In a year of record book challenges, Salem Public Library sees little pushback

In a year where Oregon libraries saw more book challenges than ever, Salem’s has seen more community support, librarians said.

Statewide, 93 books were challenged in 46 incidents between July 2022 and June 2023, a record high according to a recent report from the State Library of Oregon.

Many of the challenges targeted books about the experiences of people who are LGBTQ, Black, Indigenous or people of color, according to the report. The challenges came amid a nationwide conservative effort to challenge such books.

“In 15 incidents, libraries reported that objectors bypassed established challenge processes by taking objections directly to a library board, school administrator, or governing board, or even hiding, stealing, or trashing materials. In some cases, library staff were intimidated and harassed, called groomers and pedophiles, and/or received death threats,” the report said.

Salem saw one challenge in December 2022, after a patron threw away a stack of LGBTQ history books in the trash. The patron was asked to leave for the day and provided a copy of the library’s policy for requesting reconsideration of books, according to the State Library.

Sonja Sommerville, the library’s programming and outreach coordinator, said the Salem library saw a second challenge earlier this year, which she said didn’t align with the nationwide trend. A patron followed the proper reporting channels to ask the library to reconsider a nonfiction memoir for factual inaccuracies. 

“Our library established that it was probably as true as any memoir, memoir being made of memory, so we did uphold the book on that and it continues to be on the shelf,” she said.

In Salem, patrons can ask that books be removed or reshelved under a different category, like fiction or moved from the children’s section to young adult. The process starts with a conversation with library staff, and if they’d still like to proceed after they fill out a form explaining why they think the material violates the library’s selection or categorization. The city librarian, currently Bridget Esqueda, makes the final decision about the material. 

Sommerville said that despite the challenges to books statewide in Salem “those conversations haven’t really come up at all.”

She said there’s a broad understanding as library workers that every person can find something in the library they don’t want to read. Somerville, for instance, tends to avoid the horror section because gory imagery scares her. 

“If I find that in a book, if I know it’s there, I’m going to avoid that book,” she said.  “But I also understand and appreciate that there are readers who really love that gore and find it great.”

Somerville said despite the lack of challenges, the staff attended preparedness meetings in light of the nationwide challenges.

The library also recently updated its request for consideration process, adding a stipulation that those who submit have to live in Salem, and books won’t be reconsidered more than once every three years.

The update also added an Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Statement, which explains the library’s plan to continually curate a collection with a wide range of perspectives, identities and experiences.

“While we understand that not every reader will like every book, the other obligation that we are very serious about is making sure that there are books for every reader,” Sommerville said. “We want everyone to be able to come to our shelves and find something that speaks to their experience, answers their questions, resolves their curiosity, entertains them, whatever it is that they’re looking for that day.”

The Salem-Keizer School District received two challenges to books in school libraries in 2022 for Gender Queer, a graphic novel memoir, and Stamped, a kids’ book about racism and the history of antiracist activism in the U.S. Both times, a district panel decided to retain the books. There have been no formal requests to remove a book from schools since.

Five minutes before the Salem Public Library opened Tuesday morning, over 30 people, some clutching tote bags, some with kids in tow, waited at the doors. Kids who were too excited to stand still ran laps around their parents and repeatedly asked when they could go in.

When they did finally open, smiling library staff were there to greet them as they entered. Within minutes, patrons took to the computers, front desk area and shelves throughout the building.

It’s a daily occurrence, said Sonja Sommerville, the library’s programming and outreach supervisor. She said it’s always a little busier Tuesday mornings which have limited tickets for storytime at 10:15 a.m. 

Somerville said she had no guesses as to why the book-challenge trend didn’t reach the Salem Public Library.

“I will say that the folks who have noticed that trend and and spoken to me about it, and approached us have generally been in the vein of like, ‘what can we do to support maintaining access for all of our readers?’ she said. “So I really have appreciated that from our community.”

As a reader, Somerville said books have helped her better understand the world and her sense of self, especially in the teen years.

“That’s always been something I’ve appreciated about books, is you can go there and in this very safe space learn about something that people are referencing or experiencing and you don’t really know what they’re talking about,” she said. “You can go to this quiet space alone with a book and get your head around what people mean by some of the experiences that they’re having.”

Contact reporter Abbey McDonald: [email protected] or 503-704-0355.

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Abbey McDonald joined the Salem Reporter in 2022. She previously worked as the business reporter at The Astorian, where she covered labor issues, health care and social services. A University of Oregon grad, she has also reported for the Malheur Enterprise, The News-Review and Willamette Week.