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St. Cloud library system tackles record number of requests to ban, move books

ST. CLOUD — After receiving an unprecedented number of requests this year to remove or move certain books to a different section, a central Minnesota library board voted this week to implement a more concise process for reviewing books — one that aims to balance public input with people’s First Amendment rights.

The so-called requests for reconsideration generally have to do with books some consider pornographic or obscene because of content related to sexuality, gender, puberty and reproduction. And over the past year, the system has seen more of these requests than the previous two decades combined, according to Karen Pundsack, executive director of Great River Regional Library, the St. Cloud-based system covering six counties.

“It’s just exploded,” she said. “And I think part of it is that national attention because some of the forms we’ve been receiving are obviously working from the same talking points.”

This year, eight books have been challenged, some with multiple requests for reconsideration. And in recent months, dozens of patrons have attended the usually quiet library board meetings, chastising the library for having in its collection — and accessible to children and adolescents — certain books such as “It’s Perfectly Normal: Changing Bodies, Growing Up, Sex, Gender, and Sexual Health” and “Gender Queer: A Memoir.”

Both titles have been on the American Library Association’s lists of most challenged books.

“A young man has another man’s penis in his mouth. [The library] states this is nudity, not pornography,” said Avon resident Sandy Klocker, describing an illustration from “Gender Queer” that she held up at Tuesday’s open forum.

“‘It’s Perfectly Normal’ has four copies in the juvenile section,” Klocker continued, “which is recommended for ages 10 and up, and it has content that refers to anal sex, masturbation and intercourse.”

A group of about a dozen residents, some holding signs stating “God’s children are not for sale,'” clapped and cheered at Klocker’s remarks.

“It’s Perfectly Normal” was first published in 1994 with the most recent edition released in 2021. It is shelved in the juvenile nonfiction section. “Gender Queer” is a comics-style book published in 2019 that chronicles the author’s exploration of gender and sexuality, and is shelved in the adult nonfiction section as a memoir.

“It’s two completely different books and two completely different topics,” Pundsack said. “But because they are both books that have graphic illustrations on sexual topics, it seems that’s a trigger point.”

A few people spoke against restricting library materials at Tuesday’s meeting, including Kathy Parsons of St. Cloud.

“You can’t have one small group deciding what everybody should read,” she said. “Every family should decide for themselves what fits with their values, and parents should be involved in those decisions.”

Under the new review process, a panel of staff will review challenge requests quarterly and make an initial decision. If the challenger appeals that, the library board will create a committee to look deeper at the challenge. The book then cannot be subject to reconsideration for five years.

At an October board meeting, Susan Dege, who provides legal counsel for the library system, talked about case law that establishes precedent for challenged books.

“Removing books based upon the message or idea in the book will likely subject a library to a lawsuit,” she said. “It’s just a clear First Amendment violation.”

At Tuesday’s meeting, Stearns County resident and board member George Fiedler questioned why the board is creating a policy “that portrays there is a process that can be used when we can do nothing.”

Pundsack said the process could be used to reconsider books that are defaced or factually inaccurate. But it likely won’t be used for books some consider obscene.

“I can’t see us being in that position but I’ve also been around long enough to know never say never,” she said.

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