In which Kristin interviews Library Director Kari May about her thoughts on book challenges.

As I got ready to think about censorship, looking around at the wave of book challenges happening across the country (mostly in school libraries, but some in public libraries, as is the case in Llano, TX), we got wind of a challenge that was happening right here in Southern Oregon. North Medford High School received a challenge for the graphic novel version of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Here’s more on that from the Mail Tribune. This challenge resulted in the removal of all copies of this book from the high school library and a stated intent to reevaluate the entire graphic novel collection. 

I decided to talk to Jackson’s County’s library-nerd-in-chief, Library Director Kari May, who shared her thoughts on challenges in general and this challenge specifically with me: 

Kristin: Should JCLS be concerned about censorship at our local schools?  

Director May: I read the Mail Tribune article about the Medford School District’s decision to pull the graphic novel of The Handmaid’s Tale from their libraries. While Administration stated that they followed their own policies in their decision to remove the book, my first reaction was disappointment. That disappointment was twofold: one, that the District would make a decision for every student based on the concerns of one parent, and two, that a student’s choice to find a book that captured their attention and encouraged them to read would no longer be accessible to them.  

Kristin: How do the 1st Amendment, the Library Bill of Rights, and the Freedom to Read Statement inform how you conduct your job as a library director? 

Director May: I grew up with parents who encouraged me to read anything I wanted to. One or the other of them frequently read the same books as I did, or recommended books they thought I might enjoy. They never judged me for what I chose to read. Among the “fluff” I read, there were also many classics. It didn’t matter, so long as I had a book close at hand; I was happy, and so were they. I think those choices are part of what made me become a librarian. 

I join many librarians in feeling that “A good library has something to offend everyone.” I think that sentiment is at the heart of the American Library Association’s Freedom to Read statement. S. R. Ranganathan, one of the founding fathers of libraries, developed the five laws of library science, among them “Every reader their book,” and “Every book its reader.” As a library director, I want our libraries to contain the right book for the right person at the right time—that is part of the joy of personal discovery.  

Kristin: Have you encountered challenges during your time at JCLS? What does that process look like? 

Director May: I have had library materials brought to me for consideration of removal from our libraries. The investigation into the material in question begins with a conversation with the person who raised the concern. Why are they concerned about the book? Did they read it in its entirety? What action would they like the library to take? I then let the individual know that staff will read the book or watch the movie as well as research professional reviews of the work in question and then let them know our decision. If the individual questions the library administration’s decision, they may appeal to the Library Board of Directors. Sometimes the review of the material leads to the item being reshelved to another part of the library—a movie that should be in the Adult collection rather than in the Children’s room, for example, or an Easy Fiction picture book that really belong in the Junior nonfiction section. Most times, however, the conversation I have with the person who files the complaint, and the follow-up information I provide them, satisfies their concerns.  

Kristin: What purpose do books that make us feel uncomfortable serve? 

Director May: I read books that make me feel uncomfortable all the time! We read because we want to explore other worlds or experiences than the ones we live in every day. Reading fiction builds empathy.  

Curiosity or disagreements about what we read is what sparks conversation, invites dialogue, and brings people together. I encourage parents who are concerned about something their child is reading to talk to them about it. Why did they choose to pick up The Handmaid’s Tale: were they watching the show on Hulu? Did they find the graphic novel more approachable than the original novel? Tell them that you opened the book to a page that had an image that offended you, and explain why it made you uncomfortable. Have a conversation about the role of men and women in our society, and about the dystopia depicted in the book. Use uncomfortable books to have conversations that bring you to understanding. 

Kristin: Thank you, Kari, for taking the time to share your thoughts. I think that you expressed in your answer to the first question one of the key things that makes librarians concerned about the current wave of challenges: there is an inequity in the tradeoff between removing materials because one parent deems them to be inappropriate for their child, thereby making those materials less accessible to students whose parents wish them to be able to explore difficult subjects more freely. 

Coming up next: I’m going to do a twofer… we’re going to look at the two of the major sources for challenges at the high school level: the Alex Awards and the graphic novel format. And maybe a bit about how the identities of authors and their main characters seem to be playing into challenges, you know, for Pride/Juneteenth.