenges represent the highest number of attempted book bans since ALA began compiling the list 20 years ago,” the report said.
The ALA has found that in some cases, those seeking removal of books are supported by national far-right activist groups and organizations including Moms for Liberty and Heritage Action for America.
“Conservative activists in several states, including Texas, Montana and Louisiana, have joined forces with like-minded officials to dissolve libraries’ governing bodies, rewrite or delete censorship protections, and remove books outside of official challenge procedures,” the Washington Post reported in April.
Book ‘Ban’ Goes Viral
The display in question, in the adult section of the library, has a rainbow sign that says “Read with Pride.”
According to Ferguson, a patron emailed the librarian on Monday, June 6, asking that the books and sign be removed until the Board of Trustees could discuss the display at its June 13 meeting. The librarian, in an email response, described the role of the library to educate and support the community, referred to ALA standards and other information that supported keeping the display up. In denying the request to remove the display, the librarian cited ALA language supporting this decision. She recommended the patron direct her concerns to the Board of Trustees.
On Tuesday, June 7, the patron came to the library and asked if there was a limit to the number of books that could be checked out. When told there wasn’t, she checked out all the books – 15 – in the Pride display.
The issue went viral on the What’s Up Litchfield Facebook page, a private group for town residents, as well as other social media.
Many of those at the meeting had read on a now-deleted Facebook post that the patron who checked out the books was a member of the board. Ferguson wouldn’t confirm that, saying the name of the patron is protected by privacy laws. Some at the meeting countered that if the person is a trustee, their name should be public information.
A few speakers said they are concerned about children “being exposed to” the display, some citing the inaccurate belief it is in the children’s section.
Most of the 13 who spoke, however, were in favor of the display and asked that it be restored.
Those speaking included former library trustees, who pointed out the code of ethics and ALA policies that require board members to protect the integrity of the library. Speakers were also concerned about the message the display’s removal sent, and that, since books can be checked out for three weeks, they would be gone for the entirety of Pride Month.
Isaac Grant, 15, president-elect of the Campbell High School Gay/Straight Alliance told the board such displays are important. “Many people need to be educated, many don’t understand so they [mock others].” Grant added, “Kids need to know and not be afraid to learn.”
Joe Stanieich-Burke, a Democratic candidate for New Hampshire House district HI14, said he was saddened by the book removal. “The Litchfield library should serve as a vital cultural and learning resource, and silencing any marginalized community can have severe implications for that group. What people may not understand is the value and importance that this Pride bookshelf could have extended to its LGBTQ+ readers. Representation in any form saves lives and validates existence, even in the case of a small LGBTQ book section.
“As a gay man, I continue to struggle to see myself or my family represented in all forms of society,” Stanieich-Burke said. “However, our stories and lived experiences should be just as important to see and hear. Our existence should not be met with pushback or age restrictions.”
He said that if it was a library trustee who removed the books, he hopes to learn more about it “as these actions go against their role and mission to foster an environment of learning and growth.”
He added that he hoped the person who removed the books “opened and read one of the many LGBTQ books she checked out, as she would learn just how special, kind, and beautiful our community truly is.”
Code of Ethics
Board members were given the board’s code of ethics to sign at Monday’s meeting. The code is signed every year by board members. No information is yet available as to whether any members didn’t sign it – minutes must be posted five days after the meeting but are not yet available (no board minutes from 2022 are posted on the Board of Trustee page on the library website as of this writing).
Minutes from the Aug. 9, 2021, meeting show Gandia, who this year is the board’s secretary, didn’t sign the code last year, “because she feels it is overly broad, unconstitutional and a violation of her freedom of speech.”
When other members at that meeting protested the fact Gandia didn’t sign the code of ethics, she responded that “people are judging her heart and her intent,” the minutes said.
“Laura feels the ethics policy was put in place because of her Facebook post about the library. Laura feels she is acting in good faith. Laura is an elected official as all the trustees are, and there is no recourse if she does not want to sign the ethics policy,” according to the 2021 minutes.