Pahrump library considers controversial policy segregating children’s books
“Librarians and libraries are protectors and providers of knowledge,” Carolene Logue, a community member in Pahrump told the town’s library board at its July 9 meeting. “And this knowledge encompasses all of humanity from the Big Bang to theories beyond the here and now.”
At the Pahrump Community Library, some residents feel that this mission may be in danger.
The library — which serves a community of about 40,000 residents — is considering a new policy at the direction of its board of trustees. If approved, it would require that children’s books dealing with race, gender and sexuality be reshelved in the adult section.
Board members began discussing this policy in April after Chair John Shewalter brought an email to other trustees that he had received from a community member in September 2022.
The letter, which called for library Director Vanja Anderson to be terminated if she did not reshelve the books to the adult section, echoed conspiracies and falsehoods about the LGBTQ+ community that have been used by anti-LGBTQ+ organizers nationwide and in Nevada.
Most recently, members of the public in Washoe County have disrupted county and library board meetings with anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric over the library’s drag queen story hour (which was filled to capacity in June) and the inclusion of LGBTQ+ books in children’s sections.
Similar refrains echo through the library board meetings in Pahrump and several other states, with challengers to inclusive content stating that being LGBTQ+ is dangerous and exposing children to LGBTQ+ people and stories is equivalent to exposing them to sexual abuse.
Studies say these claims are false, noting that higher suicide rates among LGBTQ+ youths and adults are due to stigmatization, rather than inherent risk in a certain gender expression or sexuality, and the vast majority of people who commit sexual abuse against children are heterosexual men.
Despite the body of evidence disproving them, these claims have become justifications for policies that restrict access to library books representing diverse viewpoints.
Jacob Smith, a staff attorney with the ACLU of Nevada and Pahrump native, told The Nevada Independent that “it’s pretty heartbreaking to have any books moved out of the section they are supposed to be in.”
He remembers going to the Pahrump library before he could read, when he would sit on his parents’ lap while they read to him, and continuing to use the library as a resource throughout school.
Of the community members who have expressed support for a policy to segregate certain books, Smith said, “Being from Pahrump, I understand that we want the youth of Pahrump to be successful in the future and protected in the present.
“But diversity and education is the best way to do that,” he clarified. “Not hiding information from children.”
Smith explained that the most successful of his peers growing up were the ones he remembers “voraciously” reading and exploring the multitude of perspectives the library had to offer.
At the Pahrump library board’s July meeting, Shewalter instructed Anderson to research what libraries serving communities similar to Pahrump, which is 60 miles east of Las Vegas, are doing with children’s books dealing with race, gender and sexuality.
Anderson presented her findings at the board’s most recent meeting on Aug. 14.
She gathered information from 42 libraries across the country, including some in California, Louisiana and Massachusetts. Of those, only six reshelved books after complaints that they were inappropriate for children because of content on sexuality.
After Anderson presented the policies these libraries had followed, Shewalter stopped her from presenting the policies of the other 36 libraries that have kept books on controversial topics in the collection of their intended audience.
“That could be pretty time-consuming,” Shewalter said, noting that the policies were available to read on a handout Anderson distributed.
The board did not take any further action, but if a policy to segregate controversial books is passed at a future meeting, it would represent a major break with national library standards.
The American Library Association, which provides “leadership for the development, promotion and improvement of library and information services,” advises libraries in its Library Bill of Rights (currently endorsed by the Pahrump library) that books should not be removed or segregated based on the viewpoint they express and that parents have the right and responsibility to decide what their children read.
Deborah Caldwell-Stone, director of the ALA’s office of intellectual freedom, told The Nevada Independent that censorship of controversial library books is on the rise and that moving books from their intended section inhibits library patrons’ freedom to read.
“Public libraries are public institutions,” she said. “They need to serve the entire community.”
Caldwell-Stone also explained that segregating certain books can add to the stigmatization of LGBTQ+ youths and adults.
Libraries that segregate books “send a very explicit message to those young people, particularly who might be gay, or transgender, or have family members who are gay or transgender, that they're outsiders and that they don't belong in the community — that their very lives and their very identities are not acceptable,” she said.
For parents who do not wish for their children to read books dealing with race, gender and sexuality, Caldwell-Stone recommended accompanying their children to the library.
Several community members at library board meetings have expressed that they do not trust national organizations such as the ALA to create guidelines for their library and want Pahrump to decide for itself where books will be shelved.
Yet others have emphasized that not everyone in Pahrump would agree that certain children’s books should be moved to the adult section. At the April meeting when the library board first discussed a policy to segregate controversial children’s books, Muriel Areno told the board that parents should have say over what their children read as not all parents share the same values.
“Kids have to learn about other people and other places, especially when you come from a small place like Pahrump,” Areno said.
But national standards, as recommended by the ALA, might not be considered at the Pahrump library soon.
Shewalter said at the end of the Aug. 14 meeting that he plans to put an item on the agenda of the next meeting to “discuss and deliberate [the library’s] relationship with the American Library Association.”
When asked by The Nevada Independent about his reasoning for reevaluating the library’s relationship with the ALA, Shewalter did not answer.
But even if the board decides it will no longer follow ALA policies, it is still beholden to legal precedent.
In a 2000 case, Sund v. City of Wichita Falls, TX, a federal judge ruled that an ordinance passed by the city — allowing a children’s books to be reshelved to the adult section of city libraries by a petition with at least 300 signatures of library cardholders — was unconstitutional.
The judge called the relocation of two books, both telling LGBTQ+ stories, a violation of the right of patrons to receive information. “The Resolution and the book removals burden fully-protected speech on the basis of content and viewpoint and they therefore cannot stand,” the opinion reads.
Smith, the ACLU attorney, said that attempts at censorship in public libraries “aren’t anything new” and that the First Amendment has long protected access to controversial books.
Shewalter declined to comment on the next steps the board will take on a policy to segregate children’s books dealing with race, gender and sexuality and whether he has concerns about legal challenges.
Of such a policy, if passed by the board of trustees, Smith said “I will fight it and the ACLU will fight it.”