SHERIDAN — Earlier this week, rapper Eminem caused a Twitter storm with his anti-Trump freestyle rap “The Storm” at BET’s Hip Hop Awards. Many praised his blistering lyrics, while others, mostly former fans, publicly denounced the rapper.
The tweets highlight a longstanding issue in the creative expression of idea and opinion: it will elicit praise and offense. That is why books, music and movies have been challenged — and even banned — from libraries, schools and entire cities for centuries.
Removing a creative work from public access may seem like a practice of bygone eras, but it happens to this day in libraries and schools across the nation.
Does it happen here?
The right to read
Sheridan County Fulmer Public Library has had eight items in its collection officially challenged in the past 13 years. None of the items have been banned, or removed from the library.
One item, a book called “It’s a Book” by Lane Smith, was moved from the Picture Book section to the Juvenile Fiction section due to language deemed inappropriate for the originally catalogued age level.
Executive director Cameron Duff said cataloguing items into the appropriate section can be challenging and admits mistakes can be made.
The seven other challenged items — including a display of “Prayer Beads” in 2011 challenged because it showed religions other than Christianity — remained in the collection.
The library adheres to the American Library Association’s Library Bill of Rights, which states, “Books and other library resources should be provided for the interest, information, and enlightenment of all people of the community the library serves.”
This means all points of view on current and historical issues will be presented. Providing a balanced library collection will inevitably lead to concern or offense.
“We acknowledge that you as a parent, or you as an individual, have the right to choose,” Duff said. “That’s what we really rely on. There may be information or materials that are inappropriate for kids, but you as the parent get to decide that, not we as the library.”
At the same time, library leadership strive to acknowledge patron concerns and do provide a process for challenging an item. The process provides a written record of what is objectionable and why, as well as whether the item has any redeeming aspects and the desired outcome of the challenge — re-evaluation, reclassification to a different section or removal.
The review process looks at why the item was chosen in the first place, how many other libraries offer the item, and a re-evaluation of the item’s value based on journal reviews and patron usage.
“We have 30,000 people we report to,” Duff said. “We’re going to have a lot of different styles of reading.”
To teach or not to teach
Four years ago in Billings, Montana, several parents expressed concern over the vulgarity of Sherman Alexie’s novel “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” and asked that it be removed from the 10th-grade required reading list at Skyview High School. Nearly 150 people crowded the boardroom to speak for or against removal. The board kept the book on the list.
Sheridan County School District 2 has not weathered such a firestorm, assistant superintendent and former English teacher Mitch Craft said.
In fact, while parents have expressed concern over library or teaching materials, the district has not logged a formal request for removal of any item in the last 11 years, Craft said.
He believes there are two reasons for the lack of protest.
“One, we really strongly encourage our teachers to proactively communicate with parents about what their kids are reading in class,” Craft said.
This allows parents to review materials beforehand or along with their children so they can engage in conversations at home. The district also offers an opt-out policy, allowing an alternative text to be used.
Two, if a concern is expressed, the teacher, principal and/or administrator will sit down and talk with the parent about why the book was chosen in spite of some rough edges.
“Most of our text choices that teachers make are specific to skills they’re trying to build with their students,” Craft said.
At the same time, district policy does state materials will examine opposing sides of controversial issues in order to develop, under guidance, the practice of critical analysis.
Sheridan High School English and journalism teacher Michael Clift said one book he teaches, “The Lovely Bones” by Alice Sebold, offers an engaging read for students and an opportunity to examine tragedy and grief. However, it is rough and he does send a letter home to parents before teaching the book.
“The importance of critical thinking is paramount for anybody in any field,” Clift said. “A long, complex story like that offers rich opportunities to talk about human behavior and why we do what we do. …I think it’s a way to think about really tough situations without actually having to be in them.”
Why books are challenged
The American Library Association Office for Intellectual Freedom keeps a yearly list of the top 10 most challenged books based on media stories and voluntary challenge reports from libraries across the nation. The lists are not exhaustive, the ALA website said, because 82-97 percent of book challenges are not reported or receive no media attention.
2016: 323 challenged books
Main reasons: LGBT, transgender and sexually explicit subject matter, offensive language
2015: 275 challenged books
Main reasons: Sexually explicit, offensive language, religious viewpoint
2014: 311 challenged books
Main reasons: anti-family, political viewpoint, sexually explicit, violence, gambling, language, drug use
2013: 307 challenged books
Main reasons: offensive language, nudity, drugs/alcohol/smoking
2012: 464 challenged books
Main reasons: offensive language, racism, sexually explicit, unsuited for age group