PARKERSBURG — Brightly colored doodles, poetry and character sheets for role-playing games line the walls of the teen section in the Parkersburg and Wood County Public Library. Each month, several groups of teenagers gather here to create characters, battle monsters and explore fantasy worlds as a part of the branch’s long-running Dungeons & Dragons campaign.
“D&D is a hobby of mine,” said teen librarian Edain Campbell, who takes on the role of Dungeon Master. “Getting to share that with these kids and see how stoked they get, especially about really ridiculous stuff — there’s nothing more satisfying to me.”
The library’s Dungeons & Dragons campaign and other role playing games have become so popular that there’s even a waiting list to get in.
Getting teenagers to the library is a win. With games, crafts and other activities, they have a place to express themselves in an environment where being different is encouraged. And it’s all working. Teen participation in library programs is up 500%, Campbell said.
Still, a small, but vocal group of local residents sees something more dangerous among the books. On a nearby shelf, two sex education books — Let’s Talk About It by Erica Moen and This Book Is Gay by Juno Dawson — are sandwiched between other titles.
Both books have recently been at the center of controversy for the library, as concerned parents and residents urge library administrators to remove these titles from public collections that children have access to.
As some have tried to get books removed from West Virginia libraries, a group of people in Wood County is eying a more forceful approach. They’ve taken aim at library funding, urged elected officials to restrict books and are seeking to seat a supporter on the boards that oversee public schools and libraries.
They have even worked with a local state senator to propose a sweeping bill to regulate books — and tried to have library leaders thrown in jail.
To librarians working with the Parkersburg and Wood County Public Library, the most valuable aspect of the library is free access to information. They say the library exists to educate — even when the conversation gets tough.
“Just because something frightens you or is uncomfortable or makes you upset doesn’t mean it doesn’t have value,” Campbell said. “In fact, I would argue that things that are upsetting and difficult are even more important.”
Book bans and police reports
On a weekday afternoon in April, Wood County residents Jessica Rowley and John Davis walked into the Parkersburg Police Department carrying a stack of library books and documents.
They sat in the police chief’s office and complained that they had evidence of a crime: The Parkersbug and Wood County Public Library and its director Brian Raitz were violating state law by showing obscene material to minors.
This wasn’t the first attempt by Rowley, Davis and other Wood County residents to restrict access to certain books in the library’s collection. In fall of last year, a display for “Banned Books Week” that included the adult graphic memoir Gender Queer almost caused the library’s censure by the Parkersburg City Council.
In the following months, members of the small but vocal Mid-Ohio Valley Citizens Action Coalition spoke about Gender Queer and other books at public meeting after meeting, unsuccessfully campaigning against levy votes that provide crucial funding to the library and pushing public officials to restrict the books to adults only. Rowley and Davis are both members of the citizen action group.
In January, Sen. Mike Azinger, R-Wood, introduced a bill that the group helped craft to expand the definition of obscene material and ban it in public schools and nearby facilities – such as libraries. It would also criminalize “any transvestite and/or transgender exposure, performances or display to any minor.”
In March, Rowley lodged a challenge, the library’s formal process for objecting to material, against Let’s Talk About It, saying the book taught teenagers how to engage in sexual activities. She asked that the book be replaced with a children’s Bible; however, her request was denied. There are several children’s Bibles already at the library.
In the chief’s office, Rowley and Davis told the police chief and another officer that they did not want to remove books entirely from the library’s collection, but instead place them in a separate location where children could not access them.
“There appears to be an ongoing effort to sexually groom young children, and it must stop,” Davis wrote to the police in an email shortly before the meeting. “If not, it will surely lead to more children being harmed by adults seeking pedophilia relationships.”
But documents show that the Wood County Prosecutor advised that the current definition of obscene material — which would have been expanded by Azinger’s proposed law — would prevent prosecution. The case was closed.
Which library books are being challenged?
The books challenged in Parkersburg all contain mentions of sex, in text or illustrations, either as a plot-point or a sexual education device. The most cited sexual reference at public meetings throughout the county has been from Gender Queer, when one character performs oral sex on another character who is nonbinary. No contested titles are in the children’s section, two are in the teen section, and the rest are part of the public library’s adult collection.
But while those opposing the inclusion of these books at the Wood County library are pushing to restrict access, the only books the library keeps locked up are ones that are archival or potentially fragile. Raitz said that access is the guiding principle for selecting a diverse range of books for the collection, and that restricting these titles — as the library’s critics have suggested — is not the library’s role.
“We leave it to the parents and guardians and the individual to make that decision for themselves,” he said. The library’s policy states that any parent or guardian is responsible for the content checked out on a child’s library card.
But Sean Keefe, a member of the citizen action group pushing for the removal of the books, doesn’t agree.
“It should not be available only to that child,” said Keefe, who said he does not own a library card. “It should be available to the parent.”
Putting some books into a separate collection will have the same effect as censoring the books from the library completely, said Courtney Young, former president of the American Library Association.
“It is perceived as a compromise, but is still not a good thing,” she said.
Young said separating the books and making patrons specifically request access would both create a fear and stigma surrounding the book and also make it more likely that children will search for the material.
A national movement to challenge and ban books
Challenges to books are on the rise across the country. And Wood County is not the only place in West Virginia where contentious conversations about books have come up in recent years.
In 2021, a Pocahontas County teacher faced criticism from parents for including The Hate U Give in the year’s curriculum; the parents complained the book contained a large amount of sexual content. Last year, a petition garnered almost 300 signatures to try and have The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison removed from the high school English curriculum at a Berkeley County school over concerns that minors were being exposed to adult themes.
Public libraries across the country have also become political battlegrounds. In Washington State, officials in a Spokane suburb tried to take control of the library after a challenge to its inclusion of Gender Queer and a library in one Michigan town was defunded for keeping a LGBTQ+ title in its collection.
Librarians across the country face harassment and judgment, while new programs emerge out of the controversy to help them better understand the importance of libraries with large and diverse collections.
Young, the former American Library Association head, said she is scared for librarians who have to deal with issues of censorship and book challenges in their daily work.
“You should not be attacking them personally because there is bound paper on a shelf in a building,” she said.
Lots of noise, but few formal book challenges
While community members have repeatedly spoken against the books at public meetings, political events, and on social media, only a handful of challenges — the formal process for a book to be removed from the library collection — have been brought to the library director.
That’s been frustrating for Rowley and other members of the community action group.
Earlier this year, the group changed tactics and is now pushing to get one of their members on the library board that has the final say about what books are and are not at the library.
The group has backed Chad Conley, a substitute teacher who has criticized the books in the library and the selection process for its board, to be appointed to the library board. He is also running for a board of education seat in 2024 under the tagline of “Protecting Our Children” after an unsuccessful run last year.
While heated discussions continue about what books are in the library, Raitz is focused on showing that the library is more than a few controversial books.
The library has undergone significant changes to house more patrons and provide more spaces for collaboration, Raitz explained as he walked through the basement of the library. The new linoleum flooring was a mid-pandemic renovation to replace 20-year-old carpet.
The library has also expanded to provide more space for programs like tax filing prep and the biweekly Friends of the Library used book sale. No matter what material or resource people are looking for, Raitz said that the library will be a place that protects the freedom to read — not censors.
“Once you start opening that door, where does the line get drawn?” he said.
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