Book bans have become a powerful censorship tool in Colorado. Libraries and patrons hold the line.

DENVER — In a season of nationwide book censorship, Colorado led the trend. The state ranked among the top 17 in the nation for having more than 100 titles targeted for bans at public libraries across the Front Range, according to American Library Association’s Office of Intellectual Freedom’s 2023 report.

The bans hit close to home for librarian James LaRue, who served as the director of the American Library Association’s Office of Intellectual Freedom but had previously spent 24 years as the Douglas County Public Library District’s director. 

LaRue documents his experiences with challenges to library materials and how book bans have accelerated and become politicized in his book, “On Censorship: A Public Librarian Examines Cancel Culture in the US” from Fulcrum Publishing.

Rocky Mountain PBS recently spoke with LaRue about his work and how free speech advocates can counteract censorship.

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Rocky Mountain PBS: You have extensive experience fielding book challenges, which is when library patrons ask for materials to be removed or restricted, can you situate for us the state of book banning in the US at the moment?

James LaRue: Well, we have seen the largest rise in attempts to remove or restrict library resources, not just books. So it's digital resources, it's programs, it's exhibits, it's speakers. It's almost everything a library does. 

We've seen the greatest increase in challenges across the country since the founding of the American Library Association in 1876. So it's, “Surf's up.” 

RMPBS: Over the course of your career, you mentioned in the book, how [censorship] accelerated. What are those changes that you've seen in the types of people challenging library materials and the tactics that they use?

JL: So I think there are four reasons that people censor books. The first one is just personal prejudice. Somebody walks into the library, they see something that triggers them for whatever reason — could be childhood trauma, could just be a cranky day — and they say, “I don't like this. Get rid of it.”

And then the second one that I really encountered when I was in Douglas County, and this was 1990 through 2014, there was a big shift in America that went from, let's say, fair parenting, like the latchkey children to a suddenly very protective, and then maybe too overprotective from what I call the, you know, the “helicopter parent” to the “Velcro parent.” They're just stuck right on their head, and they follow their kids everywhere.

And then, the third one that I saw when I was at the office for Intellectual Freedom from about 2016 through the end of 2018, was what I would call a demographic panic. And this was where suddenly it was almost as if America looked around and said, “As of 2014, under the age of five, America is majority nonwhite.”

That's not going to change. And all of a sudden, the people that said, “The national narrative is all about me,” became aware that all these books were finally showing up in the library that reflected these perspectives of previously marginalized people. And so they were like, now 97% of the collection about me is not enough, and it needs to be 100%.

And then from the Left, we began to see challenges as well, where it's like, “Well, 3% of these new voices is not enough. Let's expand the number of those offerings. And while we're about it, let's go back and take a look at those books that have bigotry or homophobia in them and clean those up, too.” And so that was that demographic panic.

And then the fourth phase happening very much in 2021. The surge, I'm sure, was very directed at trying to win the midterm elections. And so the idea is, let's flip America's outrage switch, make everybody very, very angry, and they'll send in money and they'll vote for me. So I think that's how it's changed. 

That, and also the difference of tactics, fascinates me.

Back in the day, at Douglas County, somebody would fill out a form. “I'm upset about this. I read the book and here's what I object to, and here's what I think you should get instead.” Now, what happens is 15 to 20 people show up unannounced at a public comment session at a school board or a public board meeting, and they have 25 or 30 books that they want to get rid of all at once.

And their tactic is, “I'm going to find the naughtiest bit in this book, and I'm going to read it out loud to make everybody squirm and say how uncomfortable they are, and then say, ‘I demand that you remove this.’” And if they don't, then immediately it's political threats. “You're on the school board — you should be recalled. You're a superintendent, principal — you should be fired.”

You're a librarian and what we're seeing now is legislation across the country to say not only criminalize the book, but criminalize the people who provide access to them. 

RMPBS: Do you feel that that constitutes the kind of panic? You also said [in the book] that sometimes these types of moral outrages or these types of tactics are cyclical. How do you perceive this particular moment?

JL: I ran across something I read back when I was in high school, and it's a 1951 book that came out, by Eric Hoffer called “The True Believer.” And at that time, like many of the best minds of his generation, he said, ‘We just got through this WWII. How did it happen that the world went crazy? You know, I mean, all of a sudden you had Mussolini and you had Stalin and you had Hitler.  

And, as he talked about that, he says, well, there are a number of things that seem to have to be in place before the world goes crazy. And one of them is there's a loss of national narrative.

There's a frustration and victimization. 

Germany, between WWI and WWII is still paying reparations. And it's like, well, we have this, you know, terrible problem. We don't feel like we're on top of the world anymore, who do we blame? So the scapegoating and then the targeting of many institutions, like fake news, like higher education, like libraries, famously book burning in Nazi Germany.

So you can't help but say, 1938 looks a lot like today. Where before they had Stalin, now we have [Vladimir] Putin, and we have [Recep Tayip] Erdogan and Xi [Jinping] and a rising tide of authoritarians across the world. And so I think it's not so much panic anymore now. I think it's flat out authoritarianism. That's very, very sobering.

RMPBS: It is. I think that you provide a framework in the book for understanding what's going on and coping with it. One of the ideas that I really thought was interesting, that I would love for you to expand on, is the idea of books as inoculation. And that response, in terms of when parents feel that a book is not appropriate for their child or for a particular age group, that, in fact, the book and whatever it contains can act as a sort of vaccination.

JL: Well, my favorite one was when I was at Douglas County. All of a sudden, fairy tales were what everybody was coming after. I said, ‘fairy tales? What's that about?’ And my favorite one was the little “Red Riding Hood,” where, you know, she's going through the woods and she meets the wolf, and she's got a bag that has a bottle of wine and a baguette in it, and the wolf runs ahead and eats Granny and is about to eat Little Red when the Woodsman shows up, conks the Wolf, slices him open and Granny steps out whole.

And at the very end, Granny and the Woodsman are having a glass of wine and the complaint was, “Granny is a drunk, you know, you're promoting senior citizen alcoholism!” I wrote back to say that, “Well, if I had just been eaten by a wolf and sliced open, I’d want a drink, you know, and I don't think that's out of line.”

That doesn't seem outrageous to me. 

But the more I started looking at fairy tales, it was like fairy tales have been around for a long time. And the Grimm Brothers fairy tales are very Grimm indeed. A man by the name of Bruno Bettelheim, an Austrian psychologist, he said that the purpose of fairy tales is to help children name their fears and work out strategies to deal with them, because, in fact, the world is sometimes a scary place.

I learned from parents that over-protectiveness, it's like they understand that all these dark and interesting stories are very attractive to children. The woods are lovely, dark and deep, and they understand that children are drawn to the woods, but they don't want wolves in the woods. And the problem, of course, is that children need to know how to deal with wolves.

RMPBS: I find that to be a very useful framework for understanding both the parental psychology and the fascination that children may have. Because the flip side of the book banning and the censorship is that then these books go on to become bestsellers and sought after by a lot of the library patrons. So can you speak a little bit to that?

JL: Well, there's so much to talk about there. I just read a Washington Post article that went back and said, of the 1000 challenges that were made to school libraries across the country, they were all filed by 11 people.

The American Library Association did a study and found that, regardless of political party, about 70% of Americans say, “We are opposed to censorship.” 

One of my favorite stories, and I know this sometimes embarrasses my friend who's the director there in Wellington, Colorado. There was a woman who showed up, she was the pastor's wife and said, ‘Here's 15 books that are obscene bestsellers…They need to be removed.’ And the, the next month, a bunch more people came in–like three times as many–and said, ‘Well, wait a minute, is this how we want to be known? Is this how we want people to think of our community as a place where we censor? We don't.’ 

Then the following month, the board decided to ban banning. And so I feel like at this moment of rising authoritarianism, it's very, very few voices. They're very persistent. They're very loud, and they make all kinds of claims. 

This is a moment where I think we need to have civic courage, both for library administrators and for a citizen governing bodies to say, ‘We hear what you're saying. We'll certainly pay attention to that.’ But we don't write the books, right? The library doesn't. 

We buy the books that are produced by our culture. 

There was a study done in Wisconsin, probably 30 years ago, about what percentage of children's books featured people of color. And at that time, the population was somewhere around 28% Black.

And it was like less than 0.2% black characters in children's literature. And so as those demographics have shifted and the publishing has tried to say, ‘Well, we need to reflect the base of our potential customers.’ So we're beginning to see more of these books showing up, and then we get back into that demographic panic. 

RMPBS: When you talk about civic courage, I understood from the book that there is a process involved when there's a book challenge and there's a feedback mechanism. So it's designed to have engagement, engaging with both good faith and bad faith arguments and getting to what the core of the complaint is.

JL: That's correct. 
RMPBS: You draw a very strong distinction between process and policy in addressing book challenges. Can you talk a little bit more about that?

JL: Well, I guess I have to go all the way back to the First Amendment, which is the foundation of American librarianship.

The right to not only to speak freely, but to access the speech of others. So the library was put together to enable people to go out and learn about the world, to ask questions about it. And then in 1938, one of the great details about this, the Library Bill of rights was formed. And this is because two books were being challenged in Des Moines, Iowa.

One of them was “Mein Kampf,” because it was foreign. And then the second one was “The Grapes of Wrath,” because it was communist. 

The director of the Des Moines, Iowa Library went to his board and said, I want to do for the first time something called a Library's Bill of Rights, which meant that we, the librarians, are not going to discriminate on the basis of national origin of sex, of religion, of all these kinds of things. To say, we need to represent the entire world.
The life cycle of a book challenge
1. Patron tells library staff that a particular title upsets them.
2. The librarian will find the nature of the complaint through active listening about what is upsetting about the book. After finding out what the problem is, the librarian will likely redirect the patron to material that better suits what they were looking for. LaRue says that alone works 99% of the time.
3. If the patron still feels the book or material doesn’t belong in the library then they write a written complaint explaining the concern. The complaint then goes to committee.
4. The committee reads the book, considers the context of the book and makes a recommendation to the library district director to reclassify the book, move it to another section, or remove it entirely. 
5. The library director takes the committee recommendation into account and makes the final decision. If they’re unhappy with that decision, the patron may then appeal it to the citizen review board. 
Then we also asserted for the first time that you, as a patron, have the right to come in and ask these questions. That's what the First Amendment means in practice. But the other part of the First Amendment is that you have the right to redress, right to complain, to redress grievances.

RMPBS: I would like for you to just share or, the stage is yours, to share anything that I haven't asked about that you feel it's very important for people to understand about the role of public libraries and that role that they play in this particular moment of, as you said, rising authoritarianism, book bans and censorship.

JL: I think that the whole purpose of the public library is to honor the fundamental dignity of individual inquiry. You get to ask questions, and that's your right as an American. And so, as I look around and see what are all the problems in the world today? Number one is not that our children are reading too much, you know, let's encourage them to read.

RMPBS: If I just may ask you, what is your favorite banned book? 

JL: My favorite banned book. probably not just one! Maybe a couple. 

I am very taken by “Beloved” by Toni Morrison, and I don't know if I can say this on [air], but I've just about decided that what makes a classic is the ability to piss off every new generation. You know? And if you can find something that irritates each new generation, you might have a classic in a very different way.

Gabriela Resto-Montero is the managing editor at Rocky Mountain PBS.