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Violent, aggressive, and personal attacks — language used to challenge books has changed dramatically, research presented at Oregon Library Association conference shows

In Oregon last year, “inappropriateness for children” maintained its top spot in book challenges. For the first time, it tied with another concern: that the book’s content was LGBTQ.

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August Guszkowski (left) and Jessi West Zumwalt, graduate student/researchers from the University of Washington, gave a presentation on "The Evolving Language of Book Bans" at last week's Oregon Library Association conference in Salem. “We saw multiple times where ‘burn it’ was written down on the challenges,” Zumwalt said. “People are bold enough to feel that it was appropriate to write that.” Photo by: Amanda Waldroupe
August Guszkowski (left) and Jessi West Zumwalt, graduate student/researchers from the University of Washington, gave a presentation on “The Evolving Language of Book Bans” at last week’s Oregon Library Association conference in Salem. “We saw multiple times where ‘burn it’ was written down on the challenges,” Zumwalt said. “People are bold enough to feel that it was appropriate to write that.” Photo by: Amanda Waldroupe

In front of a packed room at the Oregon Library Association’s annual conference in Salem last week, two University of Washington graduate students presented research showing that the language people use in their attempts to ban or restrict access to books in public libraries is more violent and aggressive than a decade ago, and largely focused on children’s and young adult books, as well as LGBTQ books.

“There has been an increase in rhetoric that complains about books featuring LGBTQIA-plus themes, racial issues, and political themes,” Jessi West Zumwalt, one of the presenters, told the audience.

“What we see in the rhetoric is dehumanization, across the board,” she said. “Over and over, we’re seeing increases in violence, an increased idea of ‘them vs. us’ and that this is something very ‘other.’” 

Their research showed that personal attacks directed toward librarians and library staff have also increased, as opposed to challenges being only about the book and its content.   

Approximately 70 people attended the talk “The Evolving Language of Book Bans,” given by August Guszkowski, the assistant librarian of Lebanon High School in Lebanon, N.H., and Jessi West Zumwalt, the manager of Keizer Community Library in Oregon. Guszkowski and Zumwalt are also first-year graduate students in the University of Washington’s Information School.

The research was essentially a project in a “Research Methods” class, designed and completed within a 10-week term by Guszkowski, Zumwalt, and four additional researchers/graduate students. Their research findings are finalized and the group is seeking to publish their article (which includes a printable zine).

The six graduate student-researchers set out to investigate the specific language and terminology library patrons use in formal book challenges — the application process a library patron undergoes if they want a book restricted in some way, or completely banned.

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They wanted to know whether the language patrons used had changed in the past 10 years. How did patrons talk to library staff about the challenges? How did that change over time? And what sort of books were challenged?

HISTORIC ATTEMPTS TO BAN BOOKS

A “challenge” to a book attempts to remove it from the shelves or restrict, in some way, access to that book — cataloging it in a different section from where it normally would be, or allowing only certain people or age groups to check it out.

Public libraries across the United States are facing a historic and troubling number of book bans. According to the American Library Association, 4,240 books were challenged in the United States in 2023 — a 65 percent increase over 2022. The number of individual titles — or specific books — facing challenges increased by 92 percent.

Oregon’s public libraries are no different. According to State Library of Oregon data, there were 46 challenges in 2023. That is a slight dip from 2022, which saw 54 challenges — the highest number since the state library began tracking data in 1987. But the challenges in 2023 involved multiple books in a single challenge. The number of titles increased from 33 individual books in 2022 to 93 in 2023.  

The University of Washington researchers analyzed data from 218 written challenges submitted between 2013 and 2023 to public libraries in Pierce County, Wash.; Sacramento, Calif.; and every library in Oregon. The researchers also looked at data from challenges submitted to the public library system in Burbank, Calif., between 2018 and 2022.

Guszkowski said he and his colleagues discovered that many libraries do not save data on challenges or do not share them publicly. He also noted that many Southern states purposefully do not collect challenge data “as a protective mechanism for their staff.”   

While data from all 50 states was not gathered, the research does offer a complete picture about book challenges in Oregon — the State Library of Oregon’s Intellectual Freedom Clearinghouse collects challenges from every library in Oregon.

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“Oregon was the state that gave us everything they had,” Guszkowski told Oregon ArtsWatch. Data was “piecemeal in other states.”

“INAPPROPRIATELY PROVOCATIVE” AND “AWFULLY BOOBY”

Of the 218 challenges, 84 concerned children’s and young adult (YA) books. 

“Inappropriateness for children” and concern over books that children and teenagers were reading was “by far the most common theme and rhetoric people used in book challenges,” Guszkowski said. “Concern about what children are reading has always been the top reason for challenges.”

Other reasons were that books, allegedly, contain sexually explicit content, racism, obscenity, and violence. 

In 2023, “inappropriateness for children” maintained its top spot in book challenges. But, for the first time, it tied with another: that the book’s content was LGBTQ.

Each year, the American Library Association releases a list of the top ten most-challenged books in the United States. Its most recent list includes seven out of 10 books that are categorized, or whose author identifies, as LGBTQ.

The book that has received the most challenges in the United States is Maia Kobabe’s Gender Queer, a critically acclaimed graphic coming-of-age memoir about gender, identity, sexuality, and living outside the gender binary. Other books on the list include the award-winning YA book Looking for Alaska and The Perks of Being a Wallflower, which has been adapted into a critically acclaimed film. 

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An image from the researchers' PowerPoint presentation reflects the increased intensity in language used to challenge books.
An image from the researchers’ PowerPoint presentation reflects the increased intensity in language used to challenge books.

The language patrons use in their challenges to justify restricting or removing the book has “definitely become more intense over time” and “become more violent and more aggressive,” Zumwalt said.

One challenge said a book was “inappropriately provocative.”

The most humorous, Guszkowski and Zumwalt said, was a challenge that said a book was “awfully booby.”

But the language of other complaints was provocative in its own right. “I feel that this book is teaching people to be negative, insulting, disrespectful, dishonest, rude, inconsiderate, and ill-mannered,” one read.

Language in other challenges included the phrases “weird, sick, disgusting,” “talks about vagina, penis, and sex,” “[includes] swear words,” “encourages sexual experimentation,” “written to have undue influence on the reader,” “anti-religious statements,” and “tells kids that adults are wrong about gender.”

Another complaint echoes sentiments from Nazi Germany: “Rip up this book and burn it,” it read.

“We saw multiple times where ‘burn it’ was written down on the challenges,” Zumwalt said. “People are bold enough to feel that it was appropriate to write that.”

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LANGUAGE DIRECTED AT LIBRARIANS AND LIBRARY STAFF

The researchers also conducted standardized interviews with 12 librarians and analyzed data from 49 questionnaires filled out by library staff, including front desk staff and managers. From those interviews and questionnaires, Zumwalt said, the researchers discovered something “very new and different.”

Challenges used language “not about the [books], but about the people giving access to those materials,” she said — librarians and library staff. 

“Many expressed that there has been a clear shift in the language used by patrons within the last decade, and particularly within the last five years,” Zumwalt said.

“He called me and the teen librarian ‘pedophiles and groomers,’” one library director said in an interview. “That’s definitely language that, until the last couple of years, we really had never encountered in any kind of pushback about library materials.”

Librarians attribute the increase in challenges, and the increased virulence in conversations, to the 2016 presidential election, the COVID-19 pandemic, the murder of George Floyd in May 2020, and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement and subsequent protests in the summer of 2020.

“It was suddenly OK to say things that were hateful,” another library director said in an interview. “It was coming from the very top … there was a shift that happened, and then it was normalized in a way I just hadn’t seen before.”

An Oregon youth services librarian offers her perspective in an image in the researchers' PowerPoint presentation.
An Oregon youth services librarian offers her perspective in an image in the researchers’ PowerPoint presentation.

DE-ESCALATING CHALLENGES THROUGH HUMANITY AND SHARED VALUES

While researching and analyzing data, Zumwalt found herself coming back to strategies that could de-escalate conversations between patrons and library staff about books.

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She chooses to focus on approaching conversations with compassion, empathy, and “seeing humanness in the other person.”

“It would be easy to say that we’re not part of the same communities,” she said.
“In fact, we are. We live in the same communities.”

Guszkowski and Zumwalt observed that the majority of book challenges originate from a place of concern — concern about harm potentially caused to others. “Challenges reflect social concerns that patrons are experiencing and are often contextualized in greater global or social movements,” Zumwalt said. “Understanding the underlying concerns and values a patron has can better guide conversations.”

Rather than eliminating material people may find controversial or offensive, Guszkowski and Zumwalt encouraged Oregon’s librarians to “foster community conversations around controversial topics,” Zumwalt said.

“Not all books are for all people,” Guszkowski said. “But every book in a library is for somebody.”

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Amanda Waldroupe is a freelance journalist and writer based in Portland, Oregon. Her work has appeared in numerous publications, including The Guardian, Bklyner, The Brooklyn Rail, InvestigateWest, The Oregonian, the Portland Tribune, Oregon Humanities, and many others. She has been a fellow and writer-in-residence at the Logan Nonfiction Program, the Banff Centre’s Literary Journalism program, Alderworks Alaska, and the Sou’wester Artist Residency Program.
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One Response

  1. Thank you for reporting on this! I am going to share this with my colleagues who were not able to attend.

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