Lately the news has featured stories about groups wanting to ban books — usually by or about Black or LGBTQ people — from library shelves or school curricula.
The American Library Association (ALA) reported that two of the books most challenged by conservative groups are Gender Queer, an illustrated memoir by Maia Kobabe, which discusses coming out as gender nonconforming, and The Hate U Give, a young adult novel by Angie Thomas about a Black teenager whose friend is shot by a police officer.
The Forest Park Public Library (FPPL) owns multiple copies of The Hate U Give in various formats, and FPPL Director Pilar Shaker was happy to explain why our library includes the book in its collection. She and her department heads assembled a few weeks ago and revealed a process that is noncontroversial because it’s based on common sense, in line with federal and state guidelines, and sensitive to local cultural values.
She noted that the FPPL follows the guidelines and recommendations of the Illinois State Library and the American Library Association. The ALA, for example, praised The Hate U Give, using language like “outstanding and educationally suitable” in its published review.
FPPL’s selectors, as the staff members responsible for purchasing new additions to the library’s collection are called, also pay attention to the community’s demographics and values. Speaking for her department heads as well as herself, Shaker explained, “If a book like The Hate U Give is being requested by our community, is well reviewed, and aligns with our Materials Selection Policy guidelines, we will purchase it.”
Evidence that Forest Parkers wanted to have access to the book, said Shaker, is that, to date, it has been checked out over a hundred times.
Selectors are also very aware of the racial/ethnic composition of village they serve. The 2020 Census, for example, showed that African Americans comprise 27.6% of the village’s population, but more significantly District 91 reported that 51.4% of its student population identifies as Black. The Hate U Give was written for the age group found in Forest Park Middle School.
The library’s rationale for purchasing The Hate U Give? “It is a well-reviewed, award-winning book that provides readers with an underrepresented perspective,” Shaker said. “In other words, it was purchased for our library because our community wanted it and because it adds depth to our collection in a way that is representative of our community. Further, because that title performed so well with our patrons, we will purchase similar titles to add to the collection.”
The same is true for books by and about the LGBTQ community. According to data recorded in 2013, Forest Park ranked number two in the state of Illinois in the percentage of population that is part of a same-sex couple — 13.26/1000. Recognizing that significant population, the FPPL has a copy of Gender Queer located in the Young Adult Graphic Novel section and available digitally as well.
The FPPL also pays attention to what might be referred to as “emerging” population groups. Hispanics make up 12.9% of our neighbors in town, and the library has taken strides to serve that cohort. Right now the library has 764 Spanish Language Children’s books, 99 Spanish Language Adult books (part of a brand new pilot collection), and 13 Spanish Language Young Adult Books.
Shaker said, “[Books] can also give folks an opportunity to see themselves reflected in characters who look, speak, or live in a way that is familiar and representative of who they are. Seeing aspects of yourself reflected in books and stories can be very validating and affirming for people.”
At the same, she argued, having a wide range of books and materials that focus on people who don’t look and talk like you is also healthy. “Reading about cultures and perspectives different from your own,” she reasoned, “can provide important insights and lead folks to explore new avenues or look at their own life experiences from a new angle.
“Our goal as a library is to assess the makeup of our community and work toward building a collection that provides opportunities for our patrons to both see themselves reflected in the materials we offer, as well as to experience new cultures and perspectives through our materials.”
She said librarians don’t have ideological agendas, purchasing books they think their neighbors should be reading.
“It is imperative that this collection is being built for the community which means that we need to be cognizant and respectful of the values and priorities of Forest Park residents.”
Many factors that selectors consider when purchasing material are practical and noncontroversial like the cost of an item, and its accuracy, readability, and availability in other libraries. Of the latter, Shaker noted, “Because we are part of a larger library lending community, we may elect not to add a book if there isn’t local demand and several copies exist within the cooperative lending community that we participate in (SWAN).”
One factor in determining which books to put on the library’s shelves has become critical in the era of the Big Lie — accuracy. Vladimir Putin’s narrative about the “special military operation” wouldn’t stand a chance of getting shelved at the FPPL.
Shaker acknowledged that occasionally a patron will be displeased with something in the library’s collection, “but there seems to be an understanding in the community that the collection is here for everyone, which inherently means that there will be things within it that don’t appeal to an individual on occasion.”