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Library books explained to county commission after complaints by small group of far-right activists

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Library books have been a hot topic at Washoe County meetings in recent months, part of a growing national movement to ban books and remove certain materials from library shelves. In 2022, the number of attempted book bans across the country set a record at more than 1,200 challenges, according to the American Library Association. 

In Washoe County there’s been regular cage rattling and several “beyond disgusting” readings, according to Commissioner Clara Andriola, during Board of County Commissioner meetings’ public comment periods about inappropriate materials in the county’s libraries. 

The number of official requests to reconsider those materials? Two over the past nine years, according to Debi Stears, the collection development manager for the Washoe County Library System.

Stears gave a presentation Tuesday to commissioners on how the library selects books and how it handles reconsideration requests, often called challenges, by the community. 

The presentation was requested by Commissioner Andriola, who was appointed to the board just as complaints about Drag Queen Story Hour and alleged offensive books in county and school libraries became part of the repertoire of grievances voiced by a small, vocal group. 

“I really value the library,” Andriola said. “I grew up in a family that really valued reading…and expanding the opportunities to challenge yourself.

“I also want to share that there have been, during public comment, books that have been read to us here in commission chambers that really had disturbing language,” she added. “It was really uncomfortable to listen to.” 

Those books, she said, were misunderstood to be books for young readers, but were actually from the adult section of the library.  

Stears said one of the things she focuses on when ordering materials for the libraries is the suitability for the intended audience. Other things considered include cost, relevance of the author or their previous work, critical reviews, representation of diverse points of view and opinions, and forecasted community demand. 

A similar set of criteria is reviewed when someone asks a book be reconsidered, she said. In that process Stears said she’ll re-review the material then provide details to the library’s director, who then responds to the community member who made the request. 

If that person isn’t satisfied with the response, the next step would be for the Library Board of Trustees to review the request and make a final decision. 

Stears said neither of the two materials she’s reviewed for reconsideration have been removed from the shelves. 

Challenges to the library’s materials, she said, aren’t the biggest censorship threat the library faces, however.

“When we talk about challenging materials, we are talking about banning books, making them inaccessible to users. It’s not just banning that is a current threat, we have two other types of incidents that are real censorship threats in our community” she said. 

According to Stears, a “disturbing” amount of hate speech is being written by community members in the adult books collection, particularly those about the African-American experience, immigrant experience and Jewish life.  

“We do not want voices in our community to be silenced. We view that the public library is a place where everyone should have a voice,” Stears said. “We view hate speech written in these books as a type of censorship.”

Library staff is on the lookout for this material, she said, and incidents are reported to the American Library Association Office of Intellectual Freedom. 

The second type of censorship threat Stears pointed to is hiding of books, especially children’s books, in different library shelves. 

Stears said that rather than challenging books through policy, some people are tucking books into different locations to keep them from being accessed or found. Many of these books are also about particular minority communities, she added.

At past commission meetings some community members have suggested requiring libraries to monitor what books children are checking out to ensure they are reading age appropriate material. 

Stears said it’s a parent’s right to determine appropriate reading material for their child, not a librarian’s.

“We don’t interject ourselves…We look to the parent to make that decision,” she said. “Our goal is to provide a wealth of materials, and if parents and community members are looking to be steered in the direction of things that support their particular values and belief system, we’re happy to help them find those materials, but we are not prescribing for families [which books to read].”

Washoe County Commissioner Clara Andriola.
Washoe County Commissioner Clara Andriola.

Andriola agreed, adding that she felt confident the county’s librarians were following age guidelines for purchasing and shelving materials. 

“I don’t think there should ever be any legislative language that regulates the decision of parents. We may have differences of opinion on that, but regulating the freedom of a parent to decide what his or her child reads is between the parent and the child,” Andriola said. 

The library system spends more than $1 million annually on library materials and added more than 39,000 physical items and 17,500 audio and e-books to its collection over the past year. There were more than 2 million checkouts of the nearly half a million volumes of material available. 

Drag Queen Story Hour praised

In a reversal from past public comment periods, many community members spoke on the merits and importance of Drag Queen Story Hour, a children’s storytime program at several local libraries. The topic wasn’t part of the commission’s agenda, but is an ongoing program at several area libraries that has been criticized by far-right activists who want it to end.

Chris Daniels, also known as Miss Ginger Devine, took the day off of work to speak at the meeting. 

“I’m the drag queen that we are talking about that reads for drag story hour and has been a reader for five years,” he said. “Many of those story hours are filled to capacity with overflow of children being read the stories outside by volunteers, which shows there’s a public interest. That’s really important to note.” 

Daniels praised local librarians and said he wasn’t interested in micromanaging parents. “This is not what this body is assembled to do,” he said. 

Many commenters spoke about the value of the story hours in making children and families feel that they have a place where they belong. Daniels said he’s heard from transgender youth who have said attending the event is one of the first times they’ve felt safe. 

Others said the events are a fun way to encourage children to read through “someone in a fancy dress and a wig who reads stories.”

Valerie Fiannaca, who regularly speaks at commission meetings, said Drag Queen Story Hour was her pet project and claimed responsibility for bringing it before commissioners. 

“We’re not opposed to Drag Queen Story Hour,” she said. “I’m opposed to taxpayer money funding it. We are just opposed to it being in our publicly funded library.” 

The story times are not funded by the county or library system; the costs are paid by Friends of Washoe County Library, a nonprofit that has donated more than $2 million to the libraries for programs, materials and technology.

Other far-right commenters, however, called the events perverted and said they have no place in the northern Nevada community. 

Bookmobile funds approved

Commissioners on Tuesday also approved a $75,000 grant from the state to purchase a bookmobile. The van will be outfitted with shelves and library materials, Chromebooks and tablets. Library officials said the mobile library will increase access for residents in the county’s more rural areas. 

Kristen Hackbarth
Kristen Hackbarth
Kristen Hackbarth is a freelance editor and communications professional with more than 20 years’ experience working in marketing, public relations and communications in northern Nevada. Kristen graduated from the University of Nevada, Reno with a degree in photography and minor in journalism and has a Master of Science in Management and Leadership. She also serves as director of communications for Nevada Cancer Coalition, a statewide nonprofit. Though she now lives in Atlanta, she is a Nevadan for life and uses her three-hour time advantage to get a jump on the morning’s news.

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