Editor's note: We’ve been reviewing the Oregon Intellectual Freedom Clearinghouse’s excellent, annual reports of challenged books for years without pausing to think about the governmental agency and individuals responsible for putting them together. This year we’re correcting that oversight with the help of state librarian Buzzy Nielsen, who kindly took the time to answer our questions about what the OIFC is, what is does, and why its work is vital to maintaining everyone’s right to intellectual freedom.
What is the main role of the Oregon Intellectual Freedom Clearinghouse (OIFC)?
collects information about intellectual freedom issues in Oregon’s public, school, and academic libraries. The goal of the Clearinghouse is to document attempts to limit someone’s free exploration or expression of ideas. Such attempts include:
– Challenges to remove or reclassify library materials
– Requests to filter or limit Internet access
– Objections to library programs, displays, exhibits, or events hosted in the library
– Privacy violations, such as gathering personally identifiable information or a patron’s reading history
– Hate/bias crimes and incidents
– Other incidents such as limiting access to library cards, objecting to artwork or social media posts, etc.
These incidents are compiled annually in reports
that, over time, show patterns in what, where, and why library materials or services are challenged.
What is the origin story of the OIFC?
The Clearinghouse was established by the State Library of Oregon in 1987 in response to the need for a central repository of intellectual freedom issues happening in libraries. Many libraries experience challenges to materials and services. OIFC was a way that those libraries could see that they aren’t alone and to get support from colleagues who had similar experiences.
How does the OIFC define “intellectual freedom” and why is it important?
Intellectual freedom is the right of people to explore ideas, express themselves, and safely participate in public spaces of dialogue, such as libraries. This freedom undergirds our ability to understand one another and the world in which we live.
The principles of intellectual freedom help ensure that everyone’s voices are heard. So often, the most restricted voices are those from communities that are, or historically have been, marginalized: people of color, LGBTQ+, women, immigrants, economically disadvantaged, and more. Upholding intellectual freedom means ensuring that everyone
in our communities can safely express themselves and speak their truths.
What does it mean when a book is “challenged”?
A challenge is an attempt to remove a book from a library, restrict access to it, or move the material to a different collection, such as relocating a teen book to the adult section. Most challenges are informal and come up in conversations between patrons and library staff. For instance, a patron might talk to a library worker and express discomfort with the content of a book their child read. In the majority of cases, staff explain the library’s commitment to intellectual freedom and/or direct the patron to materials more to their liking, and the challenge goes no further.
OIFC collects only reports of formal challenges, which follow a process established by the library. Typically, a person wishing to challenge a book must complete a form that explains their particular objections and what action they’d like taken. After receiving a formal challenge, the library reviews the book, which is most often done by library staff or a committee. Most challenges are unsuccessful, and the book is retained as is.
As noted above, OIFC also collects challenges to library services, hate/bias incidents, privacy violations, and more. All of these incidents are attempts to restrict someone’s intellectual freedom and safety to engage in dialogue.
Have you noticed any significant changes in the types of materials being challenged in Oregon?
Patterns definitely emerge over time. New challenges often arise from local or national news. For instance, last year we saw a surge in challenges about racism in materials, mainly because of the decision by Dr. Seuss’s estate to no longer publish six of his books with racist imagery. Also, over the last two decades, we’ve seen many more challenges to graphic novels due to their rising popularity.
Some hot topics ebb over time as well. Harry Potter books were the most challenged materials nationally in the late ’90s and early 2000s due to concerns that they promote “witchcraft.” Now, neither the series nor objections about “witchcraft” have appeared on the American Library Association’s Top Ten Most Challenged Books List
for several years.
Ultimately, however, the same objections arise every year: sexual content, LGBTQ+ topics, profanity, political viewpoint, race, or being “inappropriate for youth.” And year after year, a disproportionate number of the authors whose books are challenged are Black, Indigenous, Latinx, LGBTQ+, or someone belonging to another community that is or has been marginalized.
How can booklovers support the work of the OIFC?
We are fortunate to have stable funding for our work, so the best way to support the spirit of what we do is to speak out! Intellectual freedom challenges happen across the state and nation, and the loudest voices shouldn’t be the people who want to restrict ideas and dialogue. If you see attempts to shut down ideas, be vocal about your support for intellectual freedom.
Across the country right now, due to a misrepresentation of the academic study of critical race theory, challenges are being made in schools to silence people of color and hide difficult aspects of our country’s history. Don’t let those who want to restrict intellectual freedom and truth be the only voices in the room.
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Buzzy Nielsen, MPP, MSI
, is the program manager of Library Support and Development Services for the State Library of Oregon.